Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How to choose a lab

Prof-like substance is asking a good question:

So, I would like to find out from you why you chose the lab you are in or got your degree from? Was it a good choice and would you do it differently now? Was it the subject or PI that got you interested? How much did suggestions from others influence you?

This is interesting to me because I've blogged about it before, from the perspective of advising grad students (but don't ask me where, I didn't tag it intelligently).

So here we go, as vague as possible for pseudo-anonymity.

1. Why I chose the lab where I got my PhD

a. I liked and respected my advisor as a person and as as a scientist (that changed over time, of course, as I learned that everyone is human and people tend to fall off of pedestals)

b. I liked the other people in the lab- it had the right atmosphere. Nobody was condescending to me, I was not in a minority. It felt like a family, not like a factory.

c. I liked the way they did things- their priorities matched my priorities. They were smart about the practical aspects. I had already worked in a few labs so I had seen some really good labs, and I had rotated in at least one that did not match what I was looking for.

d. I liked my rotation project (even though it didn't work!)

e. I was excited about the subject for my thesis (even though it didn't end up being my thesis!)

f. I was drawn in by the graduate program (even though I quickly learned to hate it!)

2. Was it a good choice and would I do it differently now?

For reasons I can't blog about, I'd say it was good and bad. Would I do it differently knowing what I know now? Absolutely, yes I think so. But not in the sense that I can name a lab where I'm sure I would have been happier or fit better.

I adored my PI and my labmates, still do. But we had our ups and downs, some things happened that nobody could have seen coming and others that should have looked like an oncoming train if I had known what I was seeing.

Still, if some angel or devil had taken me aside in high school and showed me a movie of what my life would be like, I would have done a 180. Would have gone to a different college, and majored in something other than science.

3. Was it the subject or PI that got you interested?

Both, in approximately equal measure. But there was no way I was going to work for an asshole on a subject I didn't care about.

Subject was primary in my mind, and my PI got me excited about our subject. I had never heard of it when I was in college.

I interviewed with and rotated with a few other labs. In some cases, the subject was appealing but the PI was smarmy ("stop staring at my boobs!") or otherwise seemed like an abusive jerk ("everyone in my lab works 80 hour weeks!"). Those were immediately struck from the list.

In other cases, the PI was nice and seemed to have the best intentions, but I didn't like the other people in the lab.

In still other cases, I liked the PI but the project was hopeless, not at all what I wanted to do with the subject, even though the subject was still interesting to me.

I still think rotations are key. And I don't mean 6 week rotations, either. I think 3 months, minimum, is probably about right. If you can't get through the honeymoon period without getting heebie-jeebies, GTFO.

4. How much did suggestions from others influence you?

None of my advisers in the labs where I worked even tried to recommend people for me to work with. I asked where I should apply. They named the top schools, of course. I didn't end up going to any of the ones my advisers recommended. I went somewhere another person told me about. Scientifically, it was a good fit. Program-wise, it was not a good fit. At all. But I didn't know how bad that would be until after I arrived.

My advisers just said of course you'll get in. I didn't get invited everywhere I applied, but I did get interviews.

Then they said go, see how you like it when you interview. So I did.

Then when I got in, they said go, do rotations, and then decide. So I did.

Basically it was what everyone else seemed to be doing. I didn't think I was missing out on some amazing insight. There were no blogs or anything to read with advice at the time. At all.

I really didn't have a big network to draw from. I had a lot of older friends, and they all told me not to go to grad school. Of course I didn't listen. Of course I later realized why they said that. It's funny though, I really thought they were joking.

Seriously, I really did.

When I got to the point of choosing a lab, I heard a rumor about my PI that supposedly originated from a former postdoc. However, I also heard a rumor about the postdoc who said it. I figured that made both rumors uninterpretable and/or false. I later understood that both rumors were true, which is sort of the same (but not quite).

I don't like gossip. I don't like second-hand information, especially when it comes to people, unless it's really from people I've known for years and deeply trust. Even then, I find sometimes people disagree or have different experiences, due to different commonalities and different conflicts. I'm not best friends with all of my friends' friends, and they aren't best friends with all of mine. The same principle applies. To really be successful, you kind of have to be best friends with your PI (I know this now, I didn't know it then).

I have never liked to judge people on others' opinions. When I have done that, I made some terrible choices.

Now, I'd rather meet them and decide for myself (although sometimes it helps to know what to look for, and then forewarned is fore-armed, or whatever that saying is).

And, let's be honest, I really hate it when people spread rumors about me, and I hate it when other people choose to believe them without investigating (although I know most of science works this way, I reserve the right to hate it).

Having said all that, I ended up in my thesis lab because of a different rotation. That PI said, "You know, I think you'll like this friend of mine, you should rotate there and then if you want you can come back here." And I didn't end up going back.

Now, I am much more careful to listen to what people are actually telling me. I'd like to think I always make up my own mind, but I'll admit I am influenced when someone I respect tells me they think somebody would be a good mentor.

That was actually how I ended up in my postdoc lab. Boy, was that a mistake. Needless to say, that particular blunder has made me revisit my original policy to try to ignore what anybody says. But it's hard. You don't always realize you've been influenced by advice (good or bad) until it's all hindsight.

