How do I choose a research group for my PhD?
October 26, 2010 3:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm a first-year Ph.D student (in chemistry), and I'm having a hard time choosing what lab I want to work in. What factors are most important to look at?

There are a few reasons for this:

-I don't know what to look for. There are a lot of factors: how do I feel about the day-to-day work? How fluent am I with the underlying theory? Can I easily see a thesis project I could build up? What about the personality of my would-be adviser? Or the prestige of the lab's work? The completion rates/times of previously mentored students? I don't know how to evaluate these things, or how to weight them relative to one another. (This is really the main thing I'm asking about. If you decide to tl;dr here, that's fine; the rest of the post is just background/complicating factors.)

-I didn't have a really clear idea of what I wanted to do when I came in (bad, I know.) I'm most interested in biophysical chemistry, definitely want to do something along those lines, but that's an awfully broad field, and I have a fairly broad swath of interests within it.

-Compounding this: my first rotation didn't go the way I wanted it to; a lab that I thought I'd find fascinating wound up being not to my tastes, once I got a deeper look at the methods and focus. I go between being worried that I'll never find a lab that I want to stick with, and being terrified that I made to hasty a decision to leave that rotation (maybe if I stuck it out, I'd like it more? Perhaps I'm setting the bar too high for what I want?)

-Compounding everything: anxiety issues. I have a hard time talking to professors. Part of what made that first rotation more stressful than it should have been was that I kept chickening out of approaching my professor in order to discuss concrete expectations and deadlines for the rotation. Additionally, many of the labs I'm interested involve unfamiliar or advanced concepts, and I tend to become frustrated when I don't pick them up quickly, thinking that this means I won't ever be able to understand them adequately (I know this is an irrational response.) This is not helped by my tendency to get panicky when I do have to ask questions. I've started getting therapy for this set of problems, but I doubt they'll be resolved by the time I need to commit to a research group.

I've thought about quitting. I know the problems I've listed above are major red flags that I jumped into grad school before I was really prepared for it. But I'd much rather make this work out, for a few reasons:

-I like grad school. I like my classes, I like labwork, I like the general atmosphere. Which leads me to think (hope?) that I could finish, and that a long-term career in academia/research may be right for me.

-I know that if I were to leave, it would be very difficult to come back, ever. That makes it hard for me to justify leaving grad school, except as a decision to permanently leave the idea of research chemistry as a career. I don't think such a decision would be the end of the world (there are other things I could see myself doing and enjoying), but it's not what I'd choose now, based on the previous bullet.

-I don't know where I'd go (this is a concern, as it usually is for grad students, but I'd rank it as the least pressing--if I made a firm decision that I really, 100% wanted to leave, I think I could find somewhere to go and something to do after.)
posted by kagredon to Education (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: In terms of things to look for, I don't think a specific project should be a top priority because projects change- things that look great at first may fizzle out, and things that seem mundane may get you good publications and teach you valuable technical skills. Here are some important things to consider:

1. Funding. Does the PI have enough funding to keep the lab up and running for at least 5 years? Are lab members able to order the supplies they need?
2. Publications. Do a lot of publications come out of the lab? Are grad students first authors? Are they also on each other's papers? Publications is what will determine how long it takes you to finish, more than anything else. A good pattern to look for would be something like in year 2 or so, student is a secondary author on a paper, in year 3 or 4 they are first author on a paper relating to their own project.
3. Support. Are there people in the group who will help you- with ideas, data interpretation, and more importantly, techniques? Most PIs (except for the young ones) don't spend much time in the lab at all. The most productive labs have post-docs, research assistants, or senior grad students who are willing to provide hands-on assistance to the newer lab members. You don't want a lab full of new grad students or highly competitive postdocs who don't have time for anything aside their own projects. Overall, is it a friendly environment? Do people seem nice and helpful, or are they on edge and afraid of the boss?
4. Advisor. If your advisor has a reputation for being a jerk, take heed and avoid that lab.
5. Research topic. I mentioned above that the specific project isn't super important, because PhD projects have a tendency to change over time, but overall, do you like the group's topic? Are there multiple projects that you find interesting? Is the group known in their field? Will your work fall into some sort of field? Beware of the "interesting side project" that's difficult to want to be working in an area that other people are currently interested in and working on. Do students attend research topics and present their work?

In terms of quitting, I spent 6 years in a lab with a nasty advisor and an obscure project no one cared about. If I had known how miserable those last 3 years would have been, I would have quit in a heartbeat and never looked back. But by the time it got really, really bad, I had already invested 4 years of my life and just couldn't manage to walk away. However, I finished, got the PhD, and now I'm doing a postdoc in a fantastic lab full of nice people, a supportive boss, and interesting and important work, and I love it. Does your program offer a terminal masters? (usually this would be after your 2nd year, around the time you take your qualifying exams). I would advise sticking it out until then (who knows, maybe you'll end up finding a lab and a project you really enjoy, and it sounds like you're liking it now except for the stress of finding a lab) but if you're feeling depressed and horrible at the end of year 2, it's the best time to bail because you can still get a masters.

lastly, is there anyone in your department (chair, graduate student program director) whom you could talk to about finding a lab? if it's not someone who's lab you're considering, maybe you won't be nervous, and you should be able to get some good suggestions and advice.
posted by emd3737 at 4:03 AM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Talk to as many grad students in as many labs as you can. If you like the grad students, and the grad students like the PI, and the grad students seem relaxed and have plenty of time to talk to you, those are all good signs. Then ask, if you were me, would you join this lab, or would you run screaming?

