Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why choose a lab?

As this semester rages on, we are drawing steadily closer to the time when grad school applications are due. Like many, I am trying to recruit students for next September and I started thinking about what makes a lab attractive to new students - in my case specifically, what makes a new lab attractive to students?

My experience was probably unusual and may not provide the best example. I was involved in research as an undergrad for a couple of years and realized that I wanted to go on and get a PhD. I asked my undergrad supervisor who he would recommend based on what he knew of the field and he gave me a list of names. I started there, made some contacts and arranged to speak to each one in person (which included some interesting road trips). I hit it off with one and the person had space in the lab and that was that.

For me, the strongest factor in my decision was the recommendation of my advisor. My personal interaction with potential grad mentors meant a lot, but the initial recommendation was really key to getting me started since the field I was joining is manageably small . I imagine, however, that most people don't go about choosing a lab in that way for a number of reasons, but how many students in their senior year know exactly what they want to go do and have the guidance to get there? If, for instance, a students likes biochemistry are they just applying to the top biochem programs that includes PIs in a field they think they want to pursue?

So, I would like to find out from you why you chose the lab you are in or got your degree from? Was it a good choice and would you do it differently now? Was it the subject or PI that got you interested? How much did suggestions from others influence you?


  1. When we moved to the East coast, I had an interview for a tech job in two different labs. Both PIs were relatively new, having had their labs for about three years. Both worked in cancer biology (more or less) in a mouse model system. In one lab, the people I met with all seemed like war survivors - thousand yard stares, dark bags under their eyes, unable to convince me (or fake me out) about why their research was interesting, etc. The other lab's grad students & postdocs were friendly, engaged in what they were working on, and (seemed) interested in having me come to their lab.

    I chose the latter. (I find out later that everyone in the lab is batshit insane, but at least it was that fun kind of insane rather than murderous insane.)

  2. My choice of PhD lab was quite random. I was applying to another country, to a specific university, where they had (what I though was) a compelling scholarship program. I was going from a second-world country (now lower-grade-first) to a first-world country.

    I looked up labs that had research programs of interest and I emailed 7 professors, if they are interested to host me. 2 of them replied. The third one wrote back two days before the deadline, when it was too late to induce his lab into my consideration. I guess the other ones were not interested in some random application from a second world country?

    One prof. replied in a sane way, the other said "Put in the application to the office and we will take it from there." (I still remember it and do not know what he meant by that, but it did not seem friendly or interested, so I choose the other guy).

    The professor I chose replied to my email in a sane way (full sentences) and entered into dialogue with me about the choice of topics for future work, and helped me with my questions about the application.

    And what is the most important he had his picture on his lab pages, in which he smiled, and in the background there were some hills. Since I loved hill-walking it seemed a perfect place to apply. And it meant he had a life outside the lab.

    Yeah, the picture was the most important one, I did not even write to guys who looked mean or nasty in the pics on their lab webpages.

    I know it sounds like a totally lame way to make decisions (for a 24-y.o.!), but it worked out fine. My supervisor was a great guy and we did have two or three hill-walking lab outings during my time there :-)

  3. Hmmm, maybe it's time to take the picture of me flogging my students off the lab webpage.

  4. For me, begining my PhD, I moved to quite a different field than my undergrad had been in and so the choice was primarily based on a combo of the PI's attitude and reputation and the perceived atmosphere in the lab, and less of the specific research. I think a good up to date website makes a difference.

    In terms of influence, I would be more persuaded by positive comments from current of past students of the lab than from other PIs (who likely haven't expereinced the PI in question in a supervisory role).

    With regards to newer labs/PIs, the biggest deterent for me was lack of funding. I had seen friends struggle to carry out critical experiments in new labs due to lack of money/equipment and so that was a big concern that influenced my decision

