6 Top Tips For Choosing the Right Lab for You – Part 1


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!


2. Funding

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!


How I Nailed My Lab Rotation and Got in the Lab I Wanted


By Evelyn Litwinoff

From the first time I met with my now PI to discuss a possible rotation, I knew I wanted to end up in her lab. She took me seriously even as a lowly first year grad student, and valued my thoughts and input on the rotation project we discussed. I left that meeting super excited about the rotation to be, and I couldn’t wait to get started.


Arguably the best part about this rotation was that I made and had my very own project as a rotation student that had the possibility to become a thesis project if – I mean when – I joined the lab. And the project was all about autophagy – a topic I had been introduced to in undergrad, found super exciting, and wanted to learn all about. (A quick refresher: Autophagy is a cellular recycling mechanism used to degrade large proteins, organelles, aggregates, and other substrates. It is essential for cellular health, especially in times of starvation. As Bill Nye the Science Guy would say,Now you know!”)


Step #1: Taking initiative


I came in on day one ready to generate tons of data, eager to become friends with everyone in the lab, and “wow” them all with my super science skills. Then I hit roadblock #1: the person in the lab I was assigned to work under wouldn’t let me do anything myself. I would watch her as she plated the cells, changed the media, dissected the mice, etc, and all I was able to do was label tubes. Not exactly how I imagined this rotation would be. But instead of sulking around wishing things would be different – ok after doing that for 2 weeks and spending time looking up other labs to rotate in – I spoke with another post-doc in the lab, and she agreed to have me work with her instead. Later after I joined the lab, I found out from this post-doc that by taking charge of my situation and changing it for the better, I showed her (and therefore my PI) that I really wanted to be a part of the lab and I could take initiative with my own project.


Step #2: Learning and mastering new skills – Evelyn vs. the Western Blot


My undergrad research was all about Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) genetics, so most of my science skills before grad school consisted of PCR, running DNA gels, sequencing, and C. elegans specific handling. Hence, I had never done a western blot myself before this rotation. But by the end of my 3 months in the lab, I was a western blot master! One of the main ways to assess if autophagy is upregulated is to look for increases in the autophagy specific protein, LC3. So the end points of all my cell culture experiments were western blots for LC3 and another autophagy specific protein, Beclin. I worked my butt off doing western blot after western blot, sometimes staying in lab until 1am, and was able to have new results at almost every meeting with the PI. At the end of my rotation, one of the research associates came up to me and said, “I can’t believe how much data you generated in such a short period of time.” I was very proud of how much data I was able to produce, but more importantly, I was happy I learned this new skill quickly enough that I didn’t have to take up a lot of my post-doc’s time when running my own experiments.


Step #3: Being a good labmate


When I used up my post-doc’s stocks and buffers, I always asked her for the recipe to make more, and I replaced whatever I took. Same thing goes for refilling the pipettes in the cell culture room, emptying the vacuum, etc. Doing these types of lab chores goes a long way in showing your commitment to the lab, and in convincing everyone that they want you to stick around. I didn’t realized how important these small things were until I joined the lab and saw everyone’s reactions to the, let’s say “absent-minded” summer students.


Step #4: Admitting mistakes


At one point in my rotation, I left some antibodies on the bench overnight. Major whoops. I apologized profusely to my post-doc. Although she was not happy with me, she understood it sometimes happens to everyone and appreciated my straightforwardness in telling her.


Step #5: The big finish!


One of the things my PI from undergrad engrained into my head was how to make a good presentation. She would never be happy with my slides until they were mostly pictures with very very very few words underneath. I used these skills to put together a presentation for the end of my rotation. In my now PI’s words, “Evelyn, these slides are gorgeous!” Cue the inner Cheshire cat grin. I left that rotation with good impressions on the lab and the PI, and I kept in touch with the post-doc I worked closely with. Sometime in the middle of my next rotation, I emailed this PI and asked to join her lab. To my delight, she said yes!


