Struggling to choose the right lab for your PhD? Elena Blanco-Suárez shares what you should be looking for.
When I was looking for a PhD lab I had a pretty clear idea of the techniques I wanted to learn and master, and, essentially, I thought that was everything I needed to worry about. But the right PhD training is crucial to establish a good foundation for what comes next – either a job in industry, a postdoc in academia, or something away from the bench. Choosing the right lab is important, and there are considerations beyond gaining specific technical skills that need to be mulled over before making a decision. If I were to start another PhD, this is what I would look for:
1. Supervision. I did my PhD in a small lab, where my supervisor was very involved in the training of his students. This was a great experience for me, and helped to hone my skills. The lab environment was a positive one, and we shared space with a bigger lab where a bunch of postdocs had good expertise in different techniques. They were always willing to help and give valuable advice.Find a supervisor who will be available when you need help with your project. I’ve seen students struggling to make their project work – or even make sense – due to lack of interaction with their supervisor. Ask students at any labs you visit what the environment is like before you sign up.
2. Development opportunities: conference, workshops and course attendance. As a PhD student, it’s important to have the opportunity to attend a few conferences, start growing your network, and learn which other labs in your field are out there, especially if you are interested in following postdoctoral training afterwards. Sometimes attending these conferences can be pretty expensive, so you would want to know whether the institution or the lab has an allocated budget to send you there, or at least provides you with resources and support to do so. The same goes for workshop and course attendance.Your PhD is not only about getting your research project and thesis done, it is also a very important training period, and you will need all the support and opportunities you can get.
3. Techniques: learning the nitty-gritty. Some labs are lucky enough to have wonderful technicians and lab managers who take care of the little things in the lab: replacing consumables, making buffers, ordering — even performing dissections and cell culturing. Having technicians and lab managers is bliss, but I recommend tagging along with them and learning all of those tasks and protocols. Not all labs can afford to have one of these members and at some point you will have to do that job yourself.
4. Doing rotations? Make the most of it. American universities often encourage first-year PhD students to do short stays (rotations) in different labs to decide which one they would like to join. But these go both ways: the lab also gets to decide whether they will take the student. I think this is a pretty good system in terms of learning how research – and life – really is in a particular lab, and how well you fit in there or like that line of research. So take advantage of it, and interact with every lab member — find out what their experience was like. Getting along with everyone will make your life a lot easier if you end up in that lab, and making a good impression from the beginning is essential.If you’re at a university which doesn’t run rotations, make your own. See if you can run short collaborations with labs you’re interested in. If it works out, it will give you a great opportunity to get acquainted with the lab and research at a PhD level. I did so myself, and that experience was key to help me decide that research was what I wanted to do – and helped me to stand out as a candidate when I was applying to PhD positions.
In short, remember that a PhD is a training period and it is for your own gain. It is not about getting the maximum number of experiments done. You will be spending the next few years of your life there — finding the right lab is crucial. Good luck finding the right match!
Elena Blanco-Suárez is a post-doctoral researcher in the molecular neurobiology lab of Nicola Allen at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA. She studies astrocytes, a special cell type in the brain, and their role in the maturation of neuronal connections. Follow her in Twitter (@westboundsigned) and Instagram (@neurocosas) for science outreach, and her science blogging at NeuWrite – San Diego and Medium.