If you have just started a doctoral program in the sciences, you may also feel anxious about choosing your dissertation lab. It’s a big decision, one not to be taken lightly. For better or worse, you will be in that lab for 5-6 years. In my program, I spent the first academic year rotating in 4 different labs for about 8 weeks each. I’m happy to report that I’ve since been in my lab for 4 years and I have no regrets about my choice.
1. Define your main research interest.
The first step in identifying your dissertation lab is figuring out what you want to study. I identified the areas of research I wanted to study when I started interviewing with potential PhD mentors. My research interests were rather broad: I focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying cell fate decisions, such as how a stem cell becomes a neuron or how a cell decides to commit suicide.
Rather than focusing my rotations on a particular organism or technique that I thought would be interesting, I rotated in labs that used a variety of model systems and methods to answer basic questions about cell fate. When first starting out in graduate school, I recommend to keep an open mind about the research and to focus on identifying the biological question you are interested in answering.
If you don’t know exactly what you want to research yet, first try to identify at least two research areas you think you are interesting. Then, determine which of these two to hone in on as you interview faculty members and graduate students. Just talking to multiple researchers about current projects in the lab will help you to gauge how excited you are about a topic. Remember, you will be working in this field for about 4-5 years, so you should absolutely be sure your interests align with the lab’s research goals.
2. Identify the mentorship style that works best for you.
Once you have identified the kind of research you want to do, I recommend using your rotations to determine the kind of mentor that works best for you. You can also draw on prior experiences, including previous mentoring relationships from working in labs. When I started looking for a mentor, I considered my relationships with my past research mentors and made a list of what qualities I absolutely did and did not need or want in a mentor.
For example, it was important for me to find a critical mentor that challenged me without being harsh. I’m extremely critical of myself already; when someone else is as harsh as I am, I tend to crumble. I know many people who flourish in a demanding environment and become stagnant in one that requires self-motivation and reflection. Consider your own strengths and weaknesses and how a mentor’s style can challenge and support you. The NIH has an excellent list of suggested questions to gauge if you and a professor may be a good match before rotating.
3. Figure out what kind of lab culture you want.
Figuring out the kind of lab you want to work in involves considering many factors and can be challenging because there are so many types of lab environments. During my rotations, I made a point of selecting big and small labs to examine which I preferred. I also rotated in labs where the graduate students were either close-knit or kept more to themselves. It’s really more personal preference, but try rotating in labs of different sizes and vibes to figure out which environment works best for you.
A caveat to choosing a lab based on culture is that it can change over time. For example, if you rotate in a lab and seriously clash with a 4th year graduate student, but absolutely love the research and the mentor, don’t forget that that graduate student will be out of there in a year or two. The only constants in the lab are the mentor and the main research goals of the lab. Projects change with new data and students come and go.
4. Listen to other graduate students (for the most part).
Graduate students are usually your best chance to learn about what faculty members are like as mentors, what the lab culture is really like, and which department has the best happy hours. Always talk to graduate students in a lab before you rotate in it; you’d be surprised with their honesty.
However, remember that just because one student had a terrible time in a lab during their rotation, that doesn’t mean you will necessarily have the same experience. Always ask what the student did and didn’t like about the mentor and lab. Every lab works for someone, and you may be that someone. Even if you hear bad things about the lab, it doesn’t mean the lab is a bad fit for you. Do your own research. What’s their publication record like? How much funding do they have? How many students have they graduated? Where are those graduate students now?
In the end, the best advice I can give about picking a dissertation lab is to trust your gut. I never looked up the funding status of the lab. I was also my mentor’s first student, so there was no established track record for students in the lab. However, a conversation we had prior to my joining her lab really stuck with me. She advised me to “join the lab where I felt most like myself.”
In the end, I felt most comfortable in my current mentor’s lab. As the lab was new, I was able to have a role in developing the research interests and culture of the lab, which is an experience I will never regret. However, remember no lab is ever going to be a perfect fit, so consider your personal preferences and make sure your decision feels right in the end.
Natalya Ortolano is a Ph.D. candidate in Vivian Gama’s laboratory at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Natalya’s project is focused on characterizing the function of an E3-ubiquitin ligase known as Cullin 9 in stem cell self-renewal and neural differentiation. Outside of the lab, you can find her reading at a coffee shop, playing at a dog park with her border collie Roux, or binging on Netflix. In the future, she plans on becoming a science writer and communicator, telling scientists’ stories and translating their research for the public. Twitter: @NatOrtolano Email: firstname.lastname@example.org