Choosing a Lab in Graduate School

Choosing a lab is probably the single most important decision you will make in graduate school. It will be the environment you will have to work in, day in and day out, for at least four years. It’ll be smart to consider every angle before making your final choice.

If your line of research has some applications in the medical field (i.e. receives funding from NIH) in the United States, there is a good chance you will be completing multiple rotations before joining a lab. The purpose of the rotation is to both learn more about how the lab operates as well as to evaluate whether the lab is a good fit for you. Throughout your rotations, it is critical to self-reflect and pinpoint what factors will contribute to your success and training as a graduate student.

1st Consideration when Choosing a Lab: Culture

The very first thing you need to consider is whether you get a long with your lab mates and the lab culture. Why do we prioritize this over choosing a Principle Investigator? It is because you will most likely have more day-to-day contact with your immediate colleagues. As a new graduate student, you will probably enter a lab where you have to learn much from the ground up. Unless you have prior training in the techniques or experimental work, you will have to receive training from those around you. If you do not plan to join a lab with a junior PI, a lot of the training will come from senior graduate students and postdocs.

Before you join, try to get a feel for the training structure: will you be able to get direct assistance from someone? Are the people in the lab community-minded and willing to help or collaborate? Do people in the lab tend to be more distant and figure things out for themselves? Does the environment feel competitive? You have to assess whether your work style and expectations match those of the labs you are considering. What fraction of each day is expected to be dedicated to research/work in the lab? Do people seem to have good work-life balance?

2nd Consideration when Choosing a Lab: Mentorship

Your choice in PI is very important. Your mentor will be the most influential “lab mate” with regards to work culture, research projects, and your future after graduate school.  Here is where you really need to be honest with yourself about what you need. Many enter graduate school wanting to work with the most famous and well established PIs. However, those PIs may not be the best mentors.

Junior PIs are often more hands-on, providing their students with frequent attention. If they aren’t yet tenured, they are likely more anxious about publishing. This could be a positive motivating factor and a good training opportunity. However, this could increase pressure to complete projects quickly or to undertake project ideas the PI has already developed. Because of this, for many it is tempting to work with a more Senior PI. While they may provide a more hands-off approach and thus offer more flexibility, you have to ask yourself whether that is the mentorship style you want.

You should talk with previous graduate students** about their mentee-mentor interactions. Will the PIs be your advocate when applying to academic jobs? Are they going to be on top of writing good letters of recommendation? Will they allow you to indulge in conferences, classes and internships of your interest? Is the PI going to be supportive during hard times? Everyone goes through tough times in graduate school, and you should be able to count on your PI to understand if you are having difficulties. Will your PI be understanding if you are undergoing mental heath problems? Because there are so many different approaches to mentoring, you really have to figure out what is ideal for you.

In the end, you have to weigh the pros and cons between PI types. Maybe you want to be in a high intensity environment because it motivates you to work. Maybe you want to be in a more relaxed environment where you can explore and learn at your pace. Take the time to consider what type of PI best suits your individual needs as a student and as a person. Your choice will have long-term effects from the moment you join the lab and into the rest of your academic career, so make sure to properly think about it.

3rd Consideration when Choosing a Lab: Research Interests

The next major consideration you have to make before joining a lab, is finding your preferred area of research. You will find that many students might come into graduate school set on doing very specific things while others are a little bit more flexible. You don’t need to feel like you are locked into a field of study simply because you listed it on your graduate school application. A lot of students go into different fields for their postdoctoral training. Thus, you should not feel like your graduate studies will lock your research career unto a specific field.

You should choose a lab that aligns with your interests, and where you will enjoy (or at least tolerate) doing the mundane tasks involved in that particular area of research. THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT! Let’s say you are interested in learning about memory formation in mice. However, you find out that you actually dislike training mice every day. Do not underestimate the existential angst of having to train mice on a hard task just to study a topic you are interested in. You will hate your life. You should find a good balance between studying an interesting topic and being able to complete the experiments without sacrificing your sanity.

Other important things to consider when choosing a lab:

Time to graduation: Does the PI graduate students on time? Or do they hold onto students for longer than you’d like?

Career paths: Is your PI supportive of your choice of a future career? Or do they have the ‘academia or bust’ mentality? What are the career paths of past students/postdocs in the laboratory?

Ultimately, there is no perfect lab. And that is ok. However, you can find a lab of best fit. Reflect deeply about your values and think critically about the environment that would best suit your training. You’re in it for the long haul. Good luck!


** If you are interested in tips about reaching out to others for feedback on choosing a lab, take a look at our Reach Out post.

As always, you can reach out to us @phdxlife on Twitter if you have specific questions about this topic, or anything PhDxlife related!

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