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Guide to graduate students: how to pick a lab

Choosing a thesis lab is one of the most important decisions a graduate student will make. Here are some tips on how to make the right choice for you.

Krista Dobi

Since my days as an undergraduate, I have spent time in five different laboratories, the most recent being my thesis lab. At Harvard, where I spent six years and recently received my PhD, I have been asked for advice by many of my fellow students about how they can best choose a thesis lab. I have tried to incorporate my own experiences, and those of my labmates and friends, into the advice below.

The popular thinking among students is that they should go for the ”big” labs doing brilliant science, but there are other important factors that need to be considered. Students have differing needs and expectations from a lab, so you should know what type of environment will help you thrive and what will drive you crazy or leave you feeling lost. When doing a rotation in a lab, rely on your own observations and your interactions with the principal investigator (PI) and other lab members. Here are some points to think about when deciding where to spend the next four or more years of your life.

Lab demographics and funding

An important aspect of your experience will be determined by the range of ages and experience levels among lab members. Postdocs offer guidance and advice, while graduate students provide camaraderie. Technicians can keep a lab more organized and reduce your workload, for example, by supplying common solutions.

The lab’s financial situation should also be taken into consideration. Of course, you want to ensure that you have funding, but don’t forget that the financial status of the lab also affects the types of experiments you will be able to do. You should also consider the department; labs with less funding can take advantage of departmental resources. Finally, some graduate students prefer to work for a tenured PI, while others will join a lab as long as the tenure decision won’t be made for a few years.

PI management and mentoring styles

Some graduate students like to talk to their thesis advisor almost every day, while others prefer to give infrequent progress reports; you should make sure that the PI’s style of work and communication fits with yours. Furthermore, the PI’s management style affects the day-to-day operation of the lab. Some labs are congenial while others are competitive, so students should decide what atmosphere they prefer. Finally, advisors place varying degrees of importance on teaching, reading, writing, and presenting, so it’s a good idea to find a PI whose priorities are similar to your own.

The social scene

If you are spending many long hours doing experiments, it may be important that your labmates are also friends. Others prefer to interact more professionally with their labmates. Highly social labs can be good places to work: discussion of science spreads to the pub or lunchroom, and people are happy to lend a hand. Social labs, however, can also be places of high drama. So be sure to assess what kind of social setting you’re looking for in a lab.

You should find out what hours you are expected to be in the lab. Some students may not mind working during the weekends on a regular basis, while others will want to find a lab that keeps more nine-to-five hours. It’s also good to know if you can set your own hours or if you are expected to be in at the same times as the PI. Find out what hours the rest of the lab keeps; if the majority of the lab works different hours than you, it may be difficult to find reagents or get help with experiments.

Your future plans

Some people come to graduate school with the ultimate goal of becoming a professor, while some are interested in developing skills that they can use in other fields. It’s difficult to know when you first enter graduate school what you’ll do with your PhD; by the end, many choose a career outside of academic science. So it’s a good idea to find out before you join a lab what paths previous grad students and postdocs have taken and whether the PI supported them in their endeavors. Contacting previous lab members can be helpful not only in evaluating a lab but also for learning about your career options.

Change of plans

If you find yourself unhappy in the lab you have chosen, there are still things you can do. Sometimes simply talking to your advisor about your concerns can help to change things. In the worst case, most schools will allow you to change your thesis lab even after several years in the program. I’ve known many people who have been successful in doing this. Remember that no lab is perfect, and if nothing else, you can remember to run your lab differently when you are a PI.

Krista Dobi earned a PhD in genetics from Harvard Medical School in May 2007. She will begin a postdoc at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York this fall.


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