If the PI is charming and optimistic, but doesn't seem to actually listen to you or hear your concerns, or controls the conversation then breezes away, that's a really, really, really bad sign. They should be able to talk about multiple projects, what needs to be done, what the difficult parts are, etc.

(and all the funding stuff)
posted by zeek321 at 4:57 AM on October 26, 2010

What emd said. That's some good advice right there.

However, I would add this: You could go around and talking to the PhD/post doc guys in all the groups. You get a much, much better sitrep in a given lab this way - what the project really is like, if the supervisor is a slave driver or a nice guy, etc. I realise you said you found it difficult talking to the profs, well you can keep it to a minimum this way.
posted by dragontail at 5:02 AM on October 26, 2010

Something I wish I had done before going through my first lab: In addition to talking to current grad students, see if you can talk to any former students who are now doing their PhDs with a different PI, or students who have decided to bail with a Master's, and find out why they left that lab.

Take anything they say with the appropriate grain of salt, of course, since they may be disproportionately bitter; but if you miss out on this, you'll only get the perspective from the folks who found a way to stick it out.
posted by dorque at 5:46 AM on October 26, 2010

Thirding emd3737's comments -- especially about the postdocs. It's the postdocs and lab techs who do most of the day-to-day practical instruction in a lab.

How available is the PI? Are they in the lab daily? Do they travel twice a month and spend their mornings at home writing a textbook?

In addition to the slavedriver and micromanager, another personality to watch out for is the too-nice PI. Nice is, well, nice, but someone who won't tell you when your stupid ideas are stupid isn't doing you any favors.

What's the lab travel budget like? How often do grad students get sent to conferences?

One rule of thumb to gauge the overall environment: how many papers coming out of the lab have that stupid "these authors contributed equally to this work" footnote on them? Although there are exceptions, in general that's a good indicator of the competitiveness and jerkbag density in the group.

As for the research focus of the group - that's a secondary consideration. Interesting questions can pop up anywhere, and chances are you'll be doing something different as a postdoc anyway. One thing to consider is what techniques the work will give you expertise in.
posted by penguinicity at 6:48 AM on October 26, 2010

The completion rates/times of previously mentored students?

This is really important. I'm in the humanities, not chemistry, but I have a biochemist friend who has been languishing in ABD purgatory for YEARS longer than necessary because her PI just. does. not. graduate her students—she finds endless nits to pick with their dissertations, tells them to change A to B, then tells them to change B to A, then has hourlong discussions with them about why the font they've chosen for labeling their tables is unacceptable. It turns out she is well-respected as a researcher but notorious for holding up her grad students until they either quit the program or find some extraordinary way to "force" her to schedule a defense and pass the dissertation. Try, at all costs, to avoid this kind of PI.
posted by Orinda at 9:28 AM on October 26, 2010

There's a lot of good advice above re: interviewing the other inmates of labs you're interested in. The vibe from the more senior students, or from postdocs in leadership roles, far outstrips the influence of the PI's personality in most of the groups I've worked with or near.

I came in to warn you away from "prestige" as a factor, unless you are using prestige as a proxy for significant and reliable funding. Most groups, even poor or mismanaged ones, have a nice story about saving the environment/atmosphere/civilization with the application of project X. I've seen a lot of students fall for the story, or for the promise of working on the application, when the group is really focused on pathfinding or fleshing out the theoretical underpinnings...
You've said you don't really know what you want to work on, but you might have an idea about what kinds of techniques/skills you want to develop, and where those techniques tend to fall on a continuum from synthesis to chemical physics, or from characterization/analytical to manipulation/engineering. Do you want to work exclusively via the computer, or go in the lab to validate the things you did on the computer, or do simulations to buttress your work in the lab?

My graduate group (inorganic/solid state) had folk spanning a wide range, but most groups don't, and it really bites to be the lone synthesis-oriented girl in a lab full of characterization/kinetics jocks. Or to be the one person who really digs the physics approaches to bonding in a group that's trying to reverse-engineer a natural product extracted from frog toes...
posted by janell at 11:34 AM on October 26, 2010

A Natural Scientist has some good advice here:
posted by synchronia at 11:57 AM on October 26, 2010

emd3737 mentions a few things that are really important. If funding isn't renewed partway through your program, YOU and your project might be okay- but the techs and postdocs are going to go, lab productivity tanks and the work environment is pretty glum. The PI might not be totally clear on what he has coming in (unintentionally or intentionally) so look up the agencies and grant amounts online (they should be a matter of public record).