  5. I applied to a two graduate schools last year, both young and untenured PIs. They both had recently published papers that I thought were cool and on-point with my interests. I found their lab websites, both had pictures of students and the lab, and had a little informal bio of their background, all that stuff helped get me excited about possibly working with them. What really set them apart was the different experiences visiting their labs.
    One guy had one graduate student and two postdocs. Everyone in his lab seemed happy, other graduate students in the department thought he was great, and everything was just peachy. He had pictures of his wife and kids all over his office and talked about hobbies outside of lab, stressed that it was important for graduate students to come up with their own ideas, etc. One of his postdocs was very pregnant and nobody seemed all that worried about it. Awesome. I would have loved to have gone there, but alas I didn't get in to that program.
    The other visit was a little different from the get-go because it was organized by the department as opposed to just the PI and was several days instead of just one. I use the word "organized" loosely, because it was total chaos. E-mails said that they would arrange accomodations for us (they didn't, I had to get a hotel at the last minute), everything started late (not 20 minutes late, like 90 minutes late). There was one graduate student, 4 post-docs and 2 techs (if memory serves). After a few drinks at a party later that night, I got this PI's graduate student/postdocs to admit they are less than thrilled at how "involved" this dude is (read:micromanaging dickwad). This PI was also shit-talking other research institutions which rubbed me the wrong way. Oh, he also made fun of one of my letters of rec. That was lovely. I could go on and on, dude was nuts.
    I was accepted to that one, obviously I declined.
    I'll be reapplying to a few other places this year. I guess the take home message is don't be an overbearing jerk to the people in your lab and try to pull a fast one on potential students. It's pretty obvious to anyone who actually pays attention.
    TLDR: website with pictures, organized and not too rushed visit, introduce to current or former students, don't shit talk other labs/people, show you are a real person with a life outside of lab and willing to let students have -- at the very least! -- some autonomy.

  6. I did a paid summer internship the summer before my senior year in college to "test out" my Ph.D. adviser. He obviously didn't know this. I wanted to see if I got along with the people in the lab, his mentoring style and the general vibe of the University. I loved the experience, subsequently got my Ph.D., and am happy to say have a life-long colleague/friend in my Ph.D. advisor. I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

    Also, a kick-ass lab website also helps now that most students are so web-savy

  7. Ok! So I'm in my senior year of undergrad and I'm currently navigating this whole application process. I've got fairly extensive research background (including a publication).

    So far, I've been mostly bumbling around the intertubes finding faculty. The area I want to get into is fairly specific and not exceptionally popular (yet). I've meet (or will have met) most of the faculty that I plan on applying to work for (I had my shit semi-together for a HUGE confrence this summer, and networked like a maniac). I'm actually leaving for a confrence soon, and will be meeting up with yet another potential advisor...

    In a nutshell, I'm going to base my applications on my interactions with the PIs as well as the degree program (Some universities have degree programs in Subfield, others just have the HugeField degree). I also will pay close attention to current graduate student atitudes (one PI had a hard-core a bad way.. that I didn't mesh them with well....)

    Another thing- WEBSITES! You have no idea (or maybe you do...) how annoying it is to search for a faculty and come across someone you're interested in and they either 1-don't have a research/lab page 2- have a poorly designed and uninformative page or 3 grossly outdated. I want to see if the PI has grad students, how many, and what their projects are.

    A major deterrent for me is funding. One person I emailed replied with a long rant about funding (suggesting fellowships to apply to and retake the GRE...among other things). I got no response to my questions in my email which was frustrating (I never asked about the funding situation). If you don't have funding for a student, then simply say you're not taking new students!

    I've got loads more... I might just do write a response post... when I get some free time...

  8. I sent an email to Awesome Prof X at Megauniversity saying I appreciated the new perspective that his work had forced me to view my current research in. I also asked if he was the only one researching in his subfield, which I am very interested in, at Megauniversity. He replied simply thank you and that he was the only one. Can I ask him whether or not he is taking on students for next fall?

    The etiquette here is ill-definied.

  9. Toaster, You can certainly ask if he is taking on students and whether he would like to see your CV (I wouldn't attach it at first). I think starting a dialog like that is the best way to see if the person might be a potential supervisor.

  10. I interviewed at a large research institute that I knew was well funded and had multiple PIs working in fields of interest to me. I had to pick three PIs, and I met with all of them on the same day. Then I met with a current student from a different lab (we had a blast, and ended up being good friends when I moved there the following year). She asked me who I'd interviewed with, and I told her the three names, saying that Dr X was a definite no, but I was torn between Dr Y and Dr Z. She said "pick Dr. Z". I asked why, and she said "well, every time any student gives a talk, he'll sit there quietly while the idiotic questions fly at the end, then he'll put his hand up and ask just one incredibly insightful question that reveals the hidden flaws in the student's project. The student's face will fall as the whole thing crashes around their ears. But then Dr Z gives some suggestions on how to fix it that usually end up working. But if he's your supervisor, you'll go through the whole thing in private, before you get in front of an audience".

