Picking a lab

Time moves faster with each passing year.  In the dark days of being a graduate student it felt like 5 years (and 9 months) would never come to pass.  About a week ago I logged into Amazon Cloud Drive and it showed me:

November 16th, 2011 – (Left to Right) Eric Johnson, Me, Chris Ambrose.

That was one of the happiest days of my life.

I was blessed to be surrounded by intelligent, supportive people the likes of which I will use as a benchmark for relationships going forward.

There are a lot of sad people in graduate school.  I was among them.  But there is something to be learned since common themes exist.

1.  Do your Ph.D. in a lab where your speciality is the same as the principal investigator’s specialty. 

You should be working toward acquiring a similar set of skills for which your boss was hired. Having completed an M.Sc. doing cell biology with electron microscopy, I was thrilled to go to an electron microscopy (EM) lab.  However, the project I took would not be started or completed with electron microscopy.  Hindsight is 20/20.   You should ask whether your boss has performed experiments similar to those with which you will be tasked.  Are you cloning genes?  Have they?  Do they understand the requirements?  Can they be relied on for advice in certain failure scenarios?  Do their staff perform such experiments successfully?  Do not expect to go to a cell biology expecting advanced biochemistry or molecular biology training to come easily.

2.  Do your Ph.D. in a lab where you have infrastructure to complete your work efficiently.  
I worked in a lab that was missing key pieces of equipment.  The equipment:  Ultra low temperature freezer (minus 80), shaking and static incubators for growing microorganisms,  gas delivery systems for drying organic volatile samples.  I made do with equipment belonging to neighbours.  Sharing major pieces of equipment (sequencers, mass specs, HPLCs) is commonplace at every university. Sharing major equipment is the norm.  Not so with basic pieces of equipment.  If basic equipment is lacking you may be interviewing in a lab with little to no money.

When you interview think about 5-7 years of walking to the other side of a building to retrieve a glycerol stock.  Think about coordinating with another lab every time there is a freezer clean out. Think about sharing a equipment not just with your lab mates but with the lab members of all the other labs sharing the same piece of basic equipment and eager to get data.  Think about taking an elevator to the eighth floor to get ice.  Think about a 30 minute round trips to other parts of campus for liquid nitrogen.  Sound trite?  Sound trivial?  These inconveniences add up and slow down your will-to-research.

3.  Is anyone looking after the equipment?

At my current job we have a gifted analytical instrument manager. She has over twenty years of experience.  Twenty years of experience means that she has witnessed almost every conceivable machine error and operator mistake possible.  Her presence makes my team members extremely productive.  If you encounter a lab with a new ‘hot instrument’ or an old semi-functional instrument ask whether there is support staff to keep the instruments running.  A colleague had to maintain an instrument for the duration of his graduate studies.  He learned a great deal about said piece of equipment but his graduate degree was delayed as a result of said maintenance.

4.  Are postdoctoral researchers hired?  

Boutique labs that pursue science do not hire post docs OR do not attract post docs.  The labs that can hire post docs have money, resources and connections that can propel burgeoning careers.  The new graduate student will benefit tremendously for being around post docs and research associates.

5. Where do they go after graduation?

You have a goal in mind when pursuing a Ph.D.  Industry?  Academia?  Look up the people from the biggest papers published from the lab.  Are they in industry now?  Are they in academia?    If former lab members from your prospective lab group are not in industry and/or academia the odds are you will not be there either.   Where are they?  If graduates from your prospective lab end up where you would like to see yourself after graduation you are closer to finding a good match.

6. Do new PIs collaborate with their former boss?

Does the new faculty member cum postdoctoral researcher work with their former boss?  If they do it’s a good sign.  It may mean that the former boss was easy to work with or helps provide resources for new faculty.  When a newly minted faculty member leaves a lab and still can, and want to, collaborate with the former boss it may mean this is a person to consider working with/for.