Recently a graduate student in my group asked for advices on looking for postdoctoral labs and advisors. Here are my thoughts…
Do some research and find an research area that you find very interesting and promising. It is actually a good thing for postdocs to try a new direction in postdoc different from their PhD study to learn new things, as long as their PhD expertise can still contribute to the postdoc training and the postdoc lab. Read some good papers (recommend using Gnosis to search for papers) and check some website. I don’t like postdocs who come to interview at say, “I am happy to do any project you ask me to do”, or “I have been doing A and realize how important B is which I am really lacking, so I would like to come to your lab and learn B”. I would be much more interested if a postdoc come with, “I am very interested in area B that you are an expert, and I am especially curious whether my expertise in A could be used to investigate this particular question in B”. It is possible that even with all the HW you have done, your proposed project still looks hopeless or naive in the expert eyes of the professor, but at least s/he will appreciate that you made this much effort in learning a new direction, thinking of a potential problem, and writing it out (actually this proposal is a good way for the PI to see how well you can write).
Carefully prepare your CV and a good interview talk. Start preparing your CV at the beginning of your graduate school. Download the CV of some scientists you admire and see what they have on their CV. Is there a way you could accumulate some of the experiences on their CV (award, talk in conferences, review papers for journals, organize some smaller scale meeting or conference tutorials, join professional organizations, and of course publish well). Also learn to give effective research talks as early as possible in your career (understand your audience, explain clearly, how to draw audience attention, let your message sink with the audiences), as this is one of the most useful skills! Work hard and seriously on every possible talk opportunity (lab meeting, department colloquial, conference talks / tutorials, defense) during your to hone your skills. I told lab members they need to give 30-50 talks / year to give good talks, so if a beginning graduate only gets to give 3-5 lab meeting talks / year, they should rehearse each talk 10 times themselves before giving it formally.
Obtain 3-4 reference letters. Graduate students should think about this at the beginning of their graduate school: besides my own research advisor, which other professors in our institutes (e.g. you got to know them from serving as TA on courses, giving department colloquial talks, qualify or thesis defense talks), which collaborators (e.g. establish a good collaboration with a group where you could have meaningful interactions with the collaborating PI), and which other professors (e.g. you got to know them from conferences or their research seminars). Give your letter writers plenty of time (2-3 months) before the due date so they have time to write a good letter.
When looking for advisors, check whether the lab has a high success rate (number and probably more importantly percent) of sending previous trainees to successful (esp faculty) careers. If the advisor is relatively junior, then the meeting with the professor will be important. Does s/he care about your career development and success, does s/he inspire you from the discussion, does s/he treat you like a future star or only care about “just do what I tell you to do”. For bioinformatics students looking for postdocs, if your future postdoc advisor is an experimental biologist, it would help if s/he has a good informatics collaborator that you could work with and learn from. Make sure the lab could respect your background and reserve some time for you to develop your own methodology research, rather than being a data janitor to all the data generated in your advisor’s laboratory. When applying, write a personalized email, explain your background, why the lab interests you, what you can contribute. When I see an application where the email could be sent to just about any lab (except for the “Dear Dr. X”), I would totally ignore their application.
Apply for multiple laboratories, even if you are most interested in just joining one. If you get multiple offers or were interviewed by multiple laboratories, each lab that are interested in you will find you more valuable. At least by talking to more labs, you can learn the potential future field better. Read the papers from the lab more carefully before the interview. Dress professionally and look sharp, be on time for interview meetings. Some labs might give you a Skype interview first before on site interviews, so prepare for the Skype interview as well. Give a good talk, and be objective in answering questions. This is the opportunity to act like a star, be knowledgable, confident, and relaxed. Talk to the lab members to find out the style of the advisor (how do they work together, is the advisor nice, etc) and see whether this is a good fit for you.
Postdoc application is extremely important for a student’s future career. Take it seriously and prepare, prepare, prepare… A lot of these preparations are also useful for later job search as well.