How to find the right lab for your PhD
Going into a PhD program is a confusing whirlwind of stress, new experiences, and the general feeling of being lost. You do belong there… right? You know what’s harder than making the choice to get your PhD? Finding the lab you want to call home for the next five or more years. Inspired by advice I gave to one of the undergrads I’m mentoring, today we’re going to talk about how you should hunt down a lab you want to be a part of. It’s that time of the year again, but don’t worry, finding the right lab for you doesn’t need to be scary.
One more time from the top. I’m finishing up my third year as a PhD candidate in neuroengineering. I have a BS and MS in mechanical engineering and while the two fields have engineering in them they are completely different! Okay not completely, but different enough that I was lost the first few years. I think that’s the theme for anyone doing a PhD, you’re just lost until somehow you get your degree. In my spare time (haha) I mentor, teach, build things, and blog. This is 365 days of academia year two! My goal is to blog daily about the trials I face getting to that PhD and we’re almost done with the second year of the project, time flies!
You’ve decided you want a PhD, well first what the hell is wrong with you? Kidding (not kidding). A PhD is a commitment, making the jump can be stressful and this is particularly true for people going from their BS to PhD. A MS and specifically your PhD aren’t structured like your undergrad years. There are some loose requirements you need to meet, but most of your effort is focused on research and other non-class related activities such as teaching or mentoring.
It means you get to set your hours, which is a blessing and a curse because going from a given structure to setting your own structure can be disorienting and if you’re like me you end up working non-stop because no one told you to take a break and you don’t know any better because the world tells you to avoid sleeping so you can be more productive. That’s another topic for a different post, but what I’m trying to highlight is that no one will tell you what to do or not do as long as you accomplish what they ask you to do.
What does this have to do with finding the right lab? Well, everything. A good lab will teach you good habits and help you succeed, but a good lab looks different to everyone. Sometimes you want a lab with a hands off PI sometimes you need some hands on guidance. Maybe you want a PI who has a lot of experience in a particular topic or maybe you want one who does research in a broad field. You may want someone who has a lot of connections or someone who’s just starting out. There are benefits and disadvantages to all these things and figuring out what you want is the first step to finding the lab for you.
Now, how do you go about finding a lab for you? The biggest mistake I can think of is not talking to the students in the lab. Identifying a lab you want to work in can happen in a lot of different ways, through people you know, google scholar searches, recent publications in the area you’re interested in, even random meetings at conferences. There are countless ways to find labs doing work you want to be part of, but if you don’t talk to the students in that lab you could be setting yourself up for a hellish five or more years.
A good lab will be diverse, because everyone has different experiences and backgrounds which makes for a fuller experience. It also means that if you’re stuck you’ll have people to talk with. An important consideration for anyone who’s disabled (and I learned this the hard way) is to figure out how your prospective PI would handle working with you and the accommodations they can offer. Some labs are going to be more accessible than others, part of that is the school, part of that is the PI, and part of that is the resources that you will have access to. You’ll want to check not just the lab, but the school and specifically for disabled students, the resources for you. Do they have a disability advocate group that is student run? Trust me you may not need help from such a group, but if you do you’ll want the resources they can offer.
A good PI will complement the way you learn best, so talk with the students in the lab and get a feel for what they offer. A more established PI will have access to better funding (or at least know where to look and have experience getting funding), connections, and a track record that will help you. The downside is they will typically be hands off because they are busy with other projects and hunting down funding for others. They will typically have a larger lab (specifically for the engineering side of things, not sure about other fields), which means more students to bounce ideas off of and questions that can be answered.
A PI just starting out will not typically have a lot of connections, or at least not very developed connections. They may or may not have a lot of funding. It depends on when you join. If the lab is just starting PI’s are typically given startup funds so they will have money, new equipment, and you can get a hand in shaping the stuff that comes into the lab. For example, my Masters lab was new and I got to order all of the equipment for it. I also pushed the lab to 3D printing because of my background with it and they’ve been working with it doing all sorts of cool stuff since I left. A PI just starting will (typically) be more hands on because they have the time and need things to go well.
It means you’ll get more mentorship and learn directly from them which can be invaluable if you’re someone who works well in that kind of environment. My Co-PI’s lab is in a similar situation, he just started and I’ve got the chance to help with ordering equipment, learning first hand from him (a lot!), and I even got to be part of the interviews for his postdocs and I’ve given feedback on who I thought he should bring on. Not all PI’s will be like that, but I really thrive in that kind of environment because as he says we’re working WITH him not FOR him. A small, but important distinction which makes me feel like my opinion matters. My main-PI is extremely established so I see him less and since he has far more experience he doesn’t usually ask for my opinion on things, I work for him, which is the norm and there’s nothing wrong with that especially if you like that kind of structure.
To be thorough we can talk about how to find a lab. The easiest way is to look at conference papers that are of interest to you. Not sure about what conferences to look for? Google helps, but there’s also science news aggregators like eureka alert that keep up to date with the larger advances in the fields and are organized by interest. Once you find a lab, email the PI or reach out to some of the students if possible. Getting to know where you want to go is just as important as applying. Making sure the PI knows who you are can be the difference between getting accepted and being waitlisted or rejected. Your application only tells a small story about who you are, so it’s important to let the PI know you want to be part of the team and that they should be interested in having you. Sometimes just showing interest is enough to get a PI excited to have you come on the team.
So there you have it. Frankly I could probably fill a whole book with tips and advice on things I wish I had known going in. Some of the things I recommend (like reaching out) I did, but without knowing that I should it felt a little intrusive. It’s okay to reach out to a lab, but do it in a way that shows you’re familiar with what they do, reference a paper you found interesting, talk about what you bring to the table and how you want to expand on something or go a completely different direction with it, it really is the best advice I can offer. I got lucky because I did it simply because I had no idea how else to go about finding a lab I wanted to be part of. Turns out that’s the correct way to do those things, but no one told me.
Since fall is typically the time for application, you’ll want to try to reach out now over the summer. Don’t hear back? Don’t sweat it, try reaching out a second or even third time. If they don’t respond you may want to try someone else in the lab or a completely different lab all together, but putting in the work over the summer will help make applying that much smoother and it will help set you up for success when you find some place you really feel like you fit will with. A PhD is a lot like a marriage, there’s a lot of work, highs and lows, and it will forever change you. You wouldn’t walk blindly into a marriage, so don’t walk blindly into a lab. Sure it may work, but why take the risk if you don’t have to?