Is this the right place for me? 8 tactics for choosing a lab

By Joanne Kamens

Why is choosing the right lab such a big deal? It’s actually something you CAN choose and it will make a huge difference for your future career and life. You might see a lab head as choosing you, but in reality, you are giving your hard work and talent for many years (at a very low salary I might add). You have a right and responsibility to choose a lab where you can thrive and do your best work. This post is focused on choosing a lab, but almost all of these guidelines can apply to any workplace or job. It amazes me when the most analytic scientists seem to toss data-driven reasoning out the window when making decisions. We think scientists make choices based on logic and reason, but often our decisions are based on emotions and assumptions. I’m not just talking about simple things like “Which route should I take to get to work?”; we often make important life decisions without much logic - even choosing a training lab where we will spend the next 6 years.

how scientists think they make decisions vs how scientists make decisions

Know yourself

I rotated in 3 labs before choosing a graduate school lab. All the lab heads were amazing scientists, but the labs were profoundly different. My first rotation was with a mid-sized lab with an experienced mentor. The lab was very, very quiet. Every time I asked a question, I felt like I was yelling. I imagined 6 years of biting my tongue and gratefully moved on. My second rotation was in a big lab with a famous PI who I was only likely to see once a year. There was lots of hustle and bustle, but the lab was very competitive and not very communal. That didn’t suit my collaborative learning style at all. Finally I rotated in a small lab with a new PI. I realized that as a first born child, I would thrive on this level of attention and interaction (and I did).

Some of the information you will need is about you. It’s worth taking time to honestly evaluate your own style of work and communication before making this important decision. I’ll highlight some of these questions in the sections below. Mentoring relationships can help identify your priorities and needs, but sometimes it just takes introspective thought on what’s worked for you and not worked for you in the past. For all of the factors I touch on below, the first question to ask yourself is “which ones matter to me?”  and hone in on the factors that will make the most difference for your success.

Gather data on the lab choices

How do you find out what the lab is really like? Gather data of course. Ask questions. Prepare by going sleuthing on the lab website, publication records, LinkedIn, ResearchGate or Twitter. Be ready for the interview with a long list of written questions for the PI and lab members.  Make coffee or beer dates to talk to as many lab alumni as you can or schedule video/calls if they are not local. Alumni meetings can be the most informative way of gathering data. Former lab members can give open, revealing information about the culture and lab head. While it’s good to talk to new lab members too, they may not have had experience writing, publishing, or discussing career opportunities with the lab head. Former lab members can give you a fuller picture. Consider talking to people in the lab across the hall or in the same department as well. What do they have to say about this lab’s reputation?

If you are choosing a training lab, I strongly suggest you complete a work rotation in the lab if at all possible. If not, see if you can spend a day or two hanging out around the lab and especially try to attend a lab meeting. Observe how the lab members treat one another (especially those low on the totem pole). Can you see yourself enjoying this atmosphere?

Lab size matters

Yes, yes it’s all about the science but really it’s not. It’s about the atmosphere that will allow you to thrive. How big is the group? Has it grown over time? If not, why not? It may not be a bad thing if the lab has stayed that size on purpose, but it could also be a sign that the lab head has trouble attracting scientists. To get a better idea of why the lab is the size that it is and whether or not it will work for you, ask questions like:

  • Do lab members feel there are enough projects to go around?
  • What is the energy level in the lab? Does a frenetic atmosphere make you edgy or energized?  
  • Are you an only child and used to a lot of attention? Or are you one of 8 children and used to getting the attention you need?
  • Are you good at asking for help? If you are good at asking for and getting help, size might not be a big factor for you.

Know who's boss

You sign on to a lab for the mentoring only to find out that the lab head is an absentee advisor. They are always traveling, or too busy to interact regularly with the newer lab members. You must get an idea of what to expect and decide if it is what is best for you. Some of these important questions will be easy to ask the lab head, and some are better asked of other lab members. Ask things like:

  • Is the lab head really around and accessible for advice and input?
  • Will a postdoc or lab manager be your actual mentor? Is there a chance the supervisor will be moving on soon?  
  • Will you get to meet one on one with the lab head? Are meetings with the lab head regularly scheduled or only ad hoc?
  • Does the mentor keep appointments with group members or are they frequently cancelled?

Choosing a role model

Make sure the mentors you choose are teaching the stuff you want to know and display character traits and skills that you hope to grow.  Find mentors who take their responsibility to train you seriously. Why work for someone who you don’t look up to and who doesn’t care about your career development? To get a better idea of whether or not a lab head is a good role model, consider questions like:

  • How long do lab members stay around? Is it too long or do they leave prematurely?
  • Do lab alumni stay in the same field taking projects with them and remaining close colleagues of the PI? Or do lab alumni leave the field or get pushed out by the PI?
  • What is the management style? How does the PI deal with conflicts in the lab? Do they motivate with the appropriate balance of encouragement and criticism?
  • Do they encourage diversity in all forms?
  • How are their organizational skills?
  • Are they involved with colleagues and the department?
  • Are they successful at getting grants and funding?

