Postdoc Interviews and Negotiating
Interviewing for a postdoc is largely about fit. Potential postdoc mentors want to see that you can do the research, but they also want to know that they can work with you and that you’ll mesh with their current lab.
Your goals for the interviews are to show that:
- you know their research,
- you are a critical thinker and experienced researcher, and
- they can get along with you during the conversation.
Choosing a mentor is like choosing a significant other; few other people in your life can make such a large impact on your future. While they’re interviewing you, you should interview them and their mentees. Make sure this postdoc experience fits your specific and broad career goals.
Career advisors through appointments on Handshake offer interview coaching and mock interviews as ways to prepare for interviews and practice how to respond to questions. Also, Big Interview is an interview platform that provides interview courses and tailored mock interviews.
If your postdoc position involves teaching, you may be asked to demonstrate your teaching style by presenting a lesson to faculty and/or students. Consider the educational philosophy of the institution to help you design a lesson plan. Build rapport with the students as they might have a say in who is hired for the position. Also see this list, Going in with Your Eyes Open: What to ask Before Accepting a U.S. Postdoctoral Position.
- What are your expectations for postdocs?
- How many postdocs are currently in the group? Do they serve particular roles (lab manager, research mentor to students, etc.)?
- Will there be opportunities for me to _________? [insert skill/goal of interest]
- My eventual career goal is ________. Do you have much experience with that field? Do you know current professionals working in that field? Would I have time to explore that field, network, and possibly gain some experience in addition to my primary responsibilities?
- What is your mentoring style?
- What is your current funding situation? Will I be supported the entire time or will I have to obtain my own funding?
- What is the compensation? Does this allow for annual increases? What benefits are offered and how are they paid for? Is there a policy on paid time off, sick time, and family leave?
- What are your typical work schedule and travel schedule?
- Do you ask postdocs to go through regular (annual) performance reviews? What is discussed in this process?
- Can you support travel to conferences? How often? What conferences do members of your group attend?
- For the projects we’ve discussed, what levels of authorship could I expected on the publications?
- What is average length of time postdocs stay in your research group? Where have postdocs gone after they leave? Can I contact them?
- Will you help me find a permanent position after the postdoc?
- What projects would I be able to take with me to a tenure-track faculty position? Or will I be able to develop independent projects that I can take with me? [Be sure to clarify these points of intellectual property early.]
- How will we decide what projects I work on? Will you closely track my progress or will it be up to me to keep the projects moving forward?
- Will I interact directly with the postdoc mentor or will they be more hands off?
- What is the overall size of the research group and how collaborative is it?
- Where is the faculty member in their career? Are they pre-tenure or approaching promotion or retirement? What major events do they see occurring in the next few years?
- Ask members of the research group how their projects are going and how their research mentor is involved with them.
- Are the equipment and materials needed for projects currently available?
- What is the scientific community like at this institution?
- What is the city like? Where do postdocs live?
Thank you note
Within 24 hours of an interview, no matter if it was by phone or in-person, be sure to send a thank you message to the potential postdoc mentor. This can take the form of a brief email outlining specific conversations that you found interesting and reinforcing your excitement for the postdoc position. You can also send a thank you card by mail.
Salary and benefits
Since many postdoc appointments are funded by the U.S. government, the salary will often be standardized to government recommendations, such as those set by the NIH. Some institutions use these guidelines regardless of local standard of living costs. For instance, the NIH projected stipend for fiscal year 2017 for a postdoc with zero years of previous postdoc experience is $47,484.
A postdoc in Durham will be able to live much more comfortably on that salary compared to a postdoc in San Francisco or Washington, D.C. Some institutions set their own guidelines to account for these regional differences. You can use this calculator from CNN Money to compare how far your salary will go in different parts of the U.S.
Benefits will often be a standard package offered by the institution. Check the institution’s websites for human resources, the postdoc association, or the office of postdoc services to make sure the offer you receive matches these standards. Talk with your postdoc mentor about policies on sick days and vacation days. Some institutions also offer discounts to local restaurants, shops, and services.
Recent research has found that there is a measurable gap in salary in parts of the US based on gender. Research also has indicated pay differences and inequalities in postdoc opportunities across race and socioeconomic background. Many people successfully negotiate for higher pay for a postdoctoral position, so we encourage you to have conversations with institutions to make sure you are compensated adequately and fairly. To learn more about how to approach the negotiation process, refer to the Negotiating Guide.
Take advantage of loan repayment programs. You may not be able to save money for retirement on a graduate student stipend or a postdoc salary, but you can start repaying student loans. Opportunities such as the NIH Loan Repayment Program can help you pay off your debt while you contribute to research.