Picking a Graduate School Laboratory: 5 Don'ts

Labmates and colleaguesLabguru recently wrote about strategic tips for thesis preparation, as spring is historically a time when labs graduate a lot of students.  But just as surely as current students leave, new students join, with April and May constituting the vast majority of organized graduate school visit weekends.  A visit weekend is a chance to get an up-close look at university programs, advisors you’ve wanted to work with, and to test chemistry with potential labmates.  Nothing can equal an opportunity to spend some time visiting schools you want to attend for graduate school, but it’s not enough to just visit.  We at Labguru want to offer additional advice to consider before, during and after your trips to make what could be the most important decision of your career in science – where you get your PhD – a little bit easier.

DON’T…

1.  Choose a school based on one dream advisor

You’d be surprised how often you hear on a visit weekend “I’d only come here to work with Dr. So-and-so.”  Nothing could be a more dangerous proposition.  Especially if your potential advisor is famous or highly sought-after, you may be competing with many other students for a spot in their lab.  Secondly, even if they informally agree to work with you, funding changes or other extenuating factors (such as universities limiting how many students can join a lab in a given year) could mean a lack of a spot for you.  And finally, while you may have an idea of what a certain advisor will be like based on publication records or interactions at conferences, the possibility exists that working for them may not be a perfect match.  As a rule, always have 2-3 labs that you’d be happy working in for any school you decide to attend.

2.  Pick a lab based on a hip/trendy/sexy science

Similar to our advice above, don’t let the Science trend du jour dictate your lab choice.  Remember when everyone was publishing a paper based on one microchip array?  Or running knockout screens with a small RNAi library?  Trends in science change, and what was a breakthrough technology yesterday becomes Figure 1 of a paper tomorrow.  Graduate school is a time to hone and craft a basic scientific experimentation and bench skill set.  You can always formulate a collaboration during your graduate studies or pursue a postdoc in a specialized area later in your career.

3.  Judge a school or lab based solely on the visit weekend

Visit weekends are some of the best times you will enjoy as a college senior.  You will be put up in great hotels, wined and dined by graduate officials, possibly pursued and flattered by your academic heroes during the one time they’re instructed to be nice to you, and taken to amazing tourist destinations in the middle of a work day.  And while these perks are all done in the attempt to entice you to attend a certain institution, they do not reflect the daily reality of graduate school life.  Have a great time and enjoy yourself, but remember the task at hand: objectively evaluating potential advisors, the quality of graduate life and student resources, and whether you can see yourself on campus and in that city for five or more years.

4.  Pick hastily or agree to anything during the visit.

When it comes to picking a graduate lab, “measure twice, cut once” is your best policy.  You have plenty of time to go back, evaluate notes, compare visits, and even get feedback from your undergraduate laboratory advisor(s).  Furthermore, no professor that pressures you into committing to them is worth working for.  It is far more difficult to switch schools and labs after you’ve already started graduate studies than it is to think carefully before choosing.

5.  Not visit.

The biggest mistake you can make in choosing your future graduate lab is to forego visiting.  Unlike undergraduate college tours, graduate laboratory visits (for most scientific disciplines) are fully paid for.  If you can’t make the organized visit weekend, most graduate schools will even work with you to schedule a private visit.  Furthermore, no Skype conversation or phone conference is equal to sitting down with a professor and their students or walking through the lab.  You literally have nothing to lose!

Now that you've read our "Don't" tips, stay tuned for our next post, offering some important "Do's" for picking your grad school lab. As always, we value your comments. Thanks for reading!