As a follow-up to our tips regarding what NOT to do when picking a grad school lab, here, based on our own experiences, we present 5 critical things to do when considering what school and lab to join for your graduate studies and research:
1. Talk to the students and postdocs during your visit. A lot.
You want a dose of reality for what a lab is really like? Just talk to the people who work there. During your visit, professors and graduate staff will say whatever is necessary to get you to join their lab. Graduate students and postdocs are under no such obligation, and, in our experience, are brutally honest about sharing their grad school perceptions and experiences. As you walk through the lab and talk to people, take note of body language, interactions with other lab mates and most of all, take note of their reflections about working for that particular advisor. Ask to go to a group meeting, if one is being conducted during your visit. These may be some of the most important conversations you may have in helping make your choice.
2. A rotation.
Most biology disciplines will insist that their graduate students rotate through three (sometimes four) different labs during the course of a year before finally choosing one. As PhD programs become more and more interdisciplinary, other departments are either changing their policies or welcoming the opportunity to do rotations in their labs. Graduate advisors hate rotation students, because they have an incentive for long-term commitment to their projects. However, it is in your interest to consider taking a lab for a “test drive.” On top of the benefits of adding interdisciplinary skills to your scientific repertoire, you may discover you hate mouse work, or that you have an interest in organic synthesis that you never knew, or that your “dream advisor” is an inattentive jerk. Likewise, several students at my graduate institution formed lucrative collaborations between two labs for their PhD studies by rotating in each.
3. Interview the professors.
Remember, during your visit, you are as much there to interview potential advisors as you are to be interviewed by them. Ask about working expectations, publications for graduation (and yes, some professors will admit they only publish in top journals), their views on outside collaborations, and anything you feel would make the difference in choosing (or not choosing) to work for them. Don’t be so in awe of a Nobel Laureate or leader in their field that you forget to ask thorough questions that will affect your future. Take it from someone that worked for a very famous chemist with a large lab—the awe wears off in two weeks. The PhD process lasts years.
4. Consider the impact of tenure in your decision, both ways.
If, during your visits, an assistant professor catches your attention as a potential advisor, take some time to consider how their tenure process would impact your PhD. If they are just setting up a lab, the first six months to a year of your graduate experience might involve helping them establish their lab and set everything up. There will likely be a huge pressure on you to produce and publish papers, which the professor will be graded on as well by their committee. On the other hand, an assistant professor will likely give you far more attention than a more established scientist (even at the level of a peer if the age difference isn’t great), may spend time in the lab showing you techniques and may even give you a lot of control over project scope and direction. Having worked for a second-year assistant professor, a famous tenured professor, and a couple that were in-between career-wise, there are advantages and disadvantages to each. Consider carefully what kind of a relationship you’d like to form with your mentor and how tenure will play a role in that.
5. Research your intangibles.
Once you get home from your last visit (and yes, keep an open mind even if your first school grabs your attention), sit down and formulate a chart to compare the pluses and minuses of all your visits. Use our list above to detail pluses and minuses for each school. Lastly, research intangibles that you weren’t able to get to on your visit. Email professors and graduate student offices with follow-up questions. Contact graduate students and postdocs that you spoke with for any other impressions or unanswered questions. Once you narrow down professors that you would like to work for, take a look at where their alumni have landed jobs and what kind of papers they are currently publishing. Lastly, take into account other intangibles, such as the cost of living in the city where your school is located, travel budget, and how outside interests might influence where you want to live (i.e. big city versus small college town).
Recent college graduates, and current grad students/postdocs, what do you think of our list? Would this have been helpful for you in picking your current school? Do you have other dos or don’ts that we should add on here? Drop us a line in the comment box below!