Factors to Consider When Choosing a Lab for PhD Training

Your PhD training can open the way to a research career but consider the lab door and the mentor behind it before opening. ASCB photo John Fleischman

Your PhD training can open the way to a research career but consider the lab door and the mentor behind it before opening. ASCB photo John Fleischman

A life-long career in scientific research depends a lot on your PhD training as the primary “developmental” phase followed by the “pay-off” phase of postdoctoral training and beyond. Accruing the multifaceted skill sets required to pursue scientific research is a continuous process but the foundations are set during your PhD training. Thus selecting an appropriate lab is essential. As newcomers in the field, we are often not entirely sure what to expect in this crucial phase that spans 4-6 years of life. In this article, I focus on some of the most important factors you might consider before committing to a particular lab for PhD thesis work, based on my experience as well as discussion with friends and colleagues who have gone through both good phases and crises during their stints as PhD students.


1. Overlap of your area of interest with that of the lab/ mentor

This is more relevant to individuals with some research experience in any capacity prior to applying for an official PhD program. I myself had one year each of research experience in three different labs working in completely unrelated fields including functional genetics, cancer biology, and endocytosis. By the end of those three years, I realized I had developed a penchant for working on endocytosis which, combined with my passion for fluorescence microscopy, left me with an easy choice to make with respect to which labs to target for my PhD training. The process of successfully completing your thesis, along with fulfillment of several official requirements such as coursework, teaching assignments, qualifier and candidacy exams, can be a gruelling affair. Therefore, pursuing research on a topic that you are naturally passionate about alleviates the stress and helps maintain focus in the long run.

On the other hand, many graduate students are fresh out of undergrad and may apply to PhD programs without having considerable prior research experience. The advantage is that they are completely open-minded as far as the topic of research is concerned. Most graduate programs permit lab rotation schedules during the initial semesters so that you are in a better position to make a conscious decision when choosing the lab for your thesis work. During your rotations, make sure you explore labs working on diverse topics so that you can better gauge which area interests you more than others. Take the lab rotations seriously with an aim to extract the maximum out of the time spent there. It is imperative to make a dedicated effort to understand the individual projects being carried out by different members in the lab and how they interconnect to form a big picture, which is generally the broader focus of the lab. Additionally, it helps to have discussions with the principal investigator (PI) and other lab members about the question/project that you would work on as a part of your thesis if you eventually decide to join. Finally, it’s beneficial to spend extra hours tagging along with existing students to learn about the experiments and techniques they perform, even if they do not overlap with your rotation project, as this is after all a learning experience.


2. Funding status

This is the single most important determinant when choosing a thesis lab independent of any of the other factors discussed in this article. No matter how significant the question you wish to address using brilliant ideas and experiments, being strapped for cash can be paralyzing. As a prospective PhD student, it is in your best interest to proactively inquire about the funding status of the lab you are considering. One way to do this, in addition to just asking your PI, is to look at NIH Reporter. It is equally important to find out which grant application/fellowship will fund your stipend and how secure is it for at least the next 4-6 years. I have come across an unfortunate instance where lack of sufficient funding resulted in discontinuity of PhD work of a candidate and he had to wrap it up much earlier than expected with a consolation Master’s degree. Be clear that the info you gather relates to existing funding and not the anticipated ones, as they are not always guaranteed. If a lab is already saturated and not looking to enroll any student in a particular academic session, it is not a wise idea to consider it for rotation work even though you are obsessed with their research topic. The lab will benefit from your free labor, but you will lose a solid 2-3 months of your time that could be better utilized evaluating another prospective lab.


3. Lab demographics

Composition of the lab in terms of personnel can play a role in the overall productivity, thus impacting the pace at which the lab, and your project, progresses. Your co-workers will be the ones with whom you have to share space, reagents, consumables, and exchange scientific ideas on a day-to-day basis. You might frequently find yourself working together with one or more of them toward completion of a common project. As you progress with your thesis work, your co-workers will be your first critics, which will help further develop your ideas and experiments. You might also face healthy competition from them. Inculcating good interpersonal skills is a definite bonus as this will help in creating a positive impression about you in the minds of your co-workers. Considering the valuable contribution of lab members toward your thesis work, you might want to give reasonable weight to this factor when choosing a lab.

Lab strength and hierarchy are often indicators of how the lab functions. I have been part of a lab with more than 20 members as well as in a lab with just three including me. Both have pros and cons. If you tend to work better in solitude and too many people around cause distraction affecting your output, then you must avoid large labs; however, these big labs often offer considerable and stable funding. Such labs tend to work on interdisciplinary projects with an efficient division of labor based on varying skill sets and expertise of individual members. This provides an opportunity to work with dedicated experts such as programmers, technicians, statisticians, animal handlers, etc. all under one roof. You will learn by interacting with them and your project will move considerably faster when they all begin to chime in with their sections. However, such PIs are, more often than not, juggernauts in their respective field of research and hence, almost always have a busy schedule. Chances are very high that you will be under the direct supervision of one of the postdocs in the lab and will be fortunate to have a rendezvous with your mentor once a month. As a newcomer into research, it might be a better idea to go for a smaller lab mentored by a “not-so-busy” PI who will possibly devote more time training you personally. This is just one possible scenario and might not always be the case. In smaller labs, you will have an opportunity to perform other duties apart from your thesis work such as maintaining inventory, instruments, stocks of reagents or cells, etc., which is also part of the overall learning process.


4. Publication track record

Labs with big impact publications are always attractive. It is however more important to consider the frequency with which a lab comes out with papers. Although it is true that most labs have a website where you should be able to get all the information you need, regularly updating it is not always a priority. The lab member list sometimes is populated with those who left the lab half a decade ago and the publication list might be in a similar state. Don’t be deterred as there is a simple way out: Search Pubmed or use a reference input software such as Endnote to obtain the complete publication roster of the PI. You can then arrange it chronologically to get an idea about the consistency and regularity of publication. The publication track record will give you the best idea about the pace at which the lab operates and its productivity.