Beware of bullying

Your mental health and success in science will directly depend on your science mentor. One scientist who followed my advice to interview alumni of the lab was told that the PI removed a woman from the appropriate first authorship position on a publication of her project and made another lab member first author because they “needed it more”. My friend didn’t heed this warning and profoundly regretted it when the same thing happened to her a year later. I hear too many science trainees get warnings and still think “but that won’t happen to me, I have a backbone”. The sad truth is, if it happened before, it almost certainly will also happen to you. As you speak to lab members and alumni, don’t ever disregard warning signs of unethical behavior, harassment or bullying.

Even with the rise of movements such as the Future of Research Symposium and #MeTooSTEM, academic bullies are hard to stop—they often have no boss or management structure to demand better behavior. I’m not saying you have no recourse if you end up in a bullying lab, but by far the best thing to do is not go into these labs in the first place. This is another reason to do your research and choose wisely.

From the Tenure She Wrote blog, Toxic Academic Mentors

What is workplace bullying?

  • Threats to professional status – including belittling opinions, public professional humiliation, accusations regarding lack of effort, intimidating use of discipline or competence procedures
  • Threats to personal standing – including undermining personal integrity, destructive innuendo and sarcasm, persistent teasing, name calling, insults, intimidation, sexual harassment
  • Isolation – including preventing access to opportunities, physical or social isolation, withholding necessary information
  • Overwork – including undue pressure, impossible deadlines, unnecessary disruptions
  • Destabilization – including failure to acknowledge good work, allocation of meaningless tasks, removal of responsibility, repeated reminders of blunders, setting target up to fail, shifting goal posts without telling the target

Warning signs while interviewing: Lab members speak disrespectfully of supervisors and/or each other. You are not allowed to speak to lab members alone during the interview period. People seem to be hiding their work and are nervous about discussing data. There’s hesitation before answering questions about lab culture.

Support for diverse career paths

I hope by now you are aware that the majority of PhD scientists will not actually follow the academic career path taken by their training lab mentors. ~80% of you will be in jobs outside of academia 10 years after your training. You must ensure that you are expanding your options and preparing for both academic and non-academic career paths. I can’t say this strongly enough - don’t choose a mentor that sees you only as a paper making machine. Choose one that is a true mentor, supporting career development and growth.

  • Have lab alumni gone into both academic and non-academic careers?   
  • Will you be encouraged to develop transferable skills by attending career events or being involved in a grad or postdoc association?
  • Will you learn how to run a lab if that is your aspiration? Will you help or at least observe grant writing? Get equipment quotes? Understand administrative responsibilities?
  • Is the work (topic and/or technical aspects) applicable to industry if this path interests you  (e.g. human disease or models of disease, drug properties, etc.)?
  • Will this lab help you head for a career in drug/device development? Does the advisor have industry connections such as serving on Boards? Does the publication record show evidence of industry collaboration?
  • If you are considering a career at a small, teaching college you might want to consider less expensive, portable areas of research (transgenic mice—out, zebra fish—in)

Team attitude vs. dog eat dog

Which one is better for you? Maybe you like things a bit hectic and challenging and this drives your best work. Or is it teamwork that brings out your best performance and learning? Everyone’s different so give some thought to what atmosphere makes you successful.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.19.36 PM

Collaborative Competitive
Papers have multiple authors One author plus PI on most papers
Productive external collaborations Reputation for not being open
PI helps lab members determine project "ownership" and author order PI lets lab members fight it out
PI intervenes if there are interpersonal conflicts PI has no idea who is dating whom

Expanding your skillset

Scientists are lifelong learners. I believe we won’t be happy if we aren’t learning so before you take any position you must make sure there will be a way to grow and learn. Graduate students and postdocs in particular must care about this. The training you get now will have a big impact on everything you do in the future. Questions to ask:

  • Will someone(s) train you technically?
  • Will the PI/supervisor look at your data and suggest follow up experiments regularly?
  • Can you work on some experiments of your own choosing?
  • Does the PI keep up on the literature and pass on relevant papers?
  • Will you have access to information from other labs with skills that you can learn?
  • Do lab members work on more than one project at a time or over their stay in the lab?
  • Do all lab members attend scientific meetings (and present)?

Making the decision

Try to rotate or interview in more than one lab when you choose a grad school or postdoc lab. Having a comparison can be very helpful in uncovering strengths and weaknesses of the options. Use this blog as a guide. Start a document to record notes and observations so you have data to review when making a decision. If you don’t see a culture you want to contribute to and learn from, keep looking. The right lab for you is out there if you take the time to evaluate the options critically. How will it feel when you find it? If you find the right lab, some days it won’t even feel like work. Scientists love learning and science so find a place that loves you back.

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Topics: Science Careers, Early Career Researcher

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