Choosing the right PI

Choosing a good PI is an integral part of a healthy and prosperous graduate school experience. Your advisor should in general be someone who is a good fit for you, and this may differ from trainee to trainee. Although this blog is primarily aimed at trainees, PIs may take away some ways in which they can further support both current and future students. I will attempt to provide a more precise selection method than simply asking previous trainees about their general experience while also providing specific advice for those underrepresented in science (UIS), women, LGBTQ+, and disabled students. Before proposing criteria and a set of questions to ask, I wish to make it clear that although some mentors may lack in one area compared with others, this is not an end-all-be-all. Later, I will discuss how things like a lab’s website can be a good indicator of a good advisor, but this does not mean that those without extensive websites are necessarily bad mentors. The following are simply indicators to help you make a more well-informed decision.

The right PI

Whether you are an undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, graduate student, or postdoc, the primary goal of that step in your training is to catapult you into the next stage of your career journey. Being catapulted into the next stage of training does not mean looking to work under certain PIs for the sake of clout or prestige. To be catapulted into the next stage of your career requires you to be best prepared and developed in order to hit the ground running. The right PI for you is not necessarily the one who only publishes in high-impact journals but rather the one who will provide the necessary tools and support for your development. Knowing what is best for you will require some self-reflection prior to choosing a lab. Unfortunately, you will be able to find many stories of students who prioritized science over mentorship and found themselves in environments not suitable for them. When looking for potential labs you should seek projects that interest you, but be willing to compromise if there are better training environments elsewhere.

Added levels of considerations for UIS, women, LGBTQ+, and disabled students searching for a PI

UIS, women, LGBTQ+, and disabled students tend to face hurdles not present in the lives of their well-represented counterparts. Such unique hurdles may require a more tailored approach in mentoring. Many of these barriers are not science-specific but can have a great impact because of their role in our everyday lives. Events ranging from the mistreatment of Blacks by police to attempts to repeal DACA can cause great anxiety in some underrepresented trainees, leading to the need for mental health days or becoming involved in advocacy. Lack of support when dealing with such emotions or taking on such endeavors can leave students feeling isolated and underappreciated. Furthermore, the absence of a supportive environment can be detrimental to the flourishing of trainees.

Chantell Evans

“Find a space and mentor where you can be authentically yourself. If you are worried about how you are being perceived or trying to hide your true self, you are taking away energy that could be spent doing your work,” says Chantell Evans, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Hanna Gray Postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

Having a PI who is understanding and supportive of issues important to their trainees is essential in ensuring their well-being while promoting an inclusive environment. After all, inclusion is not about increased numbers, but rather a greater sense of belonging. So how do you begin looking for such mentors?

Contacting previous trainees with a purpose

Many of us have been advised to contact current and past trainees to learn more about a PI, but doing so in a nonstrategic manner is insufficient. For underrepresented trainees, sometimes a simple “How is Dr. X as a PI?” is simply not enough to figure out your fit in the lab. In general, the most valuable advice is often from trainees with backgrounds similar to yours. Below are a series of questions you could ask such students:

  • Are you involved in any groups or other extracurriculars and, if so, how supportive has Dr. X been of you devoting a portion of your time to such endeavors? Have they encouraged you to pursue such activities?
  • How welcoming has Dr. X been of new ideas or suggestions?
  • How understanding has Dr. X been when you need to step away from the lab to deal with personal situations?
  • If you have or had plans to pursue a non-academic career, how supportive were they of your goals?
  • How supported did you feel in the lab environment? If you needed additional support or accommodations, were they provided?

As you can see, these questions to trainees are directed as opposed to simply asking them about their general experience. Asking precise questions will prompt trainees to thoroughly reflect on their experience and provide information they might have unintentionally left out otherwise.

Investigating the PI

Remember that interviews also provide an opportunity for you to ask questions as well. Aside from direct conversation, lab websites and general online presence can be helpful in learning about a PI. Some things to consider are:

  • Do they have a website? If so, how thorough is it? Are trainees of all levels given recognition? Is there a vision statement? Have they had trainees of backgrounds similar to yours? Is there information on their trainees’ outcome? Are they involved in organizations on campus or nationally?
  • During a rotation, are there regularly scheduled meetings with the PI? Is there an open-door policy? How are lab meetings carried out? Is it a collaborative environment?
  • Given our unforeseen transition into a virtual world, are they giving talks? If so, what kind of presenter are they? Are they enthusiastic about the science? How much credit is given to the trainees that do the work? How open are they to questions?

I have found I can learn a lot about a PI by simply attending their seminars. Seminars provide the opportunity to watch them present their science and interact with others. Seeing how they consider suggestions and questions can be indicative of the lab culture.

As previously mentioned, these are all just potential indicators and not an end-all-be-all. Some PIs may have little online presence but could be a great mentor to you. It is important not to write off labs simply on one criterion; however, as a prospective trainee, you are in a way buying a product: the lab. Finding the right PI for you is about identifying what is important to you in your training. You should be sold on the lab you have chosen and be enthusiastic about the work being done. I hope you use my aforementioned suggestions to find just the right lab for you.

About the Author:

Alex Maya-Romero is a post-bac scholar in the Doctoral Diversity Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He works in the lab of Steven Claypool studying mitochondrial lipid metabolism and plans to pursue a PhD after his post-bac. Twitter: @AlexMayaRomero2