It is always desirable to be a co-author on other manuscripts that are published from the lab as a larger number of publications on your CV definitely helps in the long run. You should check to see if the lab members have co-authorships on manuscripts apart from their first-author ones. This will indicate the teamwork culture prevalent in the lab and almost guarantee that you will have an opportunity to work on multiple projects side-by-side with your primary one. Look for collaborators of the PI from the published papers, which might potentially help you broaden your skill set and experience once you decide to join the lab. You should also make a conscious attempt to go through some of the papers from at least the last five years, if not more, to get a fair idea about the questions being dealt with by the lab, the techniques employed and hence, the infrastructure available. As a mandatory requirement of your PhD degree, most institutes demand you publish at least one first-author paper in a peer-reviewed journal. Thus the time it takes to achieve your first-author publication is the true limiting factor for the completion of your PhD thesis work. Careful analysis of the authors’ names and publication years will give you an idea about the average time of completion of a PhD from the lab.


5. Mentor’s management style and expectations

The biggest question when deciding on a thesis lab is, “Will the PI be a good mentor to me?” Unfortunately, this is hard to determine at initial stages especially since you haven’t joined the lab yet; therefore, it is a gamble most of the time. The best possible way to have an idea before joining is to talk to as many students from the institute as possible who can share their opinions about the PI you are looking to work with. It is a good idea to talk to some of the alumni of the lab as they would probably be more willing to tell you the facts without holding anything back. This will also give you some information about how the PI handles career transitions. Try to decipher if the PI is naturally inclined to be hands off or more of a task monitor to the point of micro-managing everything that you do. By now, you must be well aware of which style is conducive to your functioning and productivity. Your mentor’s approach toward you, however, depends to a great extent on the interest you generate in the lab in driving your project, the rapport you build, and the amount of knowledge and experience you can extract out of your interactions with him or her. It is imperative that the mentor allows freedom of thought to some extent and encourages you to pursue your ideas to tackle questions as long as they are rational, even if they were absent in the original agenda of proposed experiments. The whole point of the training is to develop as an independent researcher rather than blindly perform a series of tasks requested by someone else. Apart from teaching the assays and experimental techniques, your mentor can also play a significant role in helping you develop other skills such as scientific writing via reviews and grants, scientific thinking, designing experiments, and communication skills. The publication record, involvement in grant writing, as well as student conference attendance are other factors you should inquire about when choosing a lab.

Someone who is committed to working on a thesis project is assumed to be mentally prepared to work diligently toward this goal. However, appreciate the fact that the PhD is not your life per se, it is only a part of your life. You can only hold yourself responsible if you join a lab that demands you work on weekends and is thrifty in permitting days off for vacations, leaving you stressed and unhappy. If you are an international student with family on the other side of the globe, make sure you are clear about the frequency and number of days that you are permitted to take off for your annual vacation. It is extremely important to keep your mentor informed of your experimental outcomes and the next set of planned experiments. Always make sure that both of you are on the same page as far as work plan and timelines are concerned. This will give you an idea of your mentor’s expectations and allow you better work-life balance. It is an added bonus if your mentor is supportive of your applying to courses/workshops outside your institution, relevant conferences, and symposia. These platforms offer the best opportunity to sharpen your technical skills and network with people.


6. Other labs in the institute with research focus related to your prospective lab

As a PhD student, you will eventually select a panel of 4-5 PIs to form your thesis committee. You will have regular meetings with them to discuss your work progress and they will be the critics who will matter the most as far as your graduation is concerned. They will be instrumental in suggesting new ideas and keeping you on the right track toward degree completion. It is beneficial to have at least one or two members who work in a related field to your lab because they will have a better comprehension of your research topic. Other members from different fields will offer you novel ideas from a different perspective that might be equally significant. Having the entire panel of your thesis committee advisors from unrelated fields may be somewhat risky. You might be diverted to a direction that is really not the primary focus of your lab or your project. Therefore, as prudently as you select the lab for your thesis work, keep an eye on other labs working on related topics within your institute. Those related labs can provide room for collaborations as well as some potential competition, both of which could benefit you in the long run.


7. Work ethic

Work ethic is an integral part of your character. The good and bad thing about life as a PhD student is that it is not a typical “9-5” job, implying flexibility in the work hours you devote in lab, which in most cases is much more than a mere eight -hour day. Be prepared to work on weekends depending upon the workload and approaching deadlines. As for how much time you should spend in the lab, it is more sensible to consider quality than quantity. Some start the day very early and leave early as well, whereas others start late and stay late to get things done. Whichever category you belong to, make sure that your PI is in agreement. If you have external commitments or appointments that will take you away from the lab, make sure your mentor knows. As long as you make continuous progress in your thesis and meet the timelines, the hours you devote in the lab should not be a major concern.

These are some of the primary factors to keep in mind when you are in the pre-PhD phase of filling out all the applications and browsing through numerous lab webpages to shortlist labs. Other factors that haven’t been discussed here could also play a role in your decision. As a matter of fact, you might not come across a “perfect” lab either. But you will continue on your journey and face unknown challenges. Slowly and gradually, you will adapt to new places, situations, work culture, and people, develop your skills, and evolve into a scientist.

About the Author:

I am a 4th year PhD student in the lab of Dr. Margarida Barroso, Department of Cardiovascular Sciences, Albany Medical College. My thesis project involves investigating the functional role of interactions between endosomes and mitochondria using fluorescence microscopic techniques. Email: DasA@mail.amc.edu