The American experience for foreign postdocs: Finding information and evaluating your options
The American experience for foreign postdocs
This is a series of short articles dedicated to several aspects of how a foreign researcher can plan a successful postdoctoral experience in the United States. Emma Perez-Costas, PhD, moved from Spain to the U.S. to pursue the PhD degree and has guided several foreign researchers through the process. Through this series, she shares her personal experience for the benefit of young researchers.
In my previous article I discussed the basics of planning and creating a successful roadmap for your future postdoc abroad. Once you have a plan of what you want to do, how do you find a suitable laboratory to achieve your goals? These days we have a myriad of resources to obtain information, which sometimes becomes an overload, causing even more confusion. Here, I will provide some tips on what to look for and how.
At this point, you should have already decided the broad field within which you would like to develop your postdoctoral career and the type of postdoc position you want. Please keep in mind that you do not have to restrict yourself to the topic of your doctoral thesis. If you would like to choose something within a broader topic/scope, read and immerse yourself in the topic, and decide if your previous training would allow you to contribute effectively and adapt to the demands of the specific field of your choice. As an example, my own doctoral thesis was in comparative neuroanatomy using the sea lamprey brain as an animal model, but I wanted to move to the biomedical field and learn more about the human brain; I evaluated the skills necessary and decided that I could successfully apply my knowledge to contribute effectively as a postdoc, and at the same time learn about the human brain.
So, how do you look for a postdoctoral position? There are advertisements in many science magazines that may be a suitable choice. However, if you start early, I would recommend that you first look at labs that produced the research manuscripts that you really enjoyed reading—those that made you think “I wish I could contribute to this research”. The fact is that many senior investigators are eager to find postdoc candidates who are truly interested in their research, and who are enthusiastic, motivated, and eager to learn. My advice is to first look at your favorite research papers, identify the senior author(s) of those research papers, and start an exhaustive internet search concerning their research and funding.
Here are some tips on how to organize your search:
Always start with the science! Thus, the first step is to perform a thorough search of the research published by the research team/principal investigator (PI). There are many options, but here some examples of reliable public (i.e., free to browse) databases:
- GOOGLE SCHOLAR for a broad search on any field, even though it may not always be completely accurate:
- PUBMED, which is maintained by the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health (USA), is a very useful resource if you are interested not only in medical sciences, but also in the broader field of life sciences. It is also useful for Social Sciences, to some extent.
- EUCLID, which is a database for the fields of mathematics and statistics.
For laboratories located in the United States, there are some resources that could help you find out about the current and past grant funding of the laboratory/PI. Two of the major sources of public funding in the United States are the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). In addition, many laboratories have additional funding from their own institutions or from private foundations. For federal funding, it is possible to find a lot of information online in public databases. For biomedical researchers, I always recommend visiting the NIH reporter page.
This web page provides many options to look for information on NIH-funded researchers. This database is useful for several aspects of your search, if you are looking for a position in a biomedical laboratory. If your laboratory/PI is funded by the NIH, you can find here his/her current and past grants, not only the amount of funding, but also summaries of the research projects funded, publications derived from those research projects etc. However, this only applies to those labs that are primarily funded by NIH, and there are laboratories that rely on other types of funding, even within the biomedical field.
Another source to obtain more information on grant funding and research conducted is the NSF database. This database contains information on NSF-funded researchers in a variety of fields, from life sciences to physics or social sciences.
The environment and productivity
Is the PI publishing with his/her team members? Does he/she publish with other researchers at the same institution? Does he/she have external collaborators? Where are they based? How many papers has he/she published in the last 5 years and what is the quality of these publications?
This information can be easily inferred by checking the publication pattern of the researcher as well as grant databases. Publications are a source of not only scientific information but also collaborative patterns. Check the list of coauthors on the PI’s publications for the last 5 years; this will offer you useful information concerning collaboration patterns, publication success of other members of the same laboratory team, etc. In addition, most publications will also list the source of funding for the published work.
Another minor source of information is official institutional web pages of researchers; however, do no use this as your primary source, because the pages may be outdated or not very thorough. These pages, if updated regularly, are a useful source of information on current team members, and sometimes former lab personnel.
All the information you thus collect will allow you to make an informed decision; therefore, it is important to be thorough and organized in your search.
The next article of this series will talk about how to properly establish a connection with the laboratory of your choice, especially when your primary (or only) correspondence would be via email. How do you introduce yourself? What information should you provide? Keep watching this space to find out.
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