So you've decided you want to go to graduate school, you've picked which university is right for you, and you've even started your lab rotations. Now how do you decide which lab is right for you? Picking the lab where you’ll spend the next 4-7 years learning, experimenting, banging your head against the wall, and playing poker with pipette tips while you wait for your next experimental time point can be as big of a decision as where you go to graduate school. There are so many factors that go into the decision of which lab to join, and it can be really challenging to decide which facets of the whole package of the lab are most important to you.
I came to graduate school fairly certain that I wanted to design proteins as molecular imaging agents for cancer, with the goal of using molecular imaging as a tool for improved drug discovery and evaluation. I had done similar work in my undergraduate experience and loved it. I found a professor I was interested in working with who was both an expert in imaging as well as protein design. He was also great at nanoparticle synthesis and was developing cutting-edge techniques to conjugate proteins to nanoparticles as imaging tools. I was accepted to a training program in medical imaging (link to article), so I got to learn all about MRI, CT, PET, and all kinds of other cool imaging modalities in addition to taking medical school courses. After a year of coursework, I did a summer lab rotation with the cool imaging professor. I had an awesome senior graduate student for a mentor and was working on a project to apply new chemistry techniques the lab had created to make some really cool proteins in a much easier way. The professor was very supportive and accessible and the other grad students and post-docs in lab were great. At the end of my seven-week rotation, I felt great about the lab and knew I would be happy there. I still had to do one more lab rotation, though, so I decided to try something totally outside my comfort zone. I had heard a new professor give a talk about her research on the role of 3D epigenomes in the developing brain. To me, the technology she employed (chromosome conformation capture carbon copy, or 5C) was essentially using next generation sequencing to image the genome at high resolution. I got really excited about using 5C to study childhood brain cancer, so I set up a meeting with her to discuss the possibility of doing a rotation in her lab.
There was a pretty steep learning curve for me when I started my rotation. I was working with a totally different type of cell (it turns out neural stem cells are way needier than cancer cells!), immersing myself in a totally new field (epigenetics), and trying to get used to looking at huge data sets. The lab was pretty new, so there weren’t senior grad students or post-docs, or very many established protocols. Even with all of the challenges, I knew after only a few weeks that I would join the lab. The science was SO COOL that I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So I ended up joining a lab doing a type of research that I didn’t even know existed before I started my PhD.
Although everyone's experience picking a lab for grad school is different, here are some things that might be helpful (or totally obvious!) to consider:
The professor: The personality and work style of the professor leading a lab can have a big impact on the lives of the graduate students in the lab. Does the professor have tenure? If so, he/she might be a be a bit more relaxed, leading to a more relaxed work environment. Also, if the lab has been around awhile, you can see what the professor’s track record is with his/her former grad students – what’s the average graduation time? How many papers do grad students publish on average? Do the former graduate students still like the professor?
If your prof doesn’t have tenure, you’re in for a ride! Junior professors are under a lot of pressure to publish quickly, which can be both positive and negative for graduate students. The negative side is that the pressure can easily make its way down to the graduate students and the work environment might be a bit more intense. However, because junior professors have such pressure to publish, they will be extremely motivated to help you publish your papers quickly.
It also might be worthwhile to consider whether the professor is hands-on or hands-off, and which you would prefer. It’s also good to find out how flexible the professor is in structuring your professional relationship so that it works best for you. For example, if your professor seems super hands-on but you really feel like you would be more successful if given a bit more space, is he/she open to restructuring your professional relationship?
The culture: While the culture is largely defined by the professor, other lab members have a big impact on this as well. Do most of the lab members work weekends and you really don’t want to work weekends? Or vice-versa: would you be super lonely in your late night lab sessions without lab-mates who are also working similar hours to you? Do grad students help each other out on their projects or are they competitive with each other? Are there post-docs who can help mentor you? Is it a fun environment in the lab? If mentoring younger students is important to you, is your prof willing to help support you in taking time to mentor undergrads and learn how to become a better mentor?
The science: I’ve gotten the advice from older graduate students that the professor you work with and the culture of the lab are more important than how cool the science is; at some point, you will be incredibly frustrated with your project regardless of how cool the science is. Being in supportive environment can be more important than awesome science. However, being passionate about your project will make those difficult days easier to face. Hopefully you’ll find a lab where you love the science and the people.
Room for growth: One thing to consider is how much room for growth there is in the lab. Will you be learning a lot of new things that you’re interested in? Is the professor supportive of your long-term professional development?
In the end, there are probably a lot of labs that would be a great fit for you. It’s also unlikely that you’ll find all of the things you’re looking for in one lab, which is ok! That’s why it’s important to have mentors outside your advisor and friends outside of your lab.