Alex Hodgson
October 11, 2013 --

Grad School Tips: Choosing Your Lab

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Once you’ve narrowed down your choice to a few labs based on your research interests as well as any geographic or lifestyle preferences that may come into play, and you’ve established a general understanding as to what PI and the lab itself may have to offer, it’s time to arrange a visit and have a face-to-face meeting with the PI (if you haven’t already worked there for some time prior). It goes without saying that getting a feel for the place in which you will likely spend much of your life over the next few years is in your best interests. This is important for at least 3 reasons:

  • First, you can check out whether the lab is a place you would like to work. For example, is the lab well maintained by a lab manager or technician? (e.g. Is the lab clean and tidy, or is it messy, unpleasant, and unsafe? Are reagents nicely organized and are all the equipments well kept and cared for? Remember, no matter what a great thinker you or your PI are, you can’t work efficiently or do good science in a place where equipment is half broken and reagents are all over the place.) Is the lab a friendly, and relaxed environment or does everyone seem tense? Could you see yourself getting along well with the rest of the group?
  • Second, a face-to-face meeting allows you to get a better idea of whether you and the PI could work well together. Come prepared with questions. This is the time for you to find out more about projects and anything else you want to know about working in his/her lab. Don’t be surprised if the current projects are not the ones described on the lab’s website as they are often not regularly updated. If the lab is outside of your current city or country of residence, it might be difficult for you to arrange a visit, but you should really make the effort to do this in order to avoid unpleasant surprises in the future. After all, you will be working there for the next 5+ years.
  • Third, in addition to talking to the PI, you MUST talk to other members in the lab. Use this opportunity to ask about the PI’s communication, and mentoring styles (traits mentioned in the previous blog), his publication philosophy, and other issues you consider to be important to look for in a PI. Listen carefully to what they have to say about the lab and the PI regardless of what impression the PI had on you. They’ve been with the PI during the good times and the bad times and have had more time to get to know him. Most people are willing to help a potential new student but make sure to ask specific questions in order to get clear answers.

This is your life we’re talking about here, a little due diligence certainly can’t hurt when it comes to establishing your scientific and career based future. Take a little time and care before you make the big leap, it will all pay off in the end.