How I Chose a Lab in 3 Easy Steps


By Lauren Larkin


There are four big decisions one has to make when deciding to pursue a graduate education: 1) to actually pursue a graduate education, 2) at which institution, 3) working on what, and 4) in whose lab. Once you have answered for yourself that yes, you do want to go for your Masters and/or Ph.D., you have some control in determining where, but once you have submitted your grades and gone on your interviews, whether or not an institution accepts you is largely out of your control. What you do have more control over, and what I personally found more daunting, is deciding what you want to work on, and for whom. Your lab is not only is it where you will spend a considerable portion of your time for the upcoming years, but it is your first foray into Science as a career and can follow after your graduation.
In my last post, I wrote about how I approached graduate school a little more nonchalantly than I should have and therefore struggled to hit my stride. One of the ways this manifested was when I was tasked with choosing three labs in which to rotate and to finally choose one in which to complete my thesis. I knew I wanted to study molecular/cell biology most preferably in the context of cancer or immunology. This was not a very helpful way to narrow down labs at a major medical research institution with an umbrella graduate program.


I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of potential labs so I sort of panicked and made rash decisions. Luckily, I wised up enough by the end of my first year and ended up in a lab I am happy with and am enjoying my research. From this experience (as well as watching others go through the rotation/choosing process), I’d offer the following advice that I wish I had taken:


Clearly decide what you want to study and how you want to study it

I alluded to this in my last post that this was an important decision to make even before choosing to go to graduate school. Some people enter into an institution already knowing exactly whose lab they want to enter into, but for those who don’t it is good to have as distinct a focus as possible be it a disease, cellular process, or technique. Doing so will help narrow down your choices to make the most out of your first year. It will also afford you the opportunity to learn more deeply about your particular field. With the multiple perspectives you can learn how different labs approach the same problem, learn different ways to ask questions, and rotations are a good opportunity to try new methods.

What goes along with this is deciding the approach you want to take to what it is that you want to study. For example, my background is in biology and chemistry, therefore I’m most interested in asking questions from a biochemical and molecular point of view. But if I someone asked me to think deeply about genetics or systems biology, my head would just about explode, which would be unfortunate for everyone involved.


Consider lab dynamics and your potential relationship with your mentor

Would you prefer to work in a big lab or little lab? Social or quiet? More closely managed or more flexible? These factors will be important when you are late into your third year and the newness of your graduate career has worn off and you see how long the road is ahead of you.

Also important to take into consideration is your relationship with your mentor. As much as scientists would like to think of the world as a logical and fair place, we are human beings first and how you interact with your boss can and will affect your graduate career and the science you do. However, because we are all different snowflakes, this is a highly personal preference. Some people know they need their boss to be a little bit of a hardass to push them. If that were me, on the other hand, would constantly be on the edge of a mental breakdown. Personally, I like a good balance of pushing versus flexibility. I know I learn best by trying on my own (usually followed by failing a lot on my own), then asking for help.


Your mentor is also just about the only constant in the lab. Other lab members will come and go, you could move your lab, even move to another institution, and your project is definitely not constant, but your mentor will remain. Make sure that it is someone you can stand, and ideally even enjoy, working for.


Assess longer term funding capabilities

My first two pieces of advice are the parts of choosing a lab that depends on you and your preferences, but this is the practical one. Although I think it is within everyone’s preference to join a lab that can, you know, buy things. With the uncertain funding climate, choosing a stable lab can be vital to your success as a graduate student. Stable does not mean that the lab will be able to afford all of your whims for kits and antibodies, but that it will be able to sustain you through your Masters or Ph.D. Having said that, I think it is a good idea during your stay in the lab to apply for outside funding if for no other reason than the education and to take pressure off of your PI. Regardless, choosing a financially stable lab will take ease stress throughout your stay.

If I had to do my first year over again, I’m confident I would wind up in the same lab, but I would have chosen my rotations differently and with more intention. For the first 6 months of my first year I felt like I was flapping around in the wind. In the end, choosing a lab is a personal choice. There’s no such thing as a perfect lab or an inherently bad lab. You will want to cry in lab (or desperately feel like it) if you chose what you think is an awesome lab, and you will have victorious science data days if you feel like you wound up in a bad lab. What matters is that you make the best decision for yourself that you can with what you have available.

A Journey into the Unknown – Lab Rotations

Neeley Remmers

It’s that time of year when the temperatures start to rise turning closed-toed shoes into sandals and pants into shorts and we start looking out our windows 50 times a day wishing we could be outside by a pool or on a lake. Yep, I’m talking about summer, and though there is a lull in the activities occurring on campus, this is the time when a number of new faces show up on campus ranging from new doctoral students starting early to undergraduates wanting to do summer research bringing on the tidal wave of new students wanting to rotate through your lab. If you happen to be one of these new faces embarking on the journey of rotating through labs, Continue reading “A Journey into the Unknown – Lab Rotations”