Make sure there are people senior to you there- senior PhD candidates, postdocs. Having a really good tech or two can be a plus. One lab I was in hired undergrads to do our dishes, autoclaving, etc- ten hours a week made a huge difference.
posted by variella at 1:27 PM on October 26, 2010

Best answer: Lots of good advice above. Just wanted to add my own perspective on this issue:

In addition to the slavedriver and micromanager, another personality to watch out for is the too-nice PI. Nice is, well, nice, but someone who won't tell you when your stupid ideas are stupid isn't doing you any favors.

This is related to the hands-off to hands-on continuum of advising philosophies -- one isn't necessarily better than the other, but you should think carefully about your personality and work ethic and decide what you really want.

Extremely hands-on advising can often coincide with micromanagement and slavedriving, and extremely hands-off advising can leave you floundering and unproductive. But it's possible for hands-on advisors to be helpful, and there are advisors who never show up in the lab or set internal deadlines but are extremely supportive in other ways.

Mine is of the latter type. We have the occasional grad student or postdoc join the group, do nothing for a year, and then quietly disappear; this is certainly sad and inefficient. I was slow to get started in part due to this advising style, but through defining my own research goals I've developed a real sense of ownership of my work and can see it leading into a career that is very distinct from my advisor's. When I wanted to incorporate a technique in which he lacked expertise, he involved me in a fruitful collaboration; I go to conferences frequently and have had more than one opportunity for international research experience. So, working for a "nice" advisor with lots of connections who's more interested in your professional development than in treating you as a data factory can work out well -- if you can deal with the frustration of not being given a firm direction or schedule.

Good luck!
posted by ecsh at 4:06 PM on October 26, 2010

Best answer: The single biggest difference between the people I know who are happy in grad school and the people who are miserable is the personality fit they've found with their advisor and group. Nothing else will be as important as this.

You should focus on finding an advisor who is considerate, actually cares about you as a person, and whose working style meshes well with yours. You'll may always be a tiny bit scared to talk to your advisor, but if you find someone who you trust and admire and who bothers to talk to you, you'll work around that and be happy. Find someone who can communicate well, and in a way that speaks to you. Remember that you're out to learn more than simple lab techniques - if you find an advisor who's a good fit, he or she can hopefully teach you about how to communicate science, how to network, how academia works, how to manage people, and all sorts of other things that you probably aren't thinking about while you're in classes mode.

How your advisor manages the group will also be a huge factor. Some advisors encourage backbiting and internal competition; others (like mine) will only take on new hires once everyone in the group has met them and approved, so as to make sure there won't be any major personality clashes. The tone of the group will be set by the advisor, and it's like a family: either nurturing and supportive, or seriously dysfunctional. And all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, so you'll have to talk to everyone in each prospective group who will spare you a minute. Ask them detailed questions about their life and work: what hours do they work? How does their advisor react when they make a mistake? Do they feel like help and credit are liberally shared in the group? Is there support for people who choose to follow the career course after grad school that you're considering? Are they, flat out, happy? Details will vary, and people will often avoid saying anything really brutal even if they should, but after talking to a few groups you'll start to be able to tell the happy groups, who are full of extraordinary praise for their advisor and labmates.

As far as other things to consider: not knowing exactly what you want to do is totally fine, but do try to figure out where your strengths lie and what you'll enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis. If you hate working with your hands and are clumsy, experimental work probably isn't for you; if you hate computer programming, make sure that it won't be a huge part of your job. Grad school really does end up being sort of like a job once classes end, and the big-picture stuff that can make particular fields seems more or less exciting to you may not translate to what you'll actually have to get out of bed to go do every day for years. And tons of people switch subfields after grad school anyway, so don't worry too much about being locked down in a super-narrow discipline.

Other things, like an advisor's prestige, the average number of years to graduation, funding, and so on, are areas where you should watch out for red flags (and again, asking the students in the group each of these questions will help you), but I believe they shouldn't be the starting point.

And finally: don't give up. This post could have been written by me a few years ago. My first year was hands-down one of the worst of my life, but once I started working for my wonderful advisor (and sleeping enough!) everything calmed down and now I'm really happy with my work and with my group. So at least give it some time before you consider dropping out, because there's a very good chance that toughing it out will be the best thing you ever did.

Best wishes - I really do feel for you. Feel free to me-mail me if I can provide any specific advice.
posted by you're a kitty! at 10:06 PM on October 26, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all so much. I'm going into a new rotation now, and I think it's going a bit better--it's a lab that's just getting off the ground--which is a bit of a risk, but it does mean there's a lot to do and try--and the mentoring style/personalities of the lab and postdoc seem to suit me better. I'm still going to be doing some more interviewing and maybe more rotations before I make a complete decision, but I feel like I have a better idea how to do that, thanks to the advice in this thread.
posted by kagredon at 12:27 AM on October 29, 2010

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