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July 2, 2010 11:47 AM   Subscribe

To what extent is it acceptable to "shop around" for graduate programs in the basic sciences (as far as initiating contact with potential labs goes)? In particular, is it ethical to contact more than one PI at the same institution?

I will be applying to bioscience graduate programs this winter, for a commencement of studies in autumn 2011. I am not ready to commit to a career in research, so I'll be applying to master's programs, with the option of continuing on to a PhD or enrolling in medical school afterward. I just haven't made up my mind yet, and I'm not in a hurry.

I'm applying to research-based two-year M.Sc. programs in the US and a couple of European countries (I'm a dual US/EU citizen, so my education there would be tuition-free). I am limited in my choice of programs since: (1) significant other can only work in certain cities, and I'm not too keen on doing the long-distance thing again, and (2) not many U.S. universities offer master's degrees in basic sciences. Research focus is still a priority. At this point, I've started selecting labs that I might enjoy working in, and I've drafted emails to their respective PIs – brief letters to express my interest and go over my undergraduate & research background.

At at least one European university, there are two labs that I might enjoy working in. Is it okay to contact both PIs? Should I inform them that I am also contacting others at their institution? For this particular university, I need a letter that I've secured a position in a lab before I can submit other application documents (and getting that letter is virtually equivalent to being admitted).

Is it too early to send out my emails? Applications don't open up until October-December, but my current PI is busy planning and allocating lab funds year-round.

I'm also grateful for any general advice on application protocol – thanks!
posted by halogen to Education (9 answers total)
Best answer: I don't know about the European ones, but in the US, you should be emailing, well, everyone. I can't imagine what would be "unethical" about this at all -- why not tell them who else you're talking to at that institution?

DEFINITELY tailor the emails to each person though. Talk about THEIR work and why it interests you. Ask them questions about where they're going.
posted by brainmouse at 11:59 AM on July 2, 2010

Best answer: It is absolutely fine to contact whomever you think you might want to work with. PhD students commonly are required to do multiple short stints in several labs before committing to a particular one. While liking the science is important, getting along with the PI and style of the lab are more so for success. For example, some students need a lot of structure and want to be closely managed, while others want a great deal of freedom and only occasional check-ins from the PI. Some students want to work on big collaborative projects which may have more importance to the field / lab, and others would rather work on smaller projects which they can really understand and ultimately take credit for.

MS students, because of the shorter time span, tend to be more closely directed. Most US universities expect MS students to pay, because they produce little useful work relative to the resources they consume, whereas most science PhD students pay nothing and are given a stipend. My standard advice is that you are better off trying to get a job as a technician / lab assistant rather than sign up for an MSc; all the labs that I have been associated with do this with people they think are promising.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 12:03 PM on July 2, 2010

Yeah, email everyone you're interested in; no one cares.

I've gotta say, I'm having a hard time understanding your strategy here. Why not apply for PhD programs, get your tuition paid for while picking up a stipend, and if you decide you want to bail with a masters, bail with a masters? Much better for you financially, many, many more options, and I think you'll find PIs pay much more attention to PhD students than they do to masters students.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:05 PM on July 2, 2010

My standard advice is that you are better off trying to get a job as a technician / lab assistant rather than sign up for an MSc; all the labs that I have been associated with do this with people they think are promising.

Do you mean that this is a good way to get into a PhD program/test the waters, or that one should sub lab experience for a degree?
posted by fake at 12:11 PM on July 2, 2010

Response by poster: a robot made out of meat, I already work full-time as a research associate (glorified research technician), and I'm incredibly happy with my current lab and position. I just don't see it going anywhere, but at the same time don't think I'd be happy as a PhD student at this point in my life (lots of moving around, possible offspring in the next three-four years, etc.). I started my current job with the understanding that I'd stay for two years and then go on to grad school; I have no intentions to deviate from my plan at this time.

mr_roboto, will most likely be going to school in Europe as a foreign (but still EU citizen) student, and my tuition there will be paid in full. The lab will actually get more money for me than for non-foreign students, so I am a very, ahem, lucrative candidate. Furthermore, a M.Sc. is usually required in order to apply to PhD programs in the country I've chosen, with the overall length of both programs being comprable to an American PhD.
posted by halogen at 12:16 PM on July 2, 2010

Response by poster: comparable, that is.
posted by halogen at 12:21 PM on July 2, 2010

Best answer: I'm in NZ but before I did my MSc I picked a University and set up about six meetings with different PIs in one department before choosing a lab. No one blinked an eye and they were all very happy to talk to me even when it was immediately obvious we weren't a good fit. Scientists like to talk about their work with enthusiastic people. It was useful knowing something about the Uni besides just my lab before I went there and I wish I'd made more use of those contacts during my thesis year.

Then when I wanted to do a PhD I essentially did the same thing, but spread the net wider when meeting with people. Ended up somewhere completely different collaborating across several organisations but, again, everyone was really happy to talk to me about their research and see if I might fit in (even though the answer was often a straight no). Due to my collaboration I ended up working back in some of the places I visited previously and having those ties really helped, something I totally didn't expect. This is a networking opportunity too.

I know the US has a fairly different system but it sounds like in Europe you'd be going into something similar to what I've done. Getting an MSc is a good next step for a research associate plus people love having upskilled, motivated students show up. So I'd say contact away, as widely as you feel helpful, anyone who gets weird and doesn't want to talk to you doesn't deserve you. If you're going something entirely new to study then knowing as much as you can about the lab you're going to is so helpful, and for a focussed degree like an MSc having a good PI and project is extra important I think because you want to get through it in time.
posted by shelleycat at 2:18 PM on July 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Definitely contact potential PIs as soon as you can. They need time to plan for funding for you and your projects, and most labs don't have room for unlimited personnel, so they will need to put off taking other students if they are expecting you to join the lab.

Plus, this is a chance to test out "fit" - whether they and you feel like the situation will be a match.

Another consideration is that your PI-to-be might have you start working on writing a proposal for a training grant (like NRSA in the US) that is specific to new graduate students.

Now, I know next-to-nothing about grad school in Europe, but I do know that in the US, you can apply for PhD programs with a Master's bypass. If you apply as a Master's student, faculty are less likely to want you in their labs because they will invest the time to train you and then you'll be leaving so soon after. Many faculty prefer students who say they are going to do the PhD, implying many years of service. Perhaps this won't matter to you, since you can make the case that you are already quite trained, being an RA. Just something to keep in mind.

I doubt that anyone will be offended to know that you are speaking with a range of investigators; at many US institutions, students are encouraged to go through rotations before choosing a mentor, and the PIs themselves fully understand the importance of road-testing potential students before committing to them.
posted by Knowyournuts at 3:11 PM on July 2, 2010

Best answer: You should never go anywhere that doesn't have at least two PIs you'd want to work for, since you might not get into your first choice of lab, or discover later that it's just not a good fit. Therefore, you should absolutely talk to multiple people.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 6:19 PM on July 2, 2010

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