Finding your niche: stories from 4 junior PIs

5 min read

One of the trickiest, most important goals of a postdoctoral position is ‘finding your niche’. Where is this elusive creature to be found? I have been given many pieces of advice from group leaders in the past, ranging from ‘get trained in a cutting edge technique and apply it to a new situation’ to one which really struck home, although strict adherence is for the confident – ‘so long as you do your supervisors work you will get nowhere, just do your own thing’.

On the trail of the ‘nice’? photo By Gardner Soule – The World’s Most Mysterious Footprints. Popular Science. December, 1952., Public Domain,

To gain more insight I bugged a 4 junior PIs through the eLife ambassador initiative who were kind enough to share their personal view below. There stories demonstrate there are various tracks you can take, but there are also some common themes, hopefully these insights can help you in your quest out in the wilderness.

Sophie Acton;MRC LMBC, UK

It is a mistake to think that you are already established in a field at the end of your PhD. Choosing your first postdoc position is in fact the perfect time to change fields, try something new and learn another set of skills. I would advise that there is some continuation between PhD and postdoctoral training but this can be either technical or subject-related. Personally I moved from mechanisms of cancer cell metastasis to immunology as I finished my PhD. This was a big leap in subject and I had to learn a lot very quickly; but I proposed a project in my new lab which used all the knowledge and skills I had gained in studying cell migration, and applied this to antigen presenting cells.

Funding at least some of your postdoctoral project with a personal fellowship is also very important. I felt a great deal of ownership over my own work having proposed and funded it myself. I also felt more entitled to take the work with me into a second postdoctoral position where I worked independently on a follow up project, moving into the area of stromal immunology. I still work on the same cellular mechanisms now as a PI, and was able to use my postdoctoral work as preliminary data when writing career development grants.

The key for finding my own niche was combining my cell biology training with immunology. I would now still call myself a cell biologist, but I have been asking research questions about how our immune system functions since I left my PhD. Changing fields allows you to ask research questions in a naïve yet new way, and address them using techniques not always used in that research community. This has really been a huge advantage applying for grant funding, and allows you to set yourself apart from the rest of the applicants applying to the same panel.

Jordan Ward

I’m a new-ish assistant professor at UC Santa Cruz. When I was a postdoc, as part of a successful K99 grant application, I developed a line of research distinct from my mentor and designed to fill a unique niche I identified in my field. As I prepared to go on the job market, I communicated my unique combination of research area, approach, skills, and philosophy at every opportunity (seminars, perspectives, etc.). I detailed how I created this “research persona” in a blog here.

Steph Shames  Kansas State University

I had pretty specific requirements for a PD lab that I did not have/need for my PhD lab.  I started my academic career with a faculty position in mind (although I was aware that my career goals might shift, I wanted to prepare for the ‘toughest’ position to get).  I personally chose a large PhD lab with a supportive mentor and a small army of PDs. I was aware that my mentor would not be around a lot, so I had several PD mentors who helped me through my PhD.

When I was nearing the end of graduate school, I asked my PhD mentor about faculty who’s lab I thought would be suitable for my PD.  He was an excellent source of information. I selected people from the list who had a lineage of PIs from their labs, which indicated to me that they are supportive of PDs and provided a training environment that was conducive to the PD-to-PI transition.  I did interview with one younger PI who did not have the track record of a more established investigator.. when I asked about taking projects, he informed me that I would be the expert in that project so of course I could take it. It was also important to me to ask current/previous trainees about their transitions. Subsequently, I made sure I had the independence to pursue research that I was interested in pursuing in my own lab.  It is critical to define your niche as different from that of your PD supervisor but you should not stray too far since you will need to demonstrate proficiency in your area of research.

It is also never too early to start expanding your network!  Go to meetings and meet scientists in your field. Present often and get your name known.  Also, be weary of anyone who doesn’t invite you to interview because they either (1) can’t afford your research; or (2) don’t give much heed to the dynamics in their lab (which are crucial to a productive working environment IMO!).

I would also recommend reading ‘The Chicago Guide to Landing a Job in Academic Biology’ – it has great information for grad students and post-docs on navigating the academic job market.

Chris Toseland; University of Kent, UK

Having worked with studying DNA based molecular motors during my PhD, I then moved to work on cytoskeletal motors for my postdoc in order to expand my technical repertoire.

When it came to putting together my own research project (for an independent fellowship), I immediately wanted to find my own niche. This was for two factors (1) to distinguish myself from my supervisors and (2) to stand out in my field.  I therefore focused heavily to find this research “sweet spot”. I now work on nuclear myosins involved in transcription – this is essentially a fusion of my PhD and postdoc work and specifically represents my “unique journey” in science.

I typically hear stories about researchers taking their post doc projects with them but I feel this is not idea on two counts (A) it can put you in competition with your PI and (B) the original idea was your supervisors and not your own. I think it is important to have true independence!