Stay or Go? Remaining in the same lab as a postdoc

Jun 01 2010 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring, Postdoctoral Training

A very simple question was posted over at the NatureJobs forum recently and to my eye the responses are quite disappointing so far. It deals with the not-uncommon scenario whereby a doctoral student successfully defends his or her dissertation and then spends additional time in the same laboratory as a postdoc.
The reasons are many and varied. Perhaps there is a paper in the process which requires additional work, either at the bench or simply in revising. Maybe the person simply hasn't landed precisely the right "real" postdoc and wants to take a little more time to find a position. It would not be unusual that the person is in a relationship with another professional who cannot leave town immediately.
The question, however, deals with perceptions.

Do employers look favourably or unfavourably on Ph.D students who stay on for some time (6 months to a year) as a postdoc in the same group?

What do you think DearReader? Is this rare? Common? Tolerated? Does it put a permanent black mark on your CV? Does it matter only minimally compared to the upside of getting the paper from graduate work published?
What think you?

36 responses so far

  • Pascale says:

    I cannot directly tell you what employers will think. I can tell you that reviewers of postdoctoral fellowship grants will SLAM you for staying on in the same lab with the same PI. If you are not geographically mobile, at least change labs and work with someone else. You just spent several years learning from that PI, and you need to spend time developing more research skills to expand your qualifications. Only in rare cases will spending more time in the same lab do that!

  • Arlenna says:

    1. The papers matter the most anyway
    2. Even besides the papers, staying on as a postdoc makes it clear that your grad PI valued you enough to hold on to you for longer at a higher pay scale with more expensive benefits. That should look like a good thing.

  • whimple says:

    Career disaster. Shows lack of ambition, motivation and competence. Only acceptable for no more than 6 months to boost your salary while searching for anything else at all. The next career step should already have been finalized before the PhD defense.

  • In my field/degree-granting institution it is VERY common for recently-graduated students to remain in their PhD lab for somewhere between 2 and 12 months. Usually to finish papers and/or to have some employment up until their post-doc position had the funds/space to take them. It should be noted that in most cases the "real" post-doc position was lined up well before the defense and the start-date settled with consideration for the PDPI's funding situation. Waiting in the grad lab for the position to start has not been viewed unfavorably by anyone I've heard express an opinion about it. Just about everyone does it, and the reasons why are quite clear.

  • Arlenna says:

    Clarify: I'm talking about the kind of situation that Ambivalent Academic describes, where you just remain employed with your grad PI while you wait for your next postdoc position to start. If you're trying to go on to academia, you absolutely need to go to a different lab for a more extensive, independent postdoc experience. For non-academia, it likely does not matter at all.

  • queenrandom says:

    For a short amount of time while you're job hunting, I don't think it's a big deal to employers (someone above mentioned grants, which are a different matter entirely). 6 months or less fine. 1 year is pushing it (although I know a fellow student who recently took this long to find the right postdoc but he did find one and was actively searching the whole time). Don't be complacent; start job hunting on day 1 (or before you graduate, ideally). I think a lot of people don't believe a postdoc continued in your thesis lab "counts" as a postdoc - more like an extension of grad school. However once you get out of that lab and onto your first real postdoc, and are successful there, no one will notice or care for your next job search, because hardly anyone reads past "recent position" and "publications" on your CV anyway (if that).

  • queenrandom says:

    I neglected to answer the other question on commonality. in my area of the US, at least, it is quite common to stay on; usually an average of 4 months or so. I'd say half or more students at my school do that, however my school has an unusually high proportion of married students who can't just pack up and go.

  • Gummibears says:

    Should be viewed in the context of the achievements. If there are substantial publications, this suggests that the student just wanted to continue some interesting project. And this is fine. If, however, staying with the same PI is accompanied by mediocre "1 per year", expected from every lab serf, then this is definitely a career killer, IMO.

  • JD says:

    In my opinion and in my field, productivity would trump any such issues. I moved between PhD and post-doc but I seriously considered not doing so. I doubt that it would have been a career ending injury.
    All things being equal, it is better to show success in multiple environments. But many things (from the personal to the issues with settling terms at a new institution) can intervene.
    It is certianly not black or white but requires context. I do agree that it is better to publish with people other than the PI who you did your PhD under. But if the work is well regarded enough and of sufficient quality, even this can be overlooked.
    But that is not to say that these "rules of thumb" don't have merit, but that few things are (in and of themselves) career ending injuries. I can even think of a tenured professor (recently, too) who did not publish any papers from their thesis. I'd never advise this approach but, to my amazement, it was possible to make up for it with a sufficently exceptional post-doctoral experience.