    That was when I knew who my supervisor was going to be! He treated me to one of the promised "the hidden flaws in your idea are A, B, and C" moments almost once a week for my first year, but it was incredibly good for me and I've never once regretted choosing that lab.

  11. I'm in the physical sciences, so I don't know how applicable my experience is, but it sounds like I chose my lab pretty much the same way you did.

    I wanted to work in the particular subfield I'd studied as an undergrad, and I applied to every school that had at least three groups I thought I'd be interested in joining. (It's a fairly small field; there were 7 of these.) That list came partly from my undergrad adviser's recommendations, partly from scanning the proceedings of the major conference in our subfield to figure out where the interesting people were.

    I picked my lab partly because my adviser's research seemed to match my interests extremely well, partly because my undergrad professors had told me he'd be a good person to work with. I've only been here for a couple of months, so it's a bit early to say whether I've made the right choice, but I'm very pleased with my decision so far. (Several older members of the group, at different times, spontaneously told me that I chose well and that this is a terrific group to work with, so I'm optimistic about the future too!)

  12. Toaster: He already opened up the conversation, why not follow-up with a CV and a question if he would encourage you to apply to his lab for a PhD?

    I would not ask if he wants to see your CV and wait for his reply.
    A. Why "waste" his encouragement on this if instead he could already encourage you to apply in the next step?
    B. You already made a bold move and introduced yourself to him (and he probably googled you and checked your online presence, the new blog, twitter, the old blog, and he knows who you are). Maybe that's why he replied and opened up the conversation for you to make a next move.

    Do ask him if he is taking students and attach a CV. If he is not taking students, he will remember you and maybe you will be able to collaborate with him wherever you go next in the future?

    Prof-like substance: sorry for hijacking your post to write to Toaster, I hope you do not mind.

  13. I pretty much followed the same strategy you did. I knew what field I wanted to work in and asked my undergrad supervisor who would be a good fit. She gave me some names and I applied to some seven places.

    Final decision was based on lab visits, these research focus, and funding. One adviser was out because I would only be garantueed 2 years of funding. One place I interviewed seemed really nice, the prof seemed amazing in her emails, but when I talked to her students, they mentioned how they had biweekly 20-minute meetings with her (and that's all the supervision they got). I'm sure I could have learned a lot from other people in the lab (and I'm sure it works for some people), but it just wasn't what I was looking for. Plus, her research was interesting, but not directly what I saw myself doing for the rest of my life. The decision was difficult nonetheless (she's one of the most established researchers in the field), but I ended up choosing for a young professor instead. I think I chose right.

  14. I chose a post doc place by choosing between the projects and which PI I felt I trusted/was an interested mentor. The project was the most important for me (at the time, now I am not so sure I would've chosen that) and interesting one and the PI seemed very nice and understanding about not being working all the time but having a sort of ratio work and play. I had a good time in the lab, overall in the end anyway :)

    THat said, if the project was boring/not my interest I wouldn't like working in a place if the PI turned out to be non meshing with me (after all, how well can you really get to know someone in an interview place?) but if the project is lovely and interesting I would last a bit longer even if the PI turned out to be "non fitted".

  15. Great question!

    Rather than writing a long reply here, I put it on my blog

  16. I went to undergrad at the same university where I did my PhD, so I knew my PI and had worked with him during my undergrad. I had wanted to move away to try something new, but ended up not being able to, for personal reasons. So, I felt that if I was staying in the same city he was most certainly the best person to learn from in my field of interest. It worked out wonderfully, and I still think he is one of the best scientists I know, balancing each part of life but still being a really fabulous biologist. For my first postdoc I chose someone who I had met at an international meeting. He was kind and very well respected in the field. It turned out that the reality of working in his lab was very different to what I had expected based on the brief meeting overseas, but in the end it was a great experience. For my current postdoc I chose someone in a pretty different field, who was a friend of a friend, and who offered to pay me quite a bit more than I was paid for my first postdoc! And I'm really enjoying it - the experience of doing something totally new, and the money doesn't hurt either.

    So, I guess I have chosen people who I know personally, and whose work I know and respect, and also I think it's good to go into a lab that has some cash, for various reasons other than just personal gain... and so far so good!