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At 10:57 AM, Blogger Wanna Be Mother said...

I don't trust my "instincts" anymore because, some people can be incredibly two-faced. My previous adviser is like this. He seems very nice and excited about science and gets you excited to come work for him. Then, once you are stuck, he makes your life a living hell. Before I chose that lab, a friend of mine told me a story about her friend having a bad experience with my future adviser. I didn't trust this second-hand info, but, I really wish I could go back and tell myself to listen. I was just too naive.

In summary, you can't always trust your reaction to a person to determine how you are going to react to working for that person. I would say, if you hear ANYTHING negative, run, unless you happen to know that the person who is saying the negative stuff is nuts. If you hear keywords like "high expectations", run. Basically, choosing an adviser should be done with much caution.

At 2:49 PM, Anonymous Kathy said...

my choice of lab - well I didn't have much choice because I was geographically restricted (due to my fiance/husband). So geographical location/institution came first, department came second, and then topic for PhD came third based on the first two, and then advisor was a non-choice, it was whatever was left. Not the ideal way to do it, but hey life doesn't always go according to plan and is mostly about making the most out of your circumstances. Choice of where to do postdoc was also heavily affected by the husband's career path and geographic preferences and from there the other restrictions of my PhD specialty/thesis topic, pretty much left me with almost zero choice of which lab to do my postdoc in. Again, far from ideal because that advisor and lab turned out to be very toxic and a source of career stalemate, but when your choices were limited to begin with again you have to just take whatever is there and deal with it as best you can.

Whenever I think back and wonder if I regret that process, sure I do because I regret the outcome, but who is to say the outcome would have been 'better' if I had done it differently? I could have chosen a different more ideal path and still had it blow up in my face in a different or even the same way.

The idea of "how to choose a PhD/postdoc lab" is, I think moot for many people because there aren't a lot of choices once you take into account your constraints. Plus, when academic fields are old boys clubs and many PIs are similar in how much of an asshole they can be, it may not really make much difference if you did choose carefully anyway. Nevertheless, it's good to advise new students to consider all these things because each person has different constraints that limit their choices.

At 9:27 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

steph, I'm sorry. My adviser is like that. Personally, I like "high" expectations. What I don't like are *unreasonable* expectations. There is a difference between Adviser's Way and the High Way. But adviser doesn't see that.

Unfortunately some of us saw through it from the beginning, but felt pressured to join the lab anyway. Suffice it to say, most of the time I wish I hadn't given in to the pressure, because it seems like there is no guaranteed payoff for all the suffering.

My problems have always come from ignoring my gut feeling. Sometimes beneath the naive excitement there is a little voice telling you to watch out! Re-learning how to listen to that voice has been really important for me. It's not paranoia if you're always right!

Kathy- great points. Absolutely.

At 1:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Totally get and agree that problems arise when you don't trust/listen to your gut on these things. I too took a postdoc based on little info because of spouse/geographic limitations and losing all my network and connections in the process. It has been a nightmare. I look back on continual signs (like being told by another PI during my first week in the lab that if student so and so ever appears to be "under the influence" in the lab, let me know because that is a safety issue), I want to throw cold water on this person that was me. I should have run and staying was almost and still could be career suicide. Only time will tell on that. But as you said, learning to relisten to that internal voice and get confidence back and kick ass on research - overall getting mojo back, has been excruciating but life is so much better. Detachment is key and likely the most difficult part of the whole process. Ignoring those who chose to treat you crappy, don't respond when they come groveling. Do the unexpected and they suddenly stay out of your way. I'm sure they still talk smack behind my back but care much less about that now as well when I look at the source.

Beware of mediocrity and those who strive to protect the level of mediocrity they have achieved. These people are toxic. No matter how nice they may appear.

At 1:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also meant to say that thinking we can fix things, the lab, the PI, do science in a crappy environment as long as we are "strong" and that we are not like other people and won't have problems that someone else had with a troublesome PI or co-worker is typical of high achieving women and why there is a pattern of narcissistic PIs in our histories. Don't like to use that too much as it has become cliche but it's true. And all goes back to trusting your gut...

At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Key advice for joining a graduate or postdoctoral lab:

During the interview process, you will be sent out to lunch/dinner with the other lab members in the absence of the PI. If the lab members tell you the environment is poisonous and you should run screaming away, BELIEVE THEM.

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was never sent out to lunch/dinner on either my graduate or postdoc interviews. with my graduate lab it was apply, talk with the PI, get accepted/rejected and that was it. with my postdoc lab there was only one other postdoc there at the time and she was pretty new so she didn't know anything about the environment either, it was blind leading the blind. the more senior postdoc was out of town at the time and I had limited time to accept or reject an offer as it was tied with a fellowship.

that said, I have told new prospective postdocs (if they somehow came to ask me for my opinion when the PI wasn't around) to run away from the lab and not join because it is a crappy environment for so many reasons. However the majority of new postdocs after me did not try to find out from me or others before joining the lab, they would just show up on the doorstep one day and introduce themselves to me by asking me to train them.


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