  • bob says:

    For me, it depends on the length of the PhD and the length of the extra stay. If you do a four year PhD and stay for a year to finish up some things in the lab, it doesn't change my impression of someone negatively at all. This combined time isn't worth more than a 5 year PhD with the same productivity, but if anything, in contrast to whimple, I'd say it shows you had the ambition and assertiveness to finish the PhD quickly and ask for a raise for the same total amount of work.
    Just don't think a short stay in the PhD lab as a postdoc is going to replace another postdoc completely...

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    I suppose it would depend on the type of employer we're talking about, wouldn't it?

  • Gerty-Z says:

    In my field (basic research in biomedical science), it not really unusual for folks to stick around for a short time after defending. If the student is leaving academia it is more common, especially if they are waiting for a Sign. Other to finish up. However, if you are staying in academia then I agree with whimple and pascale. It is a really bad idea. Even if you are transiting to a "real" postdoc, many of the named awards for postdocs are only open for the first year after your PhD is awarded. Staying in the grad lab is just wasting this time.

  • Eric Lund says:

    In my field it seems not to matter very much, at least if you got your Ph.D. at one of a handful of big name institutes. I know some now well-respected senior people who never left their Ph.D. institution, and others who stayed at their Ph.D. institution for several years before obtaining a tenure-track position elsewhere. As others have said, productivity trumps staying in the same location.
    If you got your Ph.D. from somewhere other than the handful of big name institutes, then yes, you do need to go elsewhere for your postdoc. A few months of bridge funding until you find a real postdoc is considered normal, but ideally you should have started your job search well before your defense (at least six months before if you want to be able to move into the job right away). That describes me: I started my postdoc job search several months before defending my Ph.D. at Small Time U., and I started the new job within two weeks of defending.

  • anon says:

    Because of my lack of funding, my student was forced to finish her PhD a year early (4 years into her PhD). The grad program mandated that either she leave without the degree, or finish. They would not allow her to change labs. She worked around the clock, published a paper, and defended with the time she had left. There was no time to look for a post-doc. Now that I have funding, I can support her as a post-doc to give her more time to publish additional papers and to look for a competitive position that she so much deserves.
    Every situation is unique and should not mean a career-ending misstep. There should be more safety nets in this business, especially for students.

  • I stayed on for 7 months after defending 1) to expand a few experiments for what became a JBC publication and 2) because I was trying to match up moving schedules with my then-girlfriend. On the receiving end, my postdoc advisor-to-be had expressed interest in me but was waiting for a funding decision. Even if I hadn't had my own issues, waiting for him to get funding ended up being very wise considering where I had almost committed to.
    I generally find this post-PhD wobble quite common in the pharmacology and biochemistry disciplines and increasingly common since my student days as more postdocs-to-be have to care about the move of more than oneself.
    More than a year is probably not a good idea and I wouldn't expect to be at all competitive for extramural postdoctoral funding at the same institution even with a change in departments or fields. That stigma seems to still be there.
    But six months to a year is not an indicator of lack of ambition, motivation and competence - to me, at least.

  • anon says:

    Sure, if your dream is to obtain a TT position at a major research univiersity, than you've probably got to move around. However, if you're interested in most other career options it's probably not a big deal. PLUS, if you move a thousand miles away it means that you might lose a lot of connections. It could be bad for your networking situation.

  • What others said: a short postdoc with the same lab is not a big deal (

  • Cut off in previous comment.
    A short postdoc (no more than 1 yr) is not a big deal, but you definitely have to move afterwards.

  • drdrA says:

    Short stay, no big deal.
    Long stay- as in the only postdoc you do- if you want to stay in academia- NOT a good idea.
    Sometimes longer than 6 months is necessary while waiting for the other part of a couple to finish up so a move can be coordinated. That can be explained at the right time and as necessary.

  • anon says:

    It depends on the lab, the PI, and what you do with your postdoc. I've stayed w/same for 3 yrs as a postdoc and worked on a different project. I got excellent experience I wouldn't get elsewhere and worked it to its fullest because I was able to build on my reputation in the department. Landed my first NIH grant in yr 3 on my first try. But yes, I always needed to justify why I stayed w/same PI. So realize you're making a choice- weigh the pros and cons. Do not stay w/same PI if it is just 'cuz you don't know what you want to do after your PhD.

