Finding and Joining Your Dream Lab

By Margo R. Monroe

Addgene scientist in the lab

Choosing a lab can be a major decision. A science trainee will spend 4-7 years working for one person and with a group who all strive for a common big-picture goal. It is worth doing some some serious pre-work to find a lab that will be a good fit for you and your career ambitions. First, how does one stand out amongst a pool of successful applicants and get chosen to work in his or her lab of choice? Is the group micromanaged or does it thrive in an off hands environment? Does the group expect each other to be physically present at certain times during the day?

We asked three lab heads how they go about selecting new hires. This is followed by some perhaps surprising, yet important, factors to consider when seeking your dream lab.

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The principal investigator's point of view

If you are looking to join a lab, you may be wondering “What is this PI looking for in a new researcher?,” “How do I convince the PI to choose me?” We asked three leading professors how they hire scientists for their labs.

Tom Ellis selects new hires from a pool of CVs collected from throughout the year since hiring opportunities arise at various times. If the timing and interests align for both parties, he will invite the prospective hire to the lab to see how they fit in with the team. His advice is “if you’re within a year from the end of your PhD or contract, you should be starting to send out polite emails with your CV to people you’d like to work with next.”

Connie Cepko looks for people who are dedicated and interested in science. “Postdoc hires are simpler because of their documented history in science. Potential graduate students typically go through a rotation, which reveals their working habits, personality, and gives them the opportunity to see if the type of science we do fits in with what they want to do. The experiments must fit with their interests.”

George Church selects new hires initially based on those who notice and embrace the “odd and extreme openness” of the lab (i.e projects like the Personal Genome Project and open source software, hardware, wetware, technology development, etc). Second, the potential hire visits the lab for a full day, gives a 1 hour talk about his or her interests, and spends one-on-one time with the current members to share short-term goals and chat about awesome science.

Important factors in the search for a lab

Studies show that job satisfaction (especially for scientists and technical people) is linked to engagement and access to growth opportunities, not salary and benefits. Therefore, lab selection should focus on identifying a lab that fits both work style and development needs. These two factors will provide a solid foundation on which to thrive during time spent as a graduate student or postdoc. Although the chosen research field is important, the end goal during this time is to be trained to think and execute tasks like a scientist. Of course, the specific research field should be interesting; however, this should (in most cases) not be the driving factor. The following questions can serve as a guide for the quest of a perfect "fit".

  • How competitive is the lab? Some labs have only one author plus the PI on any paper. Or perhaps, the lab has a reputation for not entering collaborations. Alternatively, perhaps the lab publishes and presents regularly with labs around the world. You may prefer a more competitive style to spur you to succeed or you might enjoy working closely with others to accomplish your goals. You must understand your own style before making this choice. 

  • How big is the lab? While larger labs tend to be more "chaotic" and offer less micromanaging, they typically offer more flexibility in choosing direction of a project. If you expect more 1:1 time with the advisor, you should choose accordingly. In a big lab, the advisor might not be around much and your real boss might be a postdoc – this isn't bad, but you should know that this is how it will be before you take the position.
  • Am I choosing the right mentor? Make sure your advisors will be good role models and teach you to be the scientist you want to be. For much more on this topic see our blog "Choosing a Good Mentor for Scientists". This post also includes a useful list of questions for a candidate to ask lab heads, lab members and lab neighbors during the interview process.
  • What if I want a non-academic career path?  If you are considering this, make sure to choose an advisor that supports both paths – you won't know in year 1 what you will want in year 6. Have lab alumni taken diverse career paths? Ask other lab members how the advisor treats such inquiries. If you know you would like to head for a career in pharma or biotech, this is one case where the topic of your research can make your transition easier – choose a lab that works on problems pertinent to human disease.

For more details and many more suggestions on planning for future success by finding and joining your dream lab, watch the webinar "How to Choose Your Next Lab" (updated 2020 version) by Addgene Executive Director, Joanne Kamens.  

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The goal: Finding your dream lab

While none of us will feel completely happy at work all of the time, the goal is to spend as much time in the "zone" as you can. You know you are in the zone when you lose track of time because you are engrossed in a task. Things seem to fall into place frequently and you sometimes feel confident in your abilities. You have intense periods of focus and energy for your work. You won't always be in the zone, but even brief stays there can make all the difference. Choose a lab that brings on the happy dance at least once in awhile.

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Thank you to Dr. Tom Ellis (Imperial College London), Dr. Connie Cepko (Harvard Medical School), and Dr. George Church (Harvard Medical School) for taking the time to speak with us about adding new scientists to their labs.

Read the Other Posts in this Blog Series:


Topics: Science Careers, Early Career Researcher

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