Life in the Lab

What to consider during your Ph.D. rotations

Elizabeth Stivison
October 16, 2020

Choosing a lab during the first year of your Ph.D. program is tough. When I started doing rotations, I assumed the most important factor to consider during this decision-making process was the research. I looked through labs’ papers asking, “Is this interesting? Can I think about this for a long time?” While that is undoubtedly a key question for grad school, because you will be sitting and thinking about one small slice of the science world for a long time, I learned during the course of my Ph.D. program that there are a lot of other variables that are worth considering seriously. Had I considered them earlier, it might have saved me a lot of time and trouble.

Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash

I ended up switching labs and starting over in my fifth year, because the lab I had joined first didn’t fit my personality and clashed with how I worked and how I needed to be mentored. That disharmony became more and more apparent over the years, and I eventually saw that I had to leave. During that painful process of switching labs, all the variables that make each lab different became more clear to me. With the hope that it will help new Ph.D. students identify the labs in which they are most likely to thrive, I’ll outline below those variables that can make or break a student–lab match. 

Get your priorities straight

It’s probably impossible to find a lab that meets every single one of your preferences perfectly. But you should determine which one or two variables are most important to you.

For me, the PI’s style is the most important variable. I can be overly sensitive about criticism, so I work really well when criticism is given in a way that inspires me to do better instead of chastising me for doing something wrong. But I have friends who can just let that stuff roll right off their backs and who care instead about other aspects of work, such as being able to set their own hours.

Make sure you know what your priority variables are.

The research topic

You are going to have to think about the research a lot. Your brain will be full of this topic!

Is it interesting? Do you like thinking about it and reading about it?

Slightly more complex is a question I wish I’d asked myself earlier: Can you get excited about any research topic if you learn enough about it, or do you have a topic you feel you simply must study?

If I am in a lab environment that suits me, I’ll get excited about that research, whatever it is! It’s worth finding out for yourself if you might also be like this or if the topic of your research has to match something you already know you want to study.

Methods and models

Branching off the topic itself are the methods a lab uses. Are the methods interesting or ones you want to learn? What kind of model systems do they use?

I discovered early on, for example, that I didn’t want to work with animals. But other people are drawn to research that uses animals. Some people love analyzing big datasets on their computers. Other people want to be in a wet lab.

There’s no right or wrong — just your own preference.

A lab's aesthetic

Now I'm going to talk about a harder-to-pin-down quality. When I was switching labs, I asked a professor for advice, and she told me to evaluate each lab's aesthetic: how the lab and principal investigator think about their science questions.

Do you prefer a lab that approaches science through the details or through the big picture? Do you want to sit around daydreaming about what could be going on on a big scale, or do you want to methodically answer questions one step at a time?

All have value and contribute good research.

The principal investigator

There is, of course, the question of the PI. This is the person who will have the most power over your grad school experience, so it’s important to find a good match — hopefully someone with whom you can get along and someone whose way of thinking about science you admire.

Look for signs of a PI's mentorship style, or, honestly, mentorship at all. Even if you are the best Ph.D. student in the world, you are, in the end, a student, and you do need at least minimal mentorship to develop into an independent scientist.

This means that even the most hands-on PI should give some room for you to think for yourself and make your own decisions, and even the most hands-off PI should still be fully aware of what you are doing and give guidance if you start to flounder.

There is a wide spectrum between hands-on and hands-off, and you should think about how you work best. Do you want a hands-on PI who is always available to answer questions, troubleshoot with you, help you design experiments, and see every bit of data as it comes in? Or would you prefer a hands-off PI who lets you do your thing without much intervention but the broadest guidance? Someone in between?

Similarly, when you interact with the PI, do they make you feel comfortable discussing your results openly, even contradictory or confusing ones?

Harder to tell in a short rotation but something you should keep an eye out for: How does the PI react to data that contradicts their hypotheses? Are they open to reconsidering their ideas if the data point somewhere “wrong”? Conversely, anyone can hope for an experiment to give the result they want, but real pushing for or rewarding certain outcomes of experiments is a bad sign, because that kind of pressure can lead to less-than-honest science.

Other questions:

  • How does the PI give feedback and criticism?
  • Does the PI speak to the lab members with respect even when they’re angry?
  • Do those things matter to you?

Lab culture

You will probably be in lab all day every day for a few years! Do you care if your lab mates talk to each other all day and hang out? Or if they wear their headphones all day and mind their own business? Do you want to like your lab mates, or do you not care? Is everyone independent, or do they share reagents and protocols?

It’s all just what works best for you, whether you are more inspired by competition or by collaboration, or more content to work among friends or to work independently among any people.

While I think most of these topics have no right answers, I do think there can be a few red flags in the lab culture: If there appear to be lab favorites or lab scapegoats, that’s a bad sign.

Lab rules, norms and expectations

First, are the expectations for a grad student clear? What are they? Do they make sense to you?

In addition, do you set your own hours? Are you expected to work weekends and evenings? Does that matter to you one way or the other? What about days off?

How do the lab meetings run? Does it matter to you if they’re long or short? Formal presentations or group discussions? Are you looking for support and inspiration in the meetings, a quick check-in, or to be challenged and pushed to defend your work?

Lab history

Lab history is another thing you can evaluate, though it might be hard to find out about the lab’s closet-skeletons right away.

Have most students in the past graduated? Do people still like science when they leave the lab? I would lean toward saying that a “yes” to both these questions is a good sign, but there may be situations where a rocky track record doesn’t mean it wont be a good place for you. But it’s worth evaluating.

Before you even go into a lab, check its publications.

One thing you might see is how high- or low-impact they are. Not having high-impact papers is not a red flag. Plenty of excellent work is not high impact. A lab with a lot of high-impact papers could mean that you might get your work into a high-impact journal too, which could be awesome. But it could also mean there’s a lot of pressure or that they’ll wait to publish until the story is big enough, and you won’t graduate quickly.

It’s more important that there is some regularity in publishing, that you like the papers and that you think they're good.

Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling.

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