I was recently asked to comment on how I decided upon PhD and postdoc labs by Elisabeth Pain at Science Careers. The piece appears here but of course my long-winded answers had to be edited for conciseness. I thought it might be useful to include my comments in full in case some others found it useful. The questions and answers are below (and I received permission by Elisabeth and her editor to include them here). For some context, I switched labs and started over as a PhD student (nearly 5 years in!) so I had a couple of chances to get this right.
EP: In how many labs have you worked so far? Why do you think it is important to pick a lab carefully? Do you think you did a good job picking labs earlier in your career?
me: If you include undergraduate research and rotation labs, I think I counted 9 different labs (4 undergrad, 4 grad school, 1 postdoc) I have worked in prior to starting my own. I did make a mistake and chose a lab I ultimately left in grad school. However, it might surprise you that I actually think there is too much emphasis on finding the perfect lab for graduate school. I don’t think it’s a soul-mate situation. There are many labs one might be happy in and thrive in as a student. More on what I think is important about that decision below.
EP: As you started looking for your lab, what were the most important criteria that you had in mind to guide your search? (f.e., your broader professional and personal aims, the PI, the research subject, available funding, the lab and its expertise, the other lab members, the facilities and broader working environment, the learning and training opportunities, the location, etc…) In hindsight, do you think you should have done anything differently?
me: I can tell you about the decision to join a postdoc lab as it’s the more recent decision and I’m also currently looking to hire a postdoc so I am thinking about it from all sides. Step 1 would be having a strong rationale for selecting a lab to approach. I took into account my scientific interests and thought about what I really hoped to gain from a new lab. In my case, it was experience with a model organism well suited to tackle my research questions that would be amenable to more mechanistic analyses. (From the PI side when looking for a postdoc, I definitely look for someone who has a reasonable answer for “why this lab?”). After making a list of potential labs, I looked at the lab’s productivity to see if the trainees were publishing consistently (something I would need to do as a postdoc there). One thing I didn’t do but may give some additional insight is looking the PI up in NIH Reporter and/or other relevant funding databases to see what projects are funded. This in some ways gives an indication of where the lab is going not just where it’s been. At that point, I would stop trying to predict the future. I think visiting the lab and speaking to trainees and the PI is invaluable and one can’t predict how they’ll feel after this interaction. During the interview I was looking for very concrete things, like whether the PI would allow me to take my work with me to start my own lab, whether I would have the independence to direct my own project without micromanagement, and how the trainees were doing/how they felt about the PI. Some of the things that won me over for my ultimate choice were also the creativity of the PI and adventurousness of the trainees (neither of which were criteria from the start). I wouldn’t change a thing about how I went about this process.
EP: How did you go about identifying specific labs or groups that you may want to join for your PhD or postdoc? (f.e., asking your former PI, meeting prospective PIs at conferences, reading papers, etc… It may also be the lab next door!) In hindsight, do you think you should have done anything differently?
me: For me, I identified postdoc labs almost exclusively from the literature. I read a lot of the work by the labs I was applying to and could glean the “voice” and their way of thinking about the field from their research and review articles. Now, I send trainees to as many conferences as I can and strongly encourage them to network with PIs as well.
EP: How many labs/PIs did you consider?
me: For a PhD lab I rotated in 3 labs. I recall considering 9 postdoc labs.
EP: How did you try to figure out whether a lab/PI would meet your criteria? (Did you talk to your former PI or other scientists, visit the lab, check out the PI’s papers, look her/him up on Twitter/in the media, look at how well former lab members have fared?) In hindsight, do you think you should have done anything differently?
me: Most of this was from visiting the lab, discussing projects with PIs, and talking frankly with trainees. I was shocked at how much people would tell you if you asked! If you ask questions like “do you like the lab?” They say yes. If you ask “what’s one thing that could be better about this lab?” you get surprisingly specific and candid answers. I also asked about where former trainees went and how supportive the PIs were in helping them transition out of the lab.
EP: How did you ultimately make your decision? Did you use any tools, such as a checklist or ranking system? Did you have to find a compromise between your criteria? In hindsight, do you think you should have done anything differently?
me: I think for the PhD decision the first time around, I was driven entirely by scientific interest. I think this is a mistake at the PhD stage. Again, I feel there is much exciting science out there but the right mentorship fit is more elusive and should be considered more carefully. I also recommend remembering that PhD students will undergo a dramatic transformation during their training. The mentorship style that fits a first year student is not one that will fit a 5th year student so one should consider how they might feel when they are a bit more experienced as well. For the postdoc, I had a lot of criteria but this decision made itself after the interviews. The science at all of the labs was fantastic, and several of the PIs would have been a great fit, but the sum of all of the criteria put some ahead of others.
EP: From beginning to end, how long did it take to find a PhD lab?
me: Probably about 6-8 months each for PhD and postdoc labs, but I would recommend contacting prospective labs earlier rather than later. This allows both the PI and applicant to more easily make plans for funding via lab grants and/or fellowships.
EP: What have you learned so far from this experience of choosing a PhD lab that will inform your next lab choice for your postdoc?
me: From my initial PhD experience, I definitely learned that I wanted to base my decision on the vision and mentorship fit with the PI. I used that to guide my postdoc search and was thrilled with the results! At the postdoc stage I think interest in the science (particularly if planning for academic track) is also much more important so a non-optimal emphasis on that as a PhD student was much more appropriate at the postdoc stage.
EP: Any potential mistakes or challenges that you would like to warn other early-career scientists against? Any further advice for young scientists on how to choose a lab?
me: Regardless of what lab one chooses, I recommend seeking out additional mentors. This is usually in place at PhD institutions in the form of a thesis committee. But identifying trusted advisors that can be supportive and provide unique outside perspectives is important at every stage. This also has the added benefit of being a source of recommendation letters or potential collaborations down the road.