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.