How much dirt to dig...potential postdoc perspective

May 24 2013 Published by under Lab, Postdoc, Publishing

So I'm really looking into a particular lab for a postdoc, one that I am fairly familiar with.  Before I contact the PI, I am brushing up on some of their most recent publications.  The question is how far back do I dig?  My thought is that since I am familiar with what they do, I'll go back and read what they've published in the last three years as this is the most relevant to what's going on in the lab.  Also I've pulled any review from the lab in the last 5 years, while some may no longer be topical, I want to get their slant or perspective on how they see the field.

So dear readership (n=4), how far back would you recommend me going in the paper pile?

19 responses so far

  • In the amount of time you took to write this post, you could have skimmed through their entire publication history and gotten a sense for their scientific trajectory.

    • I know their trajectory I really wanted to familiarize myself with nuts and bolts of whats going on in the lab. What types of experiments are they doing and what new technologies are they incorporating into their work that I might be able to pick up.

      Also, since this could be the next 3-5 years of my life, there is a small amount of paranoia that comes into play. Especially since this is a lab that is of high interest to me, so I'm taking the due diligence aspect of learning about the lab seriously.

  • Mike says:

    CPP is right as always. Everyone is an utterly misguided moron except him, especially you.

  • eeke says:

    Pay attention to the other, non-senior authors on the publications. Where are they now? Does the PI have a good track record in terms of successful trainees? I do NOT narrowly define success as finding a tt faculty position, but rather getting a position that is appropriate to the level of training.

  • darchole says:

    I know in the lab I work in now, one project related directly to one of the PI's post-doc pubs, and we (as in the lab) only recently published a paper on it, 10+ years later. It wouldn't have been at all apparent only looking at recent pubs, that someone was working on that kind of project. Of course the current focus of the lab is almost entirely unrelated to what was published before (you take whatever grant you can get), so taking a lot at current grants or submissions to get an idea about future directions of the lab. So looking at old and recent pubs and grants can be useful.

    The paper with the long publication gap was learning the hard way that bioinformatics is not always the solution you're looking for (not my project but I've got bitten in the a$$ by that too).

  • chall says:

    I would widen a little and look at the publications with other labs (if there are, which I would hope) and see what their labs do - to see what type of labs they collaborate with. Then I'd look at the PIs whole pub list and see what the hoop, skip and jumps are.

    And it never hurts to see if there are any first authors from the lab then moving into other first/last author and what kind of direction they moved from the lab. The more you know, the more insights you can get when you meet them later.

  • Bashir says:

    I would pay more attention to the most recent work and do a little looking around the appropriate funding centers to try to get an idea of where they are going. In my experience PI's like to talk about their newest greatest idea, not what they did 5 years ago.

  • Socal dendrite says:

    I would advise looking at the fates and publication records of trainees from the lab, in addition to the research directions. Some labs with many high profile papers also have plenty of other trainees who didn't publish much, and this can be easy to miss when dazzled by the overall output of the lab.

    • Genomic Repairman says:

      I've seen a number of postdocs from well known lab that published some high impact papers end up publishing in some low rent journals in their first couple of years because they are now going it alone and not riding off the bosses names. The lab I'm looking at appears to publish consistently although not at the glamour mag/rag levels.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I am unclear if you are attempting to determine if you should train there, or reading to avoid looking like an ignorant fool when visiting this laboratory?

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    I'm on the fence about the place and just want to brush up on the literature before I email the PI about his open position.

    • minion says:

      dude. just email the PI. you have enough of an idea to send a simple email, leave the hardcore paper-stalking for when you have an interview. (and good luck!)

    • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

      If you know that the PI is interested in your area of work then from my experience it isn't critical to try to pin point the precise direction that the lab is headed in, but rather to check whether the PI is flexible with ideas in the "general" direction of the lab. I am in my second year of postdoc now and I interviewed with a few large labs after grad school. In one of the labs, the PI was well established with plenty of funding and the kind of projects I was looking for were part of his specialty but not his core focus. He had only one major pub in said area but I knew from word of mouth that he was pursuing more work in that area. I still contacted him anyway and to my surprise he replied to my email within 24 hours expressing interest and invited me to interview because he was excited about the proposed work even though only one other person out of his group of 10+ was working in that area. I got an offer from this lab. My point is that there's no harm in emailing and interviewing as long as you feel that you can do good research and learn new things. Don't close any doors at this point without even attempting to put a foot in. You always have the option of declining an offer if in the end you think its not what you were hoping for.

      I ended up choosing another lab because their interests were better matched to my goals.

  • Dave says:

    Some labs with many high profile papers also have plenty of other trainees who didn't publish much, and this can be easy to miss when dazzled by the overall output of the lab

    Very true statement. For every glam paper, there is usually several failed projects in these types of labs, and these post-docs just disappear into oblivion. If you have the stomach for this and think this is an environment that you will thrive in, by all means go for this.

    There are so many things to consider above and beyond publication records, however. Funding is obviously very important; Reporter is your friend here. Career stage is also important; a new Asst Prof can be exciting - new ideas, hungry, ambitious etc, but there are risks obviously. An older BSD type has the name recognition, but might be stuck in his/her ways and the work may be more "incremental". It's going to depend a lot on what you want.......

    • Genomic Repairman says:

      Thanks Dave. This person appears to publish consistently is not a hold out for the glamour publication sort of person. So I definitely appreciate that, I know many postdocs that are sitting on what would be multiple papers in good journals but their PI's want to hold out and do more to get it into Cell or Nature.

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