Re-searching for a lab

Published October 01 2017

I chose the wrong thesis lab.

My fear had been realized — a fear that is common to nearly all first-year graduate students who are searching for their lab. They quiet this fear by telling themselves that they have spent a year testing out different labs during rotations and are (reasonably) confident they have found The One. But a small voice in the back of their heads keeps asking, “Is this the right mentor? Is this the right project? Is this the right place for me?”

At the end of my first year, I was convinced I had found those right things. My mentor was energetic, passionate and well-funded, and he saw something promising in me that I didn’t see in myself. He was encouraging and supportive of my initial experiments and thoughts. The lab was small, with every person functioning as an essential member of the team. The older graduate students and postdocs were knowledgeable and helpful, and I was excited about my project.

Almost a year and a half later, however, I was unenthusiastic and lethargic about my work. My PI told me to prioritize a single aim of my research plan over the others. Although I was making slow and steady progress there, I hadn’t begun the exciting experiments that initially had piqued my interest in the project. When I asked when I could start those experiments, my PI gave me several reasons why it wasn’t the right time: We were waiting for the new year for funding to kick in, and he wanted me to focus on my first aim. These were reasonable arguments. I trusted that he had my best interests in mind, so I plugged away at my work.

Months passed and January came, and he still did not allow me to begin the experiments. I asked him again, and this time, instead of pushing it off, my PI told me that another member of the lab would be performing the pilot experiments of my coveted aim. When he said this, I felt my stomach drop. I was hurt and disappointed by his decision, so I decided to make my case. As a Ph.D. student, I wanted to feel ownership of this project from start to finish. I explained how I felt, and as a compromise we agreed that I would be a part of the planning and execution of these pilot experiments.

It was a shock then, a few weeks later, when my lab mate began presenting the preliminary data for this project at a lab meeting. I had no idea she had started the work, and I felt completely blindsided. I sat silent throughout the entire meeting, trying to figure out if I could have seen this coming. I replayed my previous conversation with my boss over and over in my head. My only conclusion was that he had lied to me, or at the very least he had changed his mind without telling me.

After the meeting, I couldn’t step foot back in lab. I was frozen in the conference room, trying to control my anger and hold back tears. I didn’t want my boss to see me so upset. Two of my other lab mates stayed in the room with me and helped me calm down and rationally think through my situation. They gave me the confidence to confront my boss that afternoon. I asked him why he had excluded me from the project, and he finally admitted that he was not confident enough in my ability to execute the experiments. I admit that I had not been as productive as I had hoped, so he may have had legitimate reasons to feel this way. But I was most heartbroken by the fact that he had not been honest with me about his reasoning and had kept me in the dark about my own project.

I no longer felt like a vital member of the team — instead, I felt like I was dispensable. I became even less motivated and productive, paralyzed by self-doubt. I had fewer and fewer meetings with my boss, and even when we did speak I didn’t trust him to tell me the truth anymore. I finally realized that I would not be able to complete my Ph.D. in his lab. In fact, I was not sure if I would be able to complete my Ph.D. at all.

I worried what people would think if I left my lab. Would they think I was incapable of dealing with the challenges that come with research? Would they believe I was just not tough enough? During this time, I reached out to my friends, family and professors. To my surprise, many people praised my decision to switch labs as brave. I spoke with a former mentor of mine, who challenged me to tease apart two things — my passion for research and my passion for research in my current lab — to help me determine my future in my Ph.D. program. It was a daunting question. Untangling the two seemed impossible; I feared I had lost interest entirely.

I decided that I would put off the real decision by doing a new lab rotation. If I hated it, the worst that could happen was that I’d quit later. But I wanted to give research one last try. I explored new avenues of research around me, and I found my first spark of renewed excitement when I considered working for a PI I had met during her time as a postdoc. She had just opened up her lab at my university, and I was excited by the idea of working with her. I knew the work would be fast-paced and that I would need to play an important role in helping the lab get off the ground. I joined that lab as a (very experienced) rotation student. During this time, I was able to have frank conversations with my potential mentor. I was happier and more productive in my new lab because we could have open and honest communication. She was aware of the difficulties I had in my previous lab, and she understood my weaknesses as a researcher. When the rotation reached its end, I joined without hesitation or fear. I had finally found my home.

Still today, she holds me accountable for my work but in a manner that leaves me less ashamed of my failures in the lab. I am more willing to be open with her than I ever was with my former PI — especially when my work isn’t going well. The trust built from our communication has given me confidence within the lab and as a member of the research community. Importantly, she fosters a community of collaboration rather than competition within the lab.

I have been asked many times if I regret joining my first lab. Although I would have preferred a smoother start to my graduate career, I do not regret the decision I made as a first-year student. During my time in my first lab, I learned how to be a rigorous scientist, and I matured as a student. I was able to overcome a situation where my relationship with my mentor had broken down and I did not believe in myself. I learned that it is OK to admit defeat, and more importantly, I learned how to pick myself up and try again. For all of that, I am thankful that I got a do-over.

The author is an anonymous graduate student at an East Coast research university.