PI seeks PostDoc for long term relationship

We've blogged extensively about the challenges and rewards of career development in academia, most recently about tips for a successful postdoctoral fellowship position search.  In addition to the daunting task of evaluating an endless number of potential labs and advisors, one must consider deadlines for finishing a PhD, the availability of professors for a visit and most critically, the all-important interview.

What PI's look for in a potential PostDoc

In order to help graduate students hone in on a successful and targeted postdoc search, Labguru asked several professors at elite academic institutions to provide feedback about what they look for in potential postdocs, what qualities impress them during interviews, and their advice for candidates.  So before embarking on your postdoctoral interviews, read our insider tips that will put you ahead of the curve!


Nathanael Gray, PhD – Professor, Harvard University Medical School Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology

  1. The biggest problem for potential postdocs when they apply or interview is that they don’t really take the time to understand what it is the lab they are applying to does.  Generic application letters I dump in the trash.  If they haven’t done their homework on prospective labs then they likely aren’t a very good candidate.  Contact according to what is said on the advisors website, electronic or hardcopy.  Electronic is very likely to get lost in the sea of email.
  2. The biggest things I look for in candidates: (a) Evidence of past productivity (past productivity strongest indicator of future productivity), (b) Evidence of ability to do the type of experimental work we do, (c) Ability to think independently and creatively.
  3. The biggest problems I generally encounter: completely erroneous recommendation letters that don’t tell the truth about the skills and capabilities of a candidate.
  4. Advice: Get your PhD PI/mentor to reach out to your lab of interest.  It’s much more likely to get you noticed.
  5. Top dislike/pet peeve: Anyone who wants to do particular research because they think it’s ‘hot’ or ‘trendy’.

Jamie Williamson, PhD – Professor, The Scripps Research Institute, Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Dean of Graduate Studies

Things he specifically looks for in strong candidates:

  • Can answer questions about their work, at length, with discussion
  • Clear slides and presentation—evidence of clear thinking
  • Gets along well with lab members
  • Has a clear understanding of what we do, with specific interests.  Bad sign if they have not read our papers
  • Very motivated and excited about research, full of ideas

"I've had pretty good luck with postdocs, but I have made some mistakes!"

"I would chalk it up to one thing in general:  thinking that you can change someone, or that they can become something that they are not.  People develop during their postdoc, but they do not fundamentally change.  The challenge as a PI is to figure out what they are capable of quickly, and match the project with their interests, inclinations, and abilities."

Thomas V. O’Halloran – Morrison Professor, Department of Chemistry, Director, Chemistry of Life Processes Institute, Associate Director of Basic Sciences, Northwestern University

"It’s pretty simple to evaluate postdoc candidates.  First, great publications and letters can lead to an interview.  I never hire a postdoc without hearing them give a talk and having a sit down discussion in person.  Scientific meeting are a cost efficient way to begin the interaction and in some of those cases I can gather enough feedback that I don’t have to pay for airfare and lodging.   In person, I need to hear what their goals are and then I need to decide whether I can help them achieve their goals.  Thus it is important to express clear goals."

"I am then looking to see how much they were involved in establishing the direction of their research, how much ownership they took over their own progress, what kind of insights they have into papers I have published, what they think are the pressing problems in the field, how well they write, whether they are interested in working on grant proposals, and other aspects of career development."

"Finally, I ask myself:  Can we work well together given my style of management?"


Professors, PIs, managers and anyone who has had postdoctoral fellows:  What other advice do you have for grad students searching for their postdoctoral lab?  Do you agree with Professors Gray, Williamson and O’Halloran?

Graduate students:  Do you find the above advice helpful?  Challenging?  Any thoughts you’d like to share from your own searches?

Drop us a comment below.  We’d love to hear from you!