Choosing a Thesis Lab
A thesis lab is a place that you will spend much of the next several years of your life. The work you do in your thesis lab will influence the work you do in the rest of your career. The recommendation you receive from your thesis advisor will determine what options will be open to you after you receive your degree. Choosing your thesis lab is an important decision, so take it seriously and make it carefully.
First Know Yourself:
Your life goals, priorities, and values
Only you can decide what you want out of life.
Your career goals
What would you eventually like to do with your PhD? Are you interested in doing research in industry or academia? Do you want to teach at a small liberal arts college? Do you see yourself in a non-traditional science career? Think about the kinds of research that are compatible with your career goals.
You might also want to consider the job market. Some research areas will likely be in more demand in the coming years. For example, as genome sequencing projects are completed, bioinformatics will likely become increasingly important.
Be aware that currently many life science PhD holders get jobs that are not in research or teaching; however, the vast majority (95%) feel that their science training was useful in their current career. (see http://nextwave.sciencemag.org/ or http://www.nsf.gov/ )
Your research interests
What areas of research really interest you? Which labs are doing research that you find compelling? If you choose thesis work that you find interesting and exciting, you will enjoy discussing your research with others. You will enjoy thinking up experiments to test your ideas and carrying them out. You will enjoy reading journal articles, going to seminars, and attending meetings in your field. By the end of your thesis work, you will be an expert in your area, and you will have enjoyed getting there.
Your Personality and Work Style
Labs are not one size fits all. Some students excel in labs where other students would flounder. You need to decide what kind of a thesis advisor and lab environment will be right for you. Do you work better with a PI who is very hands on or would you prefer a PI who lets/expects you to solve your own problems? Do you want a PI who motivates you by encouragement or by criticism? Would you prefer a large lab or one that is smaller? There are no right or wrong answers; just be aware of what you prefer. And consider that personality and work style conflicts are probably the most common reasons why students leave thesis labs, so choosing a PI and lab that are a good fit for you is essential.
mentorship track record How many graduate students has the lab had? How many have graduated with what degrees and how long has it taken them? What are they doing now?
research area Are you interested in the area? Will it fit with your career and life goals? Is it interesting to others? Will there be a project that you will be able to complete in a reasonable period of time?
lineage Who did the PI do his graduate and Post Doc work with? Do his graduate and post graduate advisors have good scientific reputations?
publications What journals does the PI publish in? Are the journals peer-reviewed and well-respected? Is there a history of the lab publishing something every (or about every) year?
tenure Does the PI have tenure? If the PI will be up for tenure during the time you will be in the lab, is he likely to get tenure?
scientific reputation Is the PI well thought of by his peers? Are his scientific beliefs shared and/or respected by others in the field?
collaborations and contacts Does the PI collaborate with other groups? Does the PI have contacts that will help you further your career goals?
PI Fit Considerations
expectations of graduate students “What is expected of a graduate student in the lab?” Ask both the PI and others involved in the lab. Do the answers match? If they don’t match be careful.
honesty and trustworthiness Does the PI do what he says he will? Can you trust that he will give you credit for the work you do? Does the PI have your best interests in mind? Will the PI look out for you professionally and personally? Can you always believe what he says? (Some say one thing but actually mean something else. Some are careless in their promises—they promise the same project to more than one person.)
communication style Is the PI confrontational or non confrontational? Is the PI flexible or inflexible? Does the PI get upset and yell at lab members, but the next day doesn’t remember the incident?
temperament Is the PI moody or even-tempered? Is he generally an optimist or pessimist? Does the PI play favorites or treat everyone the same?
motivational techniques Does the PI motivate students by praise and encouragement or by criticism and blame? Are these done in public or private? (public criticism is not pleasant)
management competence Does the lab run smoothly? Will your work constantly be interrupted by having to take care of administrative duties that the PI has failed to address?
accessible or inaccessible Is the PI physically present at Wash U or traveling every other week? Is the PI in his office, the lab, or in meetings all day long? Can you speak with him if necessary?
approachable or unapproachable Do you feel comfortable talking with the PI?
guidance level Are graduate students expected to completely develop their own project or does the PI get them started? Is the lab environment sink or swim or does the PI try to offer ideas and assistance when a project isn’t going well? How hands-on, hands-off, or micromanaging is the PI?