  • I graduated in August, got paid for another month or so, and then "consulted" part time while I looked for a job/postdoc (I didn't want to be an academic then). I had a few interviews, and moved to my new position in January. I got a funded NRC Research Associateship, so it didn't hurt me in any way.
    This is pretty common in my field. The big debate is how/if to put it on the CV, especially if you aren't getting paid. In my case, I wasn't formally working (or getting paid), just helping transition my projects in exchange for lab and journal access until I found/started my next step. Therefore, I leave it off, since I consider myself unemployed for that period.

  • Beaker says:

    The decision of how long to stay after graduating depends mainly on the status of the papers. When grad students work their butts off and actually manage to discover something important, then why not have both student and mentor skim the cream of their efforts? Most grad students who show productivity in the form of publications have no trouble landing excellent postdocs. Those extra 6-9 months in the PhD thesis lab can be incredibly productive because is may allow publication of good science. And the fresh PhD can also be applying for mentored fellowships during that time to sweeten the pot for the next job.

  • Pascale says:

    Even though it is necessary to change labs/PIs, it is not necessary to change institutions. As long as one postdocs in a clearly different area (PI, department) than the PhD lab, staying in the same town or even the same institution may be acceptable to study sections.
    I give the same advice to residents to try to move away for something, either residency, fellowship, or faculty position. I have seen too many institutions with way too much inbreeding and lack of new ideas.

  • Short term (? less than 6 months) is ok, particularly if there is a lapse between defending and starting your postdoc. Anything more is not really indicative of a desire to move onto somewhere/something new.
    Disclosure: this is from someone who turned down a postdoc offer to stay with grad advisor but who had to work as a research assistant for two months in between submitting thesis in land far, far away and starting postdoc in US due to little stuff like not having a US work permit or plane ticket lined up.

  • grumpy says:

    im surprised to hear that almost everyone is so gung-ho on the whole "you have to move" thing.
    My field is experimental physics and I can think of a bunch of examples (including my own PI) of people who never left their institution since grad school and are extremely successful.
    Of course all of those people come from top 10 type institutions and in most cases it was the world leader in their subfield.
    I do agree that unless you are exceptionally creative/brilliant you probably need to at least straddle a few different groups in order to build a full bag of tools.

  • ponderingfool says:

    If you're trying to go on to academia, you absolutely need to go to a different lab for a more extensive, independent postdoc experience.
    *****************************************************
    It depends. I stayed on in the same lab for three additional years after defending my PhD. I have been very productive. I applied to positions at top SLACs which value teaching and research. I received multiple offers. I am still in academia. At conferences, I was encouraged to apply for positions at research universities in the top 50 by members of search committees at said institutions. They knew my history, so it wouldn't have deal breaker. I love interacting with undergraduates and teaching in classes so I went the SLAC route.
    I can't say if it hurt my application or not. Many schools set-up interviews with me, based on my application packet where it was clear I stayed in the same lab. They did however ask about it during the interviews. I explained the lab situation: (i) a variety of techniques/approaches are used, (ii) we work with a variety of different biological macromolecules and organisms from all three domains of life, (iii) the fact it is a diverse lab on multiple levels, (iv) the PI is very hands off letting me develop my own projects (PI in LoR pointed this out and how my direction of certain projects lead to many publications), (v) the PI is better than most at my GradU of not just explaining the day to day of being a PI but also gives us experience dealing with those situations and (vi) PI is one of the best grant writers you will ever meet (top 99.6 % on R1s, not many can top that). I also explained after I graduated my wife needed to stay in the area for a bit but was now ready to move. I also pointed out that I worked at a research institution for a couple years before starting graduate school in a completely unrelated field of biomedical sciences and was a co-author on a couple of publications including a C/N/S article.
    This seemed to have worked as I got multiple offers for top SLACs. It doesn't hurt my PI is tops in our area, asked me to stay before I asked to stay, other PIs wanted me to join their labs, and I was well published through graduate school and have continued to publish, including on a new area for me (two mid-high articles, one C/N/S article, and requested to write a review for a mid-level journal).

  • Lorax says:

    The question is asked in a vacuum. Is it a black mark (assuming standard productivity and good letters etc)? No, its not. However, this post-doc is likely competing with other post-docs that may have been in a different lab from grad school. These other post-docs at least have the appearance of more breadth. (Grad school in molec. gen. on some pathogen, post-doc in another lab on immune responses to said path. and please no pedantic replies of "well I know a lab that does both" fine that lab doesnt do something, so swap that in.)
    That I think is the problem, in isolation, staying is not necessarily a black mark. In competition, it sure doesn't help.

