Factors to Consider when Choosing a Research Laboratory

Choosing a laboratory can seem overwhelming when pursuing a graduate degree in the sciences. While some of these factors may be difficult just by talking to your prospective PI via email, zoom, or during the interview, you can always contact others in the department or current/former students in order to help you make your final decision. Here are some factors to help you whittle down your choices.

Principal Investigator (PI) Mentorship

Take the time to think about what sort of mentorship style suits you best. For example, are you the type that wants a PI who is very hands-on or a PI who is more hands-off? It is not uncommon for students to have mentors whose mentorship style do not completely fit their learning style. There is no perfect lab and no perfect PI. If you discover your PI doesn’t give you the mentorship you need, but you like the lab environment, consider finding another professor or even other senior graduate students who can serve as a graduate school guide.

PI Workload

Graduate school is undoubtedly difficult. If you have already had a great deal of experience in the lab, perhaps you don’t need a PI who is very hands-on. But if you’re less experienced, perhaps you’d like to find a PI who dedicates plenty of time to their students. Some PIs are extremely busy traveling, serving on panels and committees, or teaching. Consequently, they might not schedule regular meetings with you, and they might even put off doing things important to you (such as reading your thesis). Carefully evaluate your needs and decide what sort of PI would suit you best as well as what the members of the lab can offer. If the PI doesn’t have much time to mentor you, are there other graduate students/post-docs/scientists who would be willing to take you under their wing? If so, a busy PI might not be as big of a factor in your decision.

Lab Culture

Different people will thrive in different lab environments. While some labs are laid back and casual, other PIs prefer to run a tight ship. Additionally, some PIs have their graduate students take a teamwork approach while others have their students function entirely independent from one another. Take a mental note of what works for you and what doesn’t and discard the notion of the perfect work environment. Carefully weigh out the pros and cons of different types of labs and decide which one will work the best for both your personal and career growth.

Career Support

Only about 3% of people with their PhDs will eventually become professors, meaning that the probability you will have to pursue a non-academic avenue is fairly high. While choosing your PI, carefully evaluate what sort of career you’d like to pursue after your graduate degree. There is a myriad of other non-academic career options, including industry, business, or government and it never hurts to find a PI who will support your ultimate career goal. If you can find a PI with connections to the career you’re interested in pursuing, that’s an additional plus!

Publication Record

Before choosing a lab, you should take a look at your prospective PI’s publication record. Although it may not be as important to have publications on your resume if you apply to jobs in industry or government, it doesn’t hurt to have a publication record in case you decide to return to academia in the future.

Time to Graduation

Only a select few people are willing to spend an eternity in graduate school. Does your prospective PI tend to graduate people in a standard 4-6-year range? Or do they drag it on to 8-10? Make sure you know this before you take the plunge. Ask around the department or even the PI’s former students to get their perspective.

Funding

Let’s face it, research is hard to do without research funding. Some mentors have less funding than others. Before joining a lab, ask your prospective PI what their funding situation is like and whether you’ll have to fund your own way through graduate school either by 1) paying your way or 2) doing a teaching assistantship the entire time. If your PI isn’t able to pay for your tuition/stipend, graduate school can get very expensive and teaching the entire time can become cumbersome (but not undoable!).

Keep in mind that each of these factors on their own is not a be all end all. No lab environment or PI is perfect. It’s all about weighing your options and deciding which lab is right for you. Good luck!

Adrienne has her PhD in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Wisconsin and her MPH in Toxicology from the University of Michigan. In her spare time, she enjoys playing cello, reading, attempting photography, and volunteering at the humane society.

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