Friday, August 26, 2011

On Choosing a Lab

Yesterday the lovely Ragamuffin shared some of her concerns about choosing lab rotations in this candid post. After composing an epic comment on the subject, I decided that maybe I should turn it into a post over here. The new neuroscience PhD students hit Emory this week (after a highly successful retreat last weekend -- we formed a five level human pyramid, if that gives any indication of how awesome it was) and are starting to think about their rotations, too, so this seems like a good time to write about it.

So, for all the science n00bs out there, I present: Laura's Helpful Hints for Choosing a PhD Lab. As a fourth year student (yiiikes), I've had some time to think about what works for me and what does not. But, I should mention that everyone has different preferences, and that the culture at your institution may make it more or less difficult to find co-mentors, collaborators, etc., so this advice might not fit your individual situation. Also, as I'm sure the more advanced scientists in our midst will mention, I'm not much more than a n00b myself, and may lack the perspective that a more experienced researcher can give you. So don't take my word for it; get lots of feedback.

Helpful Hint #1: Think Outside the Box. A lot of people come into graduate school with several years of experience as an undergraduate researcher or a research technician. They have honed their skills in a few techniques and feel comfortable within their subfield. Knowing this, they are forced to decide whether to stick with the same thing in grad school, or try something new. I would strongly encourage all new grad students to try new things, especially since most PhD programs in the life sciences require several lab rotations. Even if you're 99% sure that you want to study the same thing you've been doing since your undergrad days, it can't hurt to get exposed to new ideas in a rotation. You may find that you love animal behavior studies after doing all your training in cell culture, or that you find electrophysiology really satisfying after years spent on fMRI, or... whatever. You're in graduate school to learn, so it would be a shame to spend your PhD years doing more of the same.

Helpful Hint #2: The Science Almost Doesn't Matter. This is a weird piece of advice, especially in combination with Hint #1, but hear me out. I've encouraged you to try something new, even if it's outside your comfort zone. But what if you try it, and do your PhD in it, and realize that you want to spend your scientific career doing something else? OMG, the pressure!!! Well... chill out, because you don't have to decide right now. In fact, if you want a career in academic research, you're going to need to do postdoctoral research after you get that PhD. Choosing your postdoc lab will be a major decision, because most PIs base their independent research on the training they received as postdocs. But it is generally expected that scientists will switch gears between PhD and postdoctoral research -- you shouldn't do a postdoc focused on the exact same thing as your dissertation. Again, these training experiences are meant to teach you new things, so you're going to need to keep expanding your scientific horizons. Thus, if your PhD lab works on something that you don't really want to study forever... that's okay! You're going to do something else as a postdoc, and that's going to be way more important in shaping your future as an independent investigator. Obviously it's helpful if some of the techniques or concepts can carry over between PhD and postdoc, but you have a lot of freedom to change course. That said: this Hint is called "The Science Almost Doesn't Matter." It matters in that you have to find it interesting. If you're not genuinely curious about the answer to your research questions, it will be tough to keep working on them for the next 5+ years.

Helpful Hint #3: The Training Environment Really, REALLY Matters. The first two Hints were all about how you're here to be trained, damn it, so you should come prepared to learn a bunch of new stuff and not worry too much about the specifics. This Hint is about the "training environment," which is a catchall for your mentor's training style and the overall lab dynamics. As you consider a potential lab, you need to determine whether you're going to be able to effectively learn a bunch of new stuff in this environment. Things to consider: Is the PI a jerk? Are your labmates jerks? Does it bother you to work with jerks, or can you handle it as long as the group keeps churning out awesome data? Obviously, each person has their own definition of "jerk," but for me, it boils down to: if I have really, really screwed something up, can I handle the thought of walking into my PI's office/labmate's cube to come clean about it? Because... you are gonna screw up, eventually, and you need to be able to recover from it without being completely crushed. Other things to consider: Are you being handed a project to complete, or do you have some leeway to develop your own ideas? Do you want to learn more than bench techniques (teaching, grant writing, service, etc.)? Is the PI cool with you spending some of your time on that? Different faculty have different opinions about how much freedom to give their trainees. And, finally, you should consider the really tricky stuff, like how much funding the lab has, whether you'll be expected/required to secure your own funding, and even whether an assistant prof is going to get tenure (and what the plan is if they don't), or whether a more established prof would move the lab elsewhere if they got a job offer. Talking about those last few things can get uncomfortable, but for me, if I don't feel comfortable asking someone about hard topics, I don't really want to work for them. (Although, I did not actually ask my adviser all of these things before I started working for her. I didn't think to ask!) If you don't want to go there with the PI, you can ask other lab members about this stuff (and I recommend doing so anyway, to test the waters and see if everyone's on the same page!).

