A PhD's Critical First Step: Choosing A PI

Academic Mentorship

The path to a successful PhD experience begins with choosing the right mentor. And by "mentor"  I am really talking about "PI". Many students miss this important point – your PI should be your mentor, and only afterwards your boss. Why is that so important?

Mentor vs. Boss

There is a major abyss between the two:

  • Aim – The aim of a mentor is to guide and chaperone his student toward learning goal. The aim of a boss is to achieve a certain goal which he/she has an interest with.
  • Authority – A mentor suggests, a boss orders.

When starting your graduate studies, you're actually starting to learn and to acquire scientific research thinking and techniques. While many students look for the holy grail of science success measure ("#papers/Impact factor"), I argue that a truly successful graduate student is one that completes his studies with a thesis which can be defended AND that the student acquired autonomous scientific research capabilities, at the level of thinking and practice. In most cases, the ability to perform science independently (the latter) will lead eventually to at least one publication (the former). An ambitious PI will push you to work hard, directing and telling you which experiment should be performed with little thinking on your part. On the other hand, a different PI will mentor you on approaching a subject, setting your goals, planning ahead, setting the right controls and help you when eventually you have to decide on a certain path to pursue further.

Interview Your Prospective PI

At the end of the day, each graduate student has his/her own goals and ambitions (whether admitted or not) according to which each should choose a prospective PI. Don't forget that the lab and your PI will be your life for the next 4-6 years so choose wisely! You should come to the interview with the PI armed with questions prepared for him and also for his lab members. Don't be afraid to interview your PI, s/he is not your boss YET! Also, make sure you talk to every lab member you can find. Go to neighboring labs and start sniffing there, too. The lab mates on the same floor might shed more light on the atmosphere in the lab than the inhabitants themselves. Some of the things you should evaluate are:

  • Management style – At the two ends of the scale, a PI can be imperious, ruling over every aspect of your PhD or s/he can be remotely connected with your thesis, giving you 100% freedom in your studies and in extreme cases show certain indifference to your research. There is lots of grey in between and you should clarify for yourself what management type will be the best fit for your working style. Remember, most people aren't suited for either to much freedom or to much domination.
  • Lab and Labmates – Even though not directly connected to your PI's personality, the people and the place will dominate your PhD as they are part of your PI's package so you should take them also into consideration. Moreover, most of the people in the lab are there due to the selection process of the PI. Look at the working benches, at the desks and talk with the people – a messy lab hints toward lack of organization which can be rooted in the PIs indifference to the lab's life or lack of control. Ask the labmates how much time they spend over the bench and at the PI's office – has s/he come to visit to see how his students are doing? Is there a lab tech that can give a hand when the need arises?
  • Publication Lists – This is an important list, which can tell a lot about a PI, but watch out not to be too judicial. A long list of top tier journal publications doesn't necessarily suggest that the PI is a good mentor (though it does suggest the mentor has a good sense of delivering his scientific ideas and that his students worked hard for these publications). Check out how many publications are novel research (and not reviews), how many times a certain student's name appears as first author, and the affiliation of the other authors (which may reflect collaborations with other labs). Read some of the papers to get the bearings on the lab's theme and see if it is what you want to do for the next 4-5 years.
  • Financial Support – Like in many aspects of our life, money plays a key role in the choice of a PI/lab. Without money, you can't really do science. Moreover, in certain cases you will need some personal financial support from your mentor, in case your scholarship is limited or nonexistent. Whatever the case you should discuss with your prospective PI to see if the project s/he has for you has a budget, if s/he can complement your scholarship and assess if you can live with whatever you receive from the lab and from the department or faculty.

While it may be impossible to find a perfect PI and lab, with a good search and some luck you can get close to a perfect fit.

> Also check out "Why Your Mentor Sucks (And How To Fix It)"

Have you got some tips and ideas about how to choose a PI/lab?