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Advice on choosing a permanent lab

Apr 2011 | Lauren No Comment

It’s important to pick a project you’re interested in, but it’s more important to pick an advisor who will help get you from the student you are now to the scientist you want to be.

You’ve come to the end of your first year, and have experienced rotations, grad school classes, as well as making new friends and getting settled into Seattle.  At this point, you probably feel much more comfortable as a grad student than you did a few short months ago, but there is one hurdle left before you can fully settle in…  Choosing a permanent lab.  For some of you, it will be easy. Maybe you only had one rotation you liked, or maybe there was only one rotation where you liked both the advisor and the research.  Some of you will find the task more difficult, either because you are indecisive and full of self-doubt, or because you really liked all three rotations.  Speaking as an indecisive, self-doubting person who liked all three rotations, I can promise you, it will work!  And to help you through that process, we have polled MCB students who are in permanent labs for their collective wisdom about joining labs.  I have organized the results into distinct categories of what to consider in joining a lab. Direct quotes from the poll are in blue italics throughout this article.

1) Know yourself.  Do you like your desk messy and a flexible schedule?  Or do you prefer order being five minutes early to everything?  Find a PI that has similar tendencies.  It will make working with them easier.

Put finding a mentor that’s a good fit for you before everything else.  Projects are fluid while lab members come and go.  Your adviser is the most important constant of your grad student experience.

Choose an advisor with whom you can work well.  Do you feel comfortable approaching this advisor?  Is their mentoring style compatible with your needs?  For example, a hands-off PI who gives students complete control of directing their projects could be perfect for some students, and too hands-off for others.

2) Lab dynamics are one of the most important factors in choosing a lab. Try to talk to as many people in the lab as possible to get a sense of how they operate on a day to day basis with each other and the PI.

Personality and lab management can be far more important than the science.  Ask lab members outside of lab about how they feel about the PI, and be cautious of any negative sentiment.

While the lab personnel will change over time, PIs typically choose the same sort of personnel each time.  This consistency allows you to address two questions: Do you get along with other lab members? How do lab members get along with the PI?

Other aspects of lab personnel that you could think about are the composition of the lab.  How many grad students?  How many post docs?  How many techs?  Is there a lab manager?  How large is the lab? This goes back to knowing yourself, and what your needs are.  If you want to have post docs around to ask for advice, then choose a lab with post docs.  It is also worth considering the departmental/hall dynamic.  My lab has no post docs, but there is a lab across the hall working on very similar projects that is almost entirely post docs who are happy to help the grad students from my lab.

3) Look at the advisor’s track record for graduating students on time, student’s publication status at the time of defense, current positions of previous students and previous lab personnel.

Obviously this is a piece of advice that does not apply to PIs who have not had any students yet, or to PIs who have not yet had a student graduate (though if they have an older student, you could pay attention to how that student is doing).  But if the PI does have a track record, pay attention to it.  Do students generally graduate in the same amount of time, and is this within six years?  How many publications do students have, in what journals, and how many authors are there?

It is also useful to pay attention to the professor’s approach to grants and papers.  Do they sit down and write their grants by themselves?  Or do they invite collaboration from their students?  And how much control do students have over the writing of their papers? The more control you have over writing your own papers and the more participation you have in grant writing the better.

4) It is not always wise to overlook the potential traps in the success of the thesis project. It is neither pleasant nor amusing to fiddle with methodology to make a project work fur years into your graduate study.

While mentoring style is more important than the project, you do also need to pay attention to the project you will be working on.  It will be a large part of your life for the next several years.  So make sure that the lab you join has projects that are interesting to you, and feasible.  It may be a hot topic, but that’s only a good thing if it has a high probability of actually going somewhere.

5) Look for red flags: conflicts of interest, disagreements with other faculty, working with a spouse, no/low funding, etc.

Ask previous lab members what one thing they wished they could have changed about the lab is.

Red flags are one reason it can be useful to talk to lab members.  Even if they’re happy in the lab, try asking “What is the worst thing about being in this lab?” or “What would you change about the lab?”  Their answers will help you decide how comfortable you would be in that lab.

Some PIs do a good job of making the rotation representative of what it would be like to be in the lab.  Others may not.  If you notice what seems to be a minor red flag while you’re rotating, ask around.  Maybe it really is minor, or maybe it is something that does not affect rotons, but will affect permanent students.  If one lab member is complaining about something that seems untrue from your observation, it may just be them. If everyone in the lab says the same thing, you should assume that it is true.

6) It is OK to have a fourth rotation. Most of you will be ready to choose a lab after three rotations (and most of you will not want to have another rotation), but if you don’t feel that you can choose any of the labs you have rotated in so far, do not choose one simply so that you do not need to take a fourth rotation.  There is a reason that option exists.  The first summer in a lab is often spent getting into the swing of things and choosing a project, so if you join your fourth rotation lab and are able to actually get started on a long-term project for your rotation, you will not be behind at all.  And if you do join one of your earlier rotations, 10 weeks is a blip in the overall time of grad school.

7) Relax. Things will work out somehow. =)

The period of time near the end of the third rotation but prior to choosing a lab is a time of many concerns. What if my first choice PI only has one space and two rotons want to join? What if my first choice PI will not know if they have funding to take me until week 10, and I could lose a spot in another lab by waiting to hear about that? What if I loved all three rotations and have no idea which lab to join? What if none of my rotation professors want me to join their lab?

Hopefully, rotation reports will clarify how each professor feels about your performance in lab.  (In general, they probably liked you better than you think.)  As for the rest of these questions….   If you have a good reason why you want to wait until the last minute to decide, most PIs will be accommodating. Things will fall into place, and you will be happy with your decision.   It may not seem like it now, but everything will be fine.

8 ) Choose the lab that makes you most want to go to lab every day.  It should be a gut feeling.

Choose the lab that can make you laugh the hardest.

In the end, you can analyze the pros and cons of your options all you want, but this is a highly personal decision. You are choosing a professor to work with very closely for the next 3-5 years of your life.  Chances are, that even without all your analysis, you already know which lab you want to join.  If you don’t think you do know, try flipping a coin.  Your reaction to the result will tell you far more than all your conversations with lab members, and reading of papers, and careful consideration of facts.

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