The primary training during PhD plays a pivotal role in shaping and preparing an individual for a life-long career in scientific research. You will be typically involved in making an original and meaningful contribution to a specific research domain. During this journey, you will acquire in-depth knowledge about a research topic, gain specialized skills, and develop critical thinking abilities. Therefore, it is important to prioritize aspects that are essential for your success. If you are a newcomer in the field planning to join a PhD program, here are some useful tips to consider before committing to a lab for your PhD dissertation.
- Research area
Identify a research area that captivates your interest. This is easier if you have prior experience in research as an undergraduate or master’s student. If you don’t have prior research experience, that’s fine. In that case, you have more flexibility to choose your topic of interest. Think about topic(s) that inspired you in your college classroom, during conversation with a faculty member, or any other memorable instances or life experiences.
Most graduate schools have rotational programs that allow students to explore labs of their choice during the first year before finalizing a lab for the dissertation project. Confirm that the lab has an open position for a graduate student before doing a rotation. If the program doesn’t offer a formal rotation system, check if you can shadow a graduate student or postdoc of the lab for a few days to get an idea of their daily research activities, their perspectives, experiences, and challenges they have encountered.
Pursuing a PhD is a long-term commitment that requires patience and persistence. Therefore, evaluate carefully if your research interests overlap with the lab/mentor you are interested to work with. Talk with the principal investigator (PI) and the lab members about the ongoing and future projects, read the lab publications, and try to understand the broad goal of their research. If you are excited and passionate about the big picture of the research topic, it will keep you motivated and small failures along the way won’t deter you as much. You can also assess whether the marketable skills acquired by pursuing the research topic will enhance your prospects of securing a job in your preferred sector, be it academia, industry or other fields.
- Mentoring style and expectations of the PI
Potentially the most important aspect to consider when picking a lab, is who you will be working with for the next five years, your PI. It is imperative not only to your project but your well being as a student that you mesh well with your PI. Every PI mentors their students in different ways. Some prefer a hands-on approach while others are rarely in the lab. PIs will often tailor their mentorship style to the student’s needs. If you have a lot of experience, they might give you more independence than someone with little research experience.
How PIs provide feedback can also vary. Some will meet with you one-on-one weekly to review your progress and drawbacks. This can be viewed as micro-managing but some students prefer this style. Some prefer to meet quarterly with large updates and do not focus on troubleshooting experiments. Furthermore, some PIs will meet with you rarely and only expect you to provide final data and figures.
It is important to note if the PI supports your research goals/ideas outside of what they wish to explore. While it’s helpful to have a defined project specifically at the beginning of PhD, students should also have the opportunity to think independently about their project. This will prepare them to lead their own research group in future.
Mentorship can also include positive and negative reinforcement styles. Depending on your personality this could either motivate or discourage you. If you know what kind of mentorship you like to receive, for example, hands-on with positive reinforcement, you should convey this to your PI. Try to assess if the PI cares about the physical and mental well being of the lab members. Lastly it is important to have the PI convey their expectations of you before you join the lab, for example, if they allow remote work or how much vacation time you get. It is important to communicate openly with the PI as this is crucial for a successful PhD experience.
- Lab culture
When considering a lab for PhD, it is important to factor in how this lab functions as a whole. Every lab has different cultures, and it is important to see if you will fit into this. Some labs have multiple grad students and postdocs that often provide unofficial mentorship to new students. This can be helpful if the PI is often busy or does not provide hands-on mentorship.
It is important to meld well with the current lab members as they might be your coworkers for the next 5 years. Leaving a positive impression on them will reflect well on you and could help the PI decide to hire you. If you do happen to clash with any of the lab members, consider a conflict resolution with them to avoid tension in your working environment.
Many labs have strong social components, for example weekly lab lunches, which might be attractive to a first year student in search of a community. Even if you prefer a quiet working environment, having supportive lab mates can be critical for a successful and positive PhD experience. If a lab you are interested in does not have a strong community but you would like there to be, consider starting a monthly coffee hour with your lab mates.
Lastly, many labs have weekly meetings and journal clubs to present current data from the lab and to keep up with new research in your lab’s field. This is an excellent way to practice presentation skills and deepen your knowledge of the field. Some labs can provide strong constructive criticism while others might be more gentle with feedback. In the end you want a lab where you fit in and feel supported by the members so that you feel comfortable to grow as a scientist.
- Funding status
This is an important determinant while choosing a lab for pursuing a PhD. It is not advisable to opt for a lab which doesn’t have an active grant or has gone many years without funding, even if the research topic is highly interesting. During your initial meeting with the PI, inquire about active grants that will fund you for the next 4-5 years. Make sure the grant is confirmed and not in an anticipatory stage. If possible, request for a copy of the grant proposal(s).
Adequate funding ensures access to state-of-the-art research equipment, resources, and reagents required to conduct high-quality experiments that broaden the scope of the projects. Research grants can cover publication fees of reputed journals, making it easier for students to enhance their credibility in the professional realm. A well-funded lab will also be able to cover expenses for traveling to conferences providing an excellent opportunity to present your research, network with fellow scientists, and establish collaborations. Moreover, labs with strong funding history are better positioned to secure future grants, thus ensuring the sustainability of their research endeavors.
In cases where the PI doesn’t have an active grant to provide research assistantship, some departments fund their graduate students through teaching assistantships. Although this ensures a monthly stipend and provides valuable teaching experience which can be advantageous for securing faculty positions in the future, keep in mind that teaching commitments consume a significant amount of time that could potentially increase the overall duration of your PhD. Therefore, it is crucial to choose a lab with a strong financial foundation that will ensure sustained support for your PhD research