Choosing a Research Lab

For our readers in or about to begin PhD programs, I have put together the following advice for choosing and assessing research rotations. I am a neurosciences graduate student at UCSD, but this advice is probably generalizable to most neuro/bio/biomedical programs in the US that have research rotations. I also highly recommend reading Dr. Ben Barres’ advice on choosing a thesis lab, available here

Please remember that students are unique in so many aspects – in their level of independence, preferred work-life balance, career plans, personality, sources of motivation, home situation. Choosing the right lab is all about choosing where you feel at home and where you will be supported in your goals beyond grad school. Considering this, there are not necessarily “right” answers to all the questions below – just make sure the answers work for YOU. 

The commentary below is written to be applicable to any graduate student. However, while we all strive to find a lab in which we feel supported and valued, I want to acknowledge the extra hurdle that students from historically minoritized groups face in this regard. Unfortunately not all PIs will have had students of similar identities whom you can ask about their experience. I believe it’s important (for all students, but especially for those from historically marginalized groups) to make sure that the PI doesn’t have a “politics doesn’t belong in science” attitude. This attitude likely accompanies an unwillingness to acknowledge and combat the systemic racism and gender biases endemic in academia. Try to gauge this from talking with lab members and/or the PI. If the PI or lab members can’t acknowledge that science is political and/or if they don’t want to make their “politics” known to the group, that’s a big, bright red flag.

Ok. With that said, here goes… 

Choose rotations carefully! While you might be excited about a certain PI’s research from their website bio, you will learn a lot more meeting them in person (or in this hellish year, via Zoom). I would recommend meeting with several PIs about the possibility of rotating. Get a sense of the rapport you have with each, their current research directions, and their financial situation. THEN choose the three you are the most excited about. You can meet with a lot in the beginning and pick three or can meet with a couple before each rotation, or a combo of those strategies. And don’t worry about meeting with someone and then telling them you’ve decided not to rotate!! To get the most out of a pre-rotation meeting, some good questions to ask are:

  • What do you look for in a graduate student?
  • How often do you typically meet with a graduate student? (This will likely change throughout the student’s time in the lab)
  • How many students do you plan to take this year? Is this dependent on grants you are waiting to get a score on?
  • How do your new students usually choose a project? (Or for a new PI: How do you envision a new student choosing a project)?
  • Does everyone in the lab have their own independent projects or is there a lot of within-lab collaboration on projects and papers? 
  • Have your previous students ever done internships outside academia while in your lab?
  • How do you feel about students being involved in outreach/scicomm activities?
  • Do you have any rules about when a trainee can present their data at a conference?
  • How often do you travel aka how often are you gone from lab?

Assess mentorship ability You might get along wonderfully with a PI but this doesn’t necessarily mean they will be a good mentor. Current lab members and lab alumni are best able to shed light on the PI’s mentorship ability. Try to talk to multiple people so that you don’t get a skewed perspective. You can ask these before starting a rotation, but I would definitely advise at least trying to get a full sense of mentorship ability before committing to joining a lab. Some questions you might ask them:

  • Would this PI be supportive regardless of your chosen career path after grad school?
  • How is/was your work-life balance? And if it’s skewed, how much does pressure from the PI contribute to that? (I am a workaholic, but it’s completely self-imposed!)
  • How much effort does the PI put into working with you on fellowship apps, manuscripts, and talk preparation? 
  • How much freedom does the PI give you to work on your own ideas or take projects in your own direction?
  • How often are there lab social events? How much does the PI encourage or hinder this camaraderie? 
  • Does the PI take steps to make sure students understand how to design a well-controlled experiment?
  • Does the PI send you to conferences to present/network? Are they ok with you sharing unpublished data?
  • Has the PI helped you network by introducing you to other scientists in the field?

Assess the lab environment This might be THE most important aspect of all. These are some questions to ask yourself during your rotation:

  • How comfortable do you feel asking various lab members for help?
  • Do people in the lab seem happy? Do YOU enjoy going to lab for your rotation hours?
  • Are people respectful towards each other during the day (casual setting) and during lab meetings (more formal setting)?
  • What types of relationships does the PI have with trainees? (If the PI is a good mentor, this will likely look different for each trainee, as the PI will have adapted their mentorship style to fit all their trainees’ needs)
  • What types of people are in the lab in terms of personality? Do you see yourself getting along well with them? They don’t have to be your best friends of course, but you will be spending a LOT of time with them!!

Assess the science I believe mentorship and lab environment can be more important than the topic of the research itself. But it’s important to feel interested! Quick anecdote – after my second rotation, I expressed interest in joining the lab. The PI told me that they had enjoyed having me in lab but that I didn’t seem to be excited about the science happening there. I was surprised and a bit offended at the time, but then in my third rotation I realized that PI had been totally correct. In the third rotation, I was always full of questions at lab meeting and super excited by others’ data. So make sure you feel some excitement for the science – the PhD is a LONG road to travel if you don’t feel excited in the beginning. So I’m adding it to the top of the following list:

  • Do you feel excited about the projects in the lab?
  • Are you ok with the day-to-day techniques performed in the lab? If you love the questions but hate the techniques, it might be a rough several years. 
  • Do you have any concerns about the rigor of the science? Do you see any sloppy experiments being done?
  • Has the PI been publishing recently? If so, in what journal? This is more important if you want a career in academia. But I don’t mean to suggest that aspiring academics should only join labs with Nature, Science, and Cell papers. In fact, a PI told me in a pre-rotation meeting that they only publish in these three journals, and I knew immediately that I wouldn’t even rotate.

Don’t be afraid to leave a lab or rotation. Earlier is better! 

  • If after 2 weeks of your rotation, you know that you don’t want to join the lab, ­stop and switch to another! There’s no reason to waste the rest of your valuable rotation. You’ll save your own time and that of the people in the rotation lab. Of course, be respectful about leaving. And depending on your situation, you may have to make sure you take your leave delicately. 
  • Same goes for after you join a lab. If you are unhappy, try hard to understand where the unhappiness is coming from and whether you might have a better experience in another lab. I think some grad school rhetoric has normalized being miserable, which is hugely problematic. The PhD is an emotional roller coaster, but your PI and the lab environment should be helping to mitigate that stress rather than being a driving factor. I had a rough third/fourth-year slump, but I can’t imagine going through that in a lab in which I was unhappy and people were unsupportive. 

Note: Some of the above questions are tougher to answer for a brand new PI. Joining a new lab is a risk, but sometimes new PIs end up being the most incredible mentors. I was the first grad student to join my current lab and I couldn’t be happier! Just make sure you assess the above factors as best as possible. 

Good luck!!