How to: choose a lab
Welcome to graduate school. You were chosen because of your high likelihood to succeed in the world of science. Now what? 1. Find a lab. 2. Get your Ph.D. 3. Become famous. First, let start with point number one. Several universities have a formal rotation process (others are less formal, but are highly encouraged), where students will "rotate" through three different labs, each for 8-12 weeks. Then, through a stroke-of-genius and profound insight, students will choose the lab they would like to join for their Ph.D. career and then become famous (points number two and three). However, to get to two-and-three, point number one is critically important. And often overlooked. Let's consider a few important points with choosing a lab.
Your job of choosing a lab begins even before you start your first rotation. Do your homework and find labs you're interested in. What do you like about science? Is there a certain area you're especially excited about? Make a short list of faculty you'd like to meet with. Email each person to see if she/he is accepting rotation students, and when. Next, meet with each of them. Sounds simple enough, except this is your [only] chance to interview the faculty member, and see if he/she would be a good fit for you. Graduate students often don't realize that the tables have now turned, and it's the faculty who should be selling themselves and their science. What types of projects do they have going-on in the lab? In addition to learning about the science, ask about mentoring, their mentoring style, how often they like to meet with students? Do they prefer to have formal meetings set-up, or prefer an open-door policy? Finding an advisor/mentor who has exciting science, as well as a compatible style to yours, will make for a successful Ph.D. After going through this process with the first name on your short list, repeat.
2. You've chosen a lab to rotate with.
You're undoubtedly filled with hopes and dreams of Eureka! moments, and Nature papers. Before getting there, let's first consider what you hope to get out of your time in the lab. Usually, you'll have 8-12 weeks there. Discussing your expectations with your new advisor is important. Does she/he hope to get something out of you? Do you hope to get something out of your time in the lab? Hopefully, these two are in line with each other. Most good advisors don't expect to get much "work" out of a student rotating through the lab. While the work you accomplish might be useful for a given project, more experienced graduate students and post-docs would probably be able to finish your rotation project in a week, while it'll take you 8-12 weeks. This is OK. Why? Because the point of the rotation is not to generate an impressive volume of data, but instead to:
- understand how the lab works; after all, you're considering spending the next 4, 5, 6+ years there. You'd better choose wisely.
- learn a little science; getting exposure to different types of science, different types of models, different areas of your own interest, will all help you determine which lab you want to join and which area of science you want to pursue.
- learn a new technique; this is the best use [IMHO] of a rotation, where you can shadow another scientist and learn a technique that might serve you well later in your Ph.D. career
- start to practice reading; a rotation through a lab is a great way to begin reading papers. Ask the PI or the other students in the lab for good reviews, seminal papers, etc., which will help you become acquainted with this new field.
Unless you're not paying attention, you won't see generate data, clone plasmid, make buffers, or any other science ranging from super-important to meaningless grunt work. Again, without the proper focus, you won't be able to make an informed decision.
3. Welcome to your rotation.
So you've got your project lined up (it's a reasonable project within the scope of the timeframe of your rotation, right?), your expectations made clear, and now it's happy days in the lab! Make a list of what you'd like to accomplish and what your next steps are; having a clear scientific path during your rotation will become quite helpful as your project progresses. One of the first things a student should do in the lab is a miniature literature review surrounding the topic of the rotation, and prepare them into slides. This will accomplish three things: a.) orient yourself to the topic of your rotation; b.) give you plenty of material to present in your final lab meeting presentation; c.) show the PI that you can think deeply about the project.
Also, at the beginning of the rotation, be sure to introduce yourself to everyone, and learn a little about their projects. Attending lab meetings is important, and will give you another chance to learn about the science, but will also let you see how the lab interacts with each other, and how the PI interacts with the students. Try to schedule a short meeting with each lab member individually to talk science, but also to ask them what the lab is really like, and how they find working for the PI. The current lab members will be your best gauge of the lab, the environment, and the boss. Also, try to meet with the PI on a regular or semi-regular basis. Learn about the lab's over-arching science, direction, and how your project fits into that vision. Ask a lot of questions. Do even more reading.
4. Your rotation is already over!?!?
Your rotation is wrapping up, now what? Well, that was fast! Some universities have a formal process for finishing up a rotation in a lab. Others have a less formal, or absent, process. I encourage students to present their project at lab meeting before the rotation ends (you've got all those slides from your literature review, right?). Take this talk seriously; give a great talk. Doing this is important for you, as it will help you synthesize what you've accomplished and what you've learned. It is also important for your lab, as they'll have a chance to see how you present, and how you think on your feet. Graduate school is ultimately about learning, and you have a great opportunity to learn with this presentation. Finally, have an "exit interview" with your PI. Discuss with him/her your project and your experience in the lab. Reflect on your time there: what did you learn; what did you enjoy?
And again; rinse; repeat.
After your lab rotation process is over, how do you chose which lab to join in the end?
The take-home message: Three important aspects of the lab should be considered.
First: the mentor. Will he/she take the time to teach you, mentor you, and ensure your success through graduate school?
Second: the lab environment. Will you have the physical and intellectual resources at your disposal to be successful? Will the lab members eagerly teach you what you need to know to succeed? Is the lab well-funded and have the requisite infrastructure and equipment to carry-out your project?
Third: the project. Is the scientific direction of the lab interesting to you? Will you be excited to read papers about the topic? (in your third, fourth, fifth years?).
Which is the most important? Consider which is the most dispensable. Would you rather have a great PI, great environment, and terrible project? Great PI, terrible environment, great project? Or, terrible PI, great environment, great project? Choose one. Have you done this? Put your pencils down.
The correct answer is A: great PI, great environment, terrible project. Choosing a good mentor and a good environment, is much more important than choosing a good project. Why is this the case? Primarily, because the whole point of graduate school is to learn how to be a scientist, both the technical skills (a lot of pipetting!) as well as the "soft" skillz of communicating your science (both written and oral) as well as critical thinking, being analytical, rational, etc. You'll learn the former from the environment, and the latter from the PI. Thus without these components, you'll likely miss the most important part of graduate school.
Also, in graduate school, projects come and go -- fail and succeed. Knowing where an exciting project will take you is impossible to know at the beginning. And if your project fails, because it was a bad idea, or was overly ambitious, or…etc., you'll still learn the skills of being a scientist. And you'll still go on to do a post-doc.
So choose a good environment, with a mentor who fits your style and who can fulfill your needs. Hopefully the lab you want to join is obvious, and is willing to take you. However I suspect you chose your university based on not just one PI, but rather a rigorous academic environment and culture of learning and teaching. And with a good lab, a great mentor, and a little luck, you might just have that stroke-of-genius and profound insight, and go on to obtain your Ph.D. and become famous (introduction points number two and three).
This is a post in a "How to:" series specifically aimed at scientists-in-training, including undergraduates, graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows. I'd like to acknowledge both members and rotation students in the Hirschey Lab for contributing ideas and Frederic Terral of RightBrainTerrain for designing the blog entry artwork and creating awesome art in the public domain.