By Susan Sheng
I’m still somewhat in disbelief that I’ve been in my thesis lab for nearly a year now, we’re halfway through summer, and my qualifying exam is fast approaching (eek!). A good friend of mine is getting ready to move across the country to start a PhD program of her own, and recently she has been asking me lots of questions about how to choose a rotation (and eventually, a thesis) lab. Looking back to my first year, I remember being overwhelmed with the number of rotation options, and worrying about “choosing the right one.” (one may recall the PhD Comic comparing PhD programs to marriage). After much discussion with more senior students and a few post docs, and meeting with potential PI mentors, I finally settled on three labs to rotate through. I was fortunate to have generally good experiences with all three labs, and it came down to weighing the pros and cons of each lab to decide which one I would ultimately be happiest in and do my best work. Below are some of the major factors that swayed my decision, and hopefully this will help incoming students narrow down their rotation/thesis lab options.
1. Don’t commit too early
First thing’s first though, don’t feel pressured into committing to three rotation labs right as soon as you arrive in the program. I remember talking to a few classmates on the first day of orientation, and they already had all three rotations lined up! When I started at NYU, I had a list of maybe 10 labs that sounded interesting. During the first month of grad school, I made appointments to meet with the PIs and discuss the possibility of rotating in their labs. From there, I narrowed down that list to about 4-5 labs. I decided my first rotation would be in a learning and memory lab, since it was an area I had worked in previously and thus it would be easier for me to hit the ground running while I adjusted to graduate school life. I told the other PIs that I was interested in possibly doing a second or third rotation with them, but that I would get back in touch with them at a later date to confirm. Luckily those PIs were amenable to this arrangement, and I realize this may not work in labs where there are a lot of other students interested in rotating/joining. However the advantage of not committing early meant that I had the flexibility to see how my interests developed through my work in the first rotation and through classes and seminars I attended in the first semester. I actually ended up doing my third rotation in a lab I had not even heard of prior to arriving at NYU, and in a totally different department (microbiology, instead of neuroscience), and that was based on chatting with a graduate student at a poster session I attended. Keep your options open!
As an international student, one major concern I had was funding. Because I’m not a US citizen or permanent resident, I don’t qualify for the vast majority of grants/fellowships in the US (i.e. institutional training grants, NRSA/F31, NSF, etc.). Additionally, I also found myself ineligible for funding from my home country (Canada), so I needed to find a lab that was well-established and well-funded enough that I wouldn’t be expected to bring in my own funding sources. Troubleshooting experiments and collecting good data is hard enough as it is without wondering whether you will have the funding to buy reagents or supplies!
When meeting with potential PIs, it’s good to be upfront and ask whether the lab can support a student, and be clear about what grants you are (and are not) eligible for. It seems a bit awkward at first but is a common question that comes up so don’t be afraid to ask! Another resource is NIH RePORTER which lists active NIH grants held by a PI. Depending on the field, this database will be more or less useful, as it does not give any indication of other funding sources, such as NSF or private foundations, but it can be a good starting point to get a sense of a lab’s financial situation.
3. Mentoring style
In terms of mentoring style, PIs can range from micro-managers who want constant updates to very laissez-faire with only occasional check-ins, to everything in between. It’s important to consider your own working style and be honest about what kind of mentor would help you achieve your greatest potential and succeed in your program. For myself, I wanted a mentor who would check-in with me regularly to make sure I was making good progress (and give suggestions if I get really stuck), but would also allow me the freedom to explore my ideas. Too much leeway and I was worried I would either procrastinate horribly, or waste time wandering down paths that are less important or novel. On the other hand, one of my classmates remarked that if she was in my lab she would be too stressed and frustrated with weekly meetings, and instead prefers the greater freedom her PI allows her with monthly check-ins.
There is no right answer of course, but it’s important to be honest with yourself, and find the best fit. This is something you should be able to gauge from a lab rotation and from talking to current students in the lab. Generally I found that newer PIs tend to be much more involved with their students’ work (I have friends who are regularly in the lab until the wee hours of the morning, working alongside their PI!) and older PIs tend to be less involved and give more mentoring responsibility to the post-docs in the lab, but this is not always the case.
Want to know more? You can find the other 3 top tips for choosing the right lab for you here!