Lab and Department Academic Considerations
physical resources ( including equipment, lab space, computers, meeting space)
people resources (including ordering person, technicians, post docs, other grad students, and computer/network technical support)
lab meetings Does the lab have them? Are they regularly held? Are they effective in providing useful feedback from others on your project?
departmental seminars with outside speakers Does the department have them? Are the speakers relevant to your area of research?
departmental seminars with Wash U speakers Does the department bring in speakers from other departments? Do students/faculty/post docs in the department also present their work?
departmental journal clubs Are they held? Are they on topics that are useful to your research?
Lab and Department Fit considerations
Can you work with or around the others who are in the lab and department?
large vs. small large and small labs or departments have different dynamics. Which are you the most comfortable with? Both have their pros and cons so try and understand the benefits and drawbacks of each.
spread out vs. crowded Does the lab have enough physical space for you to work in? How spread out is the department?
central vs. isolated Some departments are far away Cori and Earlanger Auditoriums where many seminars are held. Will you be able to attend classes, seminars, etc. conveniently from the department? Are some labs are far away from others in the same department?
social vs. antisocial Does the department have well attended FACs or holiday parties, etc.? Do the lab members socialize outside of lab work?
collaborative vs. non-collaborative If you run out of something you need can you borrow it from another lab? Do labs in the department share equipment? Do labs collaborate on projects? Do those in the lab work together or is it every person for himself?
pro grad student vs. no grad student support Does the department or lab treat grad students well or are they looked at as a cheep source of labor? Does the department pay your student health fees (saving you the hassle of having to pay ~$1000 per semester up front even though they reimburse you for it by paying you a little more in each month’s check)?
safety conscience vs. safety lax How safety conscious is the lab? Do you prefer a lab that is a super-stickler for every safety regulation or do you prefer a lab that is more relaxed about safety?
noisy vs. quiet Some labs are absolutely silent. Some labs play music or the radio loudly. Will it drive you nuts if someone else in the lab likes playing loud music that you dislike?
neat vs. messy Do members in the lab have cleaning duties? Does everything in the lab have a proper place? How much neatness or disorder do you prefer?
considerate vs. inconsiderate Do others in the lab order more if they take the last of something? Is lab work interrupted by having to borrow necessary items from other labs or visit on-campus freezers?
Questions to Ask a PI before Joining the Lab
What do you see as your role as a thesis advisor?
What do you expect from graduate students in your lab? or What do you think makes a successful student in the lab?
How many graduate students have joined your lab as a thesis lab? Did those students do well in your lab? How long did it take them to graduate? What degree(s) did they receive? What are they doing now?
What do you think are the strengths or weaknesses of the lab as a whole?
I’m interested in “blank” aspect of the research in the lab. Do you think that could make a good thesis project? Is that project available i.e. not already part of someone else’s project or not promised to someone else?
What level of your participation for deciding directions for your project is expected/allowed?
I would like to finish a thesis project in about 3-4-5 years, do you see yourself being at Washington University for that time period? How do you see funding for that time period?
I know that I am year(s) away from it now, but how do you handle journal article writing—do graduate students actually do the writing or do you prefer to do it some other way?
What participation levels in journal clubs, seminars are expected?
Is attendance at journal clubs/seminars/local, regional, national, and international meetings encouraged?
Where and with whom did you do your graduate and post-graduate work?
Is there anything that you think I am forgetting to ask?
Of course this is not an exhaustive list of questions to ask. The first questions help you understand what the PI sees as his role and what he expects from his graduate students. If your views on topics differ greatly from what the PI expresses, then you should be very careful about choosing that lab as a thesis lab. Your relationship with your PI is very important for the next steps in your career, and if you and the PI disagree fundamentally on your expectations, it is unlikely that you and the PI will have a good working relationship while you are in the lab.
After you talk with the PI, your work is not over. A PI may answer your questions in ways that suggest that you may be able to have a good working relationship; however, you need to evaluate whether or not those answers were objective and truthful. You do this by discussing the PI and lab with others. Some PIs will say one thing, but when you talk to others who are in the lab or who have been in the lab, they will tell you that is not the way things really are.
Remember rotations are not necessarily fully representative of what working in the lab will actually be like. Usually a PI is on his best behavior when you are rotating; it is only after you have declared your thesis lab and been there for several months that you will be allowed to see other sides of the PI personality as well. Others who have been in the lab will know this.
“A good advisor will serve as a mentor as well as a source of technical assistance. A mentor should provide, or help you to find, the resources you need (financial, equipment, and psychological support); introduce you and promote your work to important people in your field; encourage your own interests, rather than promoting their own; be available to give you advice on the direction of your thesis and your career; and help you to find a job when you finish. They should help you to set and achieve long-term and short-term goals.”