  • DSKS says:

    The conventional wisdom does still appear to err towards the opinion that "stay=bad" for this particular transition.
    Whether there's still a particularly strong rationale underlying that viewpoint - or whether it's an example of career "wisdom" that gets its truth from a hand-me down consensus opinion, rather than objective evidence - is up for discussion, and will certainly depend on one's field &c.
    However, to buck the conventional wisdom - regardless of its grounding - can be risky. So anyone choosing to forge their own unconventional career path just needs to be mindful to ensure that they can rely on a stack of pros to overcome the perceived cons associated with such a decision - rocking project, lab with excellent resources, high likelihood of good papers, PI is a networking superstar who knows everybody, that kind of thing (see Comment #26 above).
    Of course this only addresses what employers are going to think about such a decision. Again, intuitively it would seem that staying on in the same lab should hamstring you in terms of applying for training grants. e.g. a K99 study section will shoot you in the ass for sure.

  • Another issue I haven't seen raised is the issue of reference letters. Coming from outside academia to the TT, I had some issues with making sure I had three or four strong letters. This could be an issue with staying in the same lab for a postdoc, because you now have only 1 PI who is intimately familiar with what you bring to a lab.

  • Anonymous says:

    there are no absolutes in this case.
    some situations, people will stay and it works out well for them. Maybe a new PI on campus, maybe the lab has multiple wings. maybe the PI left and you can continue the work as a pseudo-independent scientist. there are lots of things that can happen.
    In general, Most people that I know tend to stick around for under a year and then move on. I Don't view that as a post-doc, I view that as finishing things up and getting paid slightly more.
    question for ponderingfool: What does top 99.6% on R1's mean? some kind of grant metric? does that mean they get .4 percentile every time?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Soooo...
    Today we move on to a related issue which has to do with the graduate training itself. Should the fear of sticking around the same lab as a postdoc (due to needing to finish up some work on a paper submission) be alleviated by staying as a grad student for another year? Does this knock on the post-PhD-postdoc-in-same-lab fit into an overall picture of exploitation of trainees who have already demonstrated that they deserved the PhD?

  • MJ says:

    This is coming from the genetics field. Having asked this question of a number of mentors, the response is a resounding: "Don't stay." Even if it means moving to a different lab in the same institution, that is apparently better. Additionally, as I've been looking at postdoc fellowship applications myself recently, I've noticed they generally will not support you if you stay in the same lab where you did your graduate work. In my department, for every person who stays on, there are six to ten people who go somewhere else.
    If you need to finish up a paper, I think generally staying on as a grad student until it's at least submitted is a valid option. This is exactly what I've done, as I'm holding off defending my thesis one additional quarter in order to see another paper out the door. Three more months in exchange for a major paper is not exploitation--I could have left without publishing the paper, but staying a few more months sees my CV grow that much stronger. I also could have graduated and then stayed on as a post-doc, but then I couldn't include the paper in my thesis, which is important to me. I want to have the strongest thesis possible.
    I honestly think that varied experience is extremely important, especially at higher levels of academia. The connections we make at various institutions are highly important, as each experience yields us increased opportunities for references, collaborations and faculty positions.

  • Oddly, no one's brought up the big problem if the person plans to stay in academia: it will make you less competitive for postdoc grants. Some postdoc grants are only available less than 1 year after your defense (eg Helen Hay Whitney). A K99/R00 app must be less than 5 years after you graduate. So if you have been a postdoc for only 3.5 years in your new lab when you apply for a K99, you will have lower (apparent) postdoc productivity than someone who has been in their "real" postdoc lab for 4.5 years.
    I think that's the only real reason not to do a 6month/1 year in grad lab as a postdoc. No one will probably care much otherwise.

  • Non-BioMed Prof says:

    The discussion so far concentrated mostly on how people will view this career-decision. There is another angle to it, however, which is how you will operate when staying with the same PI after the PhD.
    When staying in the same lab, it is rather difficult to make the leap from being the supervisee, that graduate student mentality, into a more independent mode of operation.
    Regardless of how well appreciated and respect you are as a grad student, you are still a grad student and it harder to behave differently in the same environment.
    (Of course, it is not impossible and a short "bridge" stay of several months is not a disaster.)

  • expat posdtoc says:

    timing matters:
    for the real grants (K99/R00 in the US, EN in Germany and various ERC grants), you have a LIMITED amount of time to apply post-PhD. wasting 2-12 months finishing up stuff is incomprehensible.
    if you must finish, you should delay actually receiving a PhD, so that the post-PhD clock just NOT start ticking.

  • AD says:

    Interestingly NIGMS has an answer to this question in their FAQs for the F32. Go to this link http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Training/IndivPostdoc/PostdocFellowsFAQ.htm and see Q8.

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