How to pick your thesis lab after rotations

You’ve probably heard a million times that the most important decision you will make in your scientific career is your thesis lab choice. Some consider this choice analogous to a marriage. Unlike most marriage decisions, you don’t have years of “dating” to decide if a lab is right for you, so what should you consider when making this choice? Hear from students and thesis lab mentors on how to make this decision.

In your opinion, what is the most important consideration a student should have when joining a lab and why?

FACULTY

I think there are two critical important considerations and each should get equal weight. Is the research of interest to you and is your personality compatible with the people in the lab (and particularly the PI). You will spend a lot of time in the laboratory and if you feel out of place or do not like the research, you will be miserable. In contrast, if you enjoy the environment and the research the long hours will not seem like a burden.
-Dr. Jay Jerome

The most important thing in my opinion is the personality match of the mentor and the student. The student needs to be self-aware and determine what sort of mentor they need to best suit their personality and mentoring needs. This is secondary to the project in my opinion.
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

STUDENTS

The mentorship by the PI. The PI’s interactions with you are very critical to being a successful PhD student. Does the PI set aside individual meetings with you on a regular basis? Are they available to answer questions and give feedback? etc.
-Gabrielle Rushing

The most important thing is to make sure that you like the lab’s research subject, since you’ll be working on it for the next 3-5 years. If you’re simply “meh” about a subject (but maybe you really like the PI), that lab is not for you.
-Lorena Infante

A PI who supports their members is the most important. Everyone has bumpy parts of the grad career. The point is that you are learning and transitioning into being able to handle everything that doing science requires. A good PI knows how to address your unique challenges in a supportive way. Rather than blaming you for shortcomings, the PI should help you overcome them.
-Becky Adams

What are some other important considerations that should not be ignored?

FACULTY

How productive are the people in the laboratory.
-Dr. Jay Jerome

1. PI’s available funding for the next few years
2. how long it has taken previous students to finish in that lab
3. opportunities to attend and present at meetings
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

STUDENTS

1. Fellow lab mates- you are with each other more time than you are at home. Make sure you get along with them!
2. Working with animals- If the lab does work with animals, is this something you can handle?
3. Funding- Does your PI have the funds to support you for the next few years?
-Gabrielle Rushing

1. The lab’s atmosphere (competitive, friendly, sterile/stoic, etc.)
2. Your relationship with your PI, including how often you’ll interact with him/her
3. The ratio of time to graduation to papers published. Animal work will take longer than cell work, which will take longer than in vitro work; you need to be ok with the experimental time frames for your chosen lab.
-Lorena InfanteThe PI should not be selfish and should encourage students to explore their interests as appropriate.
-Becky Adams

After the rotations, was it clear to you which lab/student was the best match for you?

FACULTY

I sit everyone in my lab down and we talk about it. It is a group decision. I want to take someone who will gel well with the other lab members. Someone who has shown general interest in all projects going on in the lab and has interacted well with the others in the lab, as well as asked questions in lab meetings, gets priority.
-Dr. Jay Jerome

I poll every member of my lab for their opinions on rotation students. I won’t take anyone, ever, that the lab cannot get along with, or who are disruptive. Then, I blend this with my own opinion of the student before making a decision.
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

I do not have a formula for picking students. The biggest thing for me is passion for the science and the ability to handle the current momentum of the lab. When I host students I make it a point not to look at their grades but to observe them in the lab and see how they do at the bench, in their ability to explain and present their findings and in their ability to interact with others. If the student fits that well, then that is my student!
-Dr. David Samuels

STUDENTS

Yes.
-Gabrielle Rushing

At the end, it was clear that 2 out of my 4 rotation labs were not for me. The remaining two were very different labs but I could see myself fitting in both of them. Since I really liked the science in both labs, it came down to a choice between the atmosphere, the PI’s mentoring style, and the experimental time frame of the experiments.
-Lorena Infante

YES. I got along well with everyone, and I knew I was surrounded by smart people. That is how I knew it was a good fit.
-Becky Adams

Was your choice the one you expected at the beginning?

FACULTY

No, it is not always clear at the beginning.
-Dr. Jay Jerome

For driven students with good personalities, yes. Disappointments are sometimes harder to predict from the onset.
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

Not always
-Dr. David Samuels

STUDENTS

No.
-Gabrielle Rushing

No. I was dead-set on choosing the lab I rotated in first, but I ended up joining my 3rd rotation lab. I still believe I would have enjoyed the 1st lab and would have done well, but I am happy with the choice I made. As a note, I compromised by asking the PI of the lab I didn’t join to be on my committee (and he accepted).
-Lorena Infante

It was my first rotation, so all subsequent rotations had to live up to the amazingness of my first. But I didn’t come to Vandy expecting to join this lab. A faculty member suggested that I rotate in my thesis lab. Suggestions are extremely important.
-Becky Adams

Did you get your first choice for your thesis lab? Why or why not?

STUDENTS

Yes.
-Gabrielle Rushing

Yes. I put in a full-day’s work each day, even when I had IGP classes to attend. This ensured that I had plenty of data to show my PI and that he and the rest of the lab had a good impression of me.
-Lorena Infante

Yes. I made a good impression by working hard and showing thought and eagerness to learn.
-Becky Adams

One thought on “How to pick your thesis lab after rotations

  1. Pingback: Navigating the First Year | Materials & Methods

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