Selecting a Postdoc: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

As the light at the end of the grad school tunnel gets brighter, our thoughts move towards our post-graduation plans.  For many of us, the next step in our research career involves postdoctoral research- yet finding the right opportunity can be complicated to say the least.  Do we stay in the same field?  Should we consider working for a competitor?  Is that seriously how much a postdoc makes?

While it’s great to carefully consider these questions, it’s also important to note that there may not be a single right answer for any of them.  As the hunt for a postdoc begins, one of the first steps is to make a list of labs of interest.  Given our intimate knowledge of our own university departments and labs, it’s hard not to identify at least one lab located just down the hall that would seemingly be a great fit.  But aside from not having to pack and move, is staying at the same university a good idea?

In my own experience in selecting a postdoc, I was advised by people on both sides of the issue, from “it’s not where you perform your postdoc but what you accomplish in it that matters” to “you need to go to a lab on the opposite coast so that you’ve experienced both east- and west-coast research.”  Not exactly the straightforward advice I was hoping for.

So what do you think- is it a good idea to perform your graduate and postdoctoral research at the same institution?


Is it a good idea to do a PhD and postdoc at the same institution?

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What are the pros and cons of staying in the same place?



9 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. DrugMonkey

    wrote on February 7, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Flawed binary question because there are at least three issues. Productivity, which you mention, is only one. Perceptions of “seriousness” about your career are a second. The third is the lengthening of “training” combined with ever increasing frequency of dual-career couples. In short “life”.

  2. [email protected]

    wrote on February 7, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    Very true- there are many issues that are wrapped up in the decision and everyone has a different weight placed on each one of them. It would be very useful to know what was 'acceptable' to hiring managers at universities and companies. In other words, would staying in the same place normally be held against you unless you have a solid personal reason to have done so (spouse, sick relative, etc.)? Or would that not matter?

  3. chrisb

    wrote on February 7, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Alan: In an ideal world it shouldn't matter. The purpose of a postdoc (assuming an academic career path) is to obtain the tools, techniques and skill sets for your chosen profession as an academic researcher. As long as you do that, whether you stay in your PhD lab or look elsewhere in principle should make no difference.

    Unfortunately, we are talking about individual human beings on job search committees, and each will have their opinions that may or may not sway the outcome in your favor as a prospective faculty member. In the main, the opinion that I have run across mostly say that a move is better, as you gain new experiences and insights – at the very least, it is worth remembering that a move should not hurt your career path. And I do say the word 'move' in all the objective senses of the word. I know that there are many people out there who have ended up in the wrong lab and may blame 'the move' for it, but by itself a move is not a bad thing.

  4. [email protected]

    wrote on February 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Agreed- in principle it should make no difference assuming you get the exact same training and experience you might have received elsewhere. I fall into the category that you've heard mostly, which is that moving is better. Beyond the new science, it's also nice to get that burst of enthusiasm that comes with being in a new environment, having new colleagues, attending new seminar series, etc. However, I realize not everyone has the ability to pull up their roots and move and I don't think those people should end up being punished professionally.

  5. Natalie Sashkin Goldberg

    wrote on February 7, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Alan – I think these ideas apply to the move to graduate school as well, for those of us who have built roots in cities and institutions during our research assistantships as well as those who have done so through undergraduate lab affiliation.

    The Move is a big deal and sometimes heavy decision, and I think that the potential benefits that you've mentioned carry weight of their own. But I would suggest that if The Lab Down the Hall has new technique opportunities that fit your personal vision of progress, sticking around may be just as beneficial.

    Regarding immersing oneself in different lab environments (coastal polarity, etc.), labs are run differently even within institutions, and sometimes enough variety can be found under one roof. On the other hand, a teaching hospital is a totally different environment than a university with integrated graduate/medical/undergraduate components…

  6. [email protected]

    wrote on February 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    Natalie- very good points regarding the transition from undergraduate to graduate- thanks! I've always felt that it might actually be the inverse of the poll results (above) for the undergrad to grad transition – that it might be a good idea to stay. Most undergrads are just getting their feet wet when they move on to grad school and their entire support network and comfort zone is changed, which can be pretty dramatic. If the lab down the hall is doing research that excites you, sticking around may be a very good idea. Nobody expects undergrads to be capable of fully independent research, so hanging around an established support network makes sense.

    On the other hand, when moving on from grad school, individuals should be capable of performing independent research and the postdoc is regarded as the first real step in your independent research career. Despite the fact that very different lab environments certainly exist within a given institution, some (people who hire) want to see that an individual can find success in a new institution, away from their established comfort zone. I suppose the argument would go that if you have two equivalently accomplished candidates- one who did undergrad, grad and postdoc at the same place, and another who moved at each step, the latter may be looked at as a 'safer' bet since they've proven success in many different places, while it's unclear if the former's success is tied to something at that institution.

    We'll follow-up to get people's opinions on their feelings of the undergrad to grad transition!

  7. brian

    wrote on February 7, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    one of the biggest problems i had in not leaving for my postdoc was that my PI always knew where to find me so those loose ends that everybody inevitably ends up leaving were not so easy to escape. i was also pressured into going back to my old lab on weekends to train new students/postdocs on my old assays, which lasted for most of my first year as a postdoc. something to think about.

  8. @OmicsScience

    wrote on February 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    To me there is no doubt that you should GO! Yes there are good reasons for you to stay but…
    It isn't only the new techniques you learn, but the variety of people you meet in the new lab. Everybody has to give you something new. Not to mention the things you can learn from your new boss. How many things can a person teach you? I believe during one PhD your supervisor taught you enough.
    Your network is growing when you move to a new lab. You will benefit from the new personal experiences, especially if you go to a completely different place.
    There are plenty of other reasons so I should stop here but to conclude: doing research in different labs makes you a complete researcher.

  9. Graduate School by the Numbers: The Decision | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on March 11, 2011 at 5:19 am

    […] I find one, I will not want to get up and leave in six years to go find a post doc.  And it is almost always the case that one is more attractive having gone elsewhere for a post doc.  My husband and […]

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