For a young scientist hoping eventually get a faculty job, landing a postdoc appointment in the lab of a prestigious, well-connected principal investigator (PI) is a crucial first step. For insights into how some lab chiefs who meet those criteria select the aspiring researchers who work for them, check out an article in the current HHMI Bulletin (published by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute). Author Kendall Powell spoke with a number of HHMI investigators about their (widely varying) approaches to interviewing, hiring, and supervising postdocs.
Not surprisingly, having prestigious publications, doing brilliantly in interviews, and being personable, flexible, and enterprising rank high for many of the PIs. Personal referrals from former advisers well known and respected by the hiring PI carry great weight, but standard reference letters — which tend, in the words of one source, to be “interpretively ambiguous” rather than informative — do not. Sweating the small stuff — such as writing a notably careful and creative cover letter — can reportedly also help swing a decision.