Helpful Hint #4: Don't Playa Hate; Collaborate. (Runner-up title for this Hint: "Stop, Collaborate and Listen.") Although The Training Environment Really, REALLY Matters, your mentor's lab does not have to be the end-all, be-all of your PhD experience. Maybe you've considered Hints #1-3, and your lab of interest measures up pretty well, but is lacking in a few areas. Maybe the research is interesting, but everything they do is in vitro, and you want training in animal models, too. Maybe the PI is an awesome new assistant professor, and you want to do some experiments that require the resources of a well-funded, well-established lab. If there's another lab at your institution (or a nearby institution) that has what you're looking for, collaboration could be the answer. This is something that I think can vary a lot between universities, but thankfully, I've found Emory to be extremely conducive to collaborations. I know several grad students here with two co-advisers (and one with three!), which can be tricky to navigate but also incredibly helpful for certain projects. While I have only one formal adviser, I have gotten a lot of help from the faculty on my dissertation committee and from other labs in our department. This includes access to equipment and reagents, training in new techniques, and an open door policy for times when I want to bounce ideas off an expert in a topic outside of my adviser's expertise. Your university is full of brilliant, successful scientists, and you should develop relationships with as many of them as you can. This is especially important if you're applying for fellowships and need multiple letters of recommendation -- yes, your DGS can write one for you, but I think a letter makes much more impact when it comes from someone who has really seen you in action as a scientist, whether that's collecting awesome data in their lab or designing clever experiments in their office.

Helpful Hint #5: Communicate. This Hint should be applied in combination with Hints #1-4. You should be very forthcoming about what you're hoping to get out of your PhD experience, what you need from your adviser, what your questions/concerns are, and what you're currently unsure about but hoping to figure out as you go along. Hopefully, your potential adviser will be equally forthcoming about his/her expectations, mentoring style, and resources. Ask about previous grad students, how their projects were chosen and developed over time, and what they're up to now. Assess whether the PI has rules that everyone is expected for follow, or whether they are more flexible about adjusting their training style to the individual. Discuss their philosophy on how your progress will be measured as you work toward your degree, the way work is divided among lab members, the number/type of publications you're expected to write, conferences that you'll attend, classes that you'll take, and anything else that you think might be relevant to your training experience. Ultimately, you're not going to figure everything out during a few early conversations, but you'll get a sense of whether you think the PI is being reasonable or not. Frequent, effective communication is critical in a mentor/trainee relationship: know what is expected of you, do your best to achieve it, and figure out how you'll address the problem if an expectation can't be met.

I think I've spouted off enough for one day. New grad students, I hope you find at least some of this to be helpful. As a neurotic over-thinker, I spent a lot of time agonizing about which grad school to attend, which rotations to do, and which lab to join, and I think it worked out well in the end. But I also think that if I'd made different decisions, I would still have been okay. So, I guess the last Hint is: Just Roll With It. Whatever lab you join, you're going to experience some success and some discouragement and some mind-boggling confusion and some cringe-inducing failure. Welcome to grad school! We'll get through this.


  1. thanks for this, Laura! awesome post.

  2. This advice actually really helps, esp since i'm planning on doing electrophys in my rotations and i'm coming in from a neuro background! So you are right on point. Thanks!

    p.s. i'm glad to find that there is a whole world of neurobloggers out here.