Questions to ask other students/post docs/technicians
in the lab or who have been in the lab
Are you happy with your project? the PI? the lab equipment? the department?
Would you recommend this lab as a thesis lab?
Does the PI keeps your best interests in mind? Do you feel that you are developing into a good scientist in the lab? Does he encourage your ideas or only promote his own?
How do you think that the PI is thought of in his field? In the university?
Does the PI react well to your suggestions for experiments or directions for your project?
How does the PI handle it when the project has setbacks or isn’t working?
What level of your participation for deciding directions for your project is expected/allowed?
Do grad students work primarily with a Post-Doc, other students in the lab, with the PI or on their own?
Do you feel that the PI pays enough attention to your project? Does he have enough time to give everyone’s project sufficient attention? Or is he too busy?
What do you think about the scientific ideas that the PI has? Are they well thought out? Practical? Innovative? Are they of interest to other scientists?
Does the PI help students find post-docs, etc. after graduating from the lab?
Is the PI hands-on or hands-off, moody or even-tempered, have favorites or treat everyone the same etc. (see if these answers match what the PI has said and your experience in the lab.)
What do you think is the best thing about the PI? The worst?
Is there anything about the PI that drives you nuts?
Does the PI have any quirks? or Is there anything that you do that will make the PI really upset?
What do you think about “blank” as a thesis project?
What participation levels in journal clubs, seminars are expected?
What participation level in writing journal articles is expected?
Is attendance at journal clubs/seminars/local, regional, national, international meetings encouraged?
Is it acceptable to have interest/activities/children outside of lab?
What is “work?” (some PIs measure work only by what experiments get done, not other activities such as reading articles, thinking about your project, attending seminars/journal club, or TAing.)
What are weekend and vacation policies?
How have graduate students in the lab done?
Does the PI give good advice?
Does the PI treat lab members well?
Is he good at managing the lab? Does the lab run smoothly?
How does the PI handle disagreements between lab members?
What advice would you give a graduate student joining the lab?
If you were able to start your project over again is there anything that you would do differently? (sometimes this helps identify flaws a PI might have—for example, if a student says that he might have focused him direction better, it might indicate that that is an area in which the PI is weak.)
Is there anything you wish you had known before you joined the lab?
Questions to Ask Other PIs
I am working on choosing my thesis lab. How have graduate students in the PI’s lab done?
How do you think that the PI is thought of in his field of research?
What do you think about the scientific ideas that “blank” has? Are they well thought out? Practical? Innovative? Are they of interest to other scientists?
What advice would you have for someone joining “blank’s” lab as a thesis lab?
(Clerical staff, Student Coordinators, etc.)
Are students in the lab happy?
What do you think about the PI?
Is the PI a good manager? Does the PI’s lab run well?
Is the PI organized?
Does the PI treat others well?
Does the PI become angry easily?
How does the PI handle things when something goes wrong?
Remember to consider the source: one person’s perceptions may be wrong, but if you hear the same thing from a couple of independent reliable sources, it is probably true. Rumors often have a grain of truth, but if you are talking to someone who heard the story from someone else who heard it from someone else, the truth could very well be distorted. If you can, try to find a closer source.
Other students, technicians, post-docs, PIs, and staff will be able to provide you with a clear picture of what working with the PI in the lab will be like. Students, technicians, and post-docs who are happy with their lab and PI will be delighted to tell you so. Those who are unhappy may not be as willing to discuss it; so if several lab members don’t answer your questions directly or aren’t willing to discuss the lab or PI, be very careful about choosing that lab. Remember that even in a good lab, grad students and PIs do not always have a harmonious relationship.
Choosing your thesis lab is one of the most important decisions you will make while you are in graduate school. You must take your time and make your decision well. You must talk to others about the PI and lab before making any commitment to a lab or PI.
Wash U doesn’t have any centralized information available to students about how graduate students in a particular lab have done. There are no ratings of what graduate students have thought about certain PIs. You are on your own to find this information.
As a first year, most of you spent almost an entire weekend working on your Molecular Cell Biology take-home exams. Obviously choosing your thesis lab is more important, yet many students don’t spend much time “researching” their potential thesis lab by talking to others about the PI and lab. Leaving a thesis lab is difficult. Don’t make a bad decision because you didn’t take the time and make the effort to find out all you needed to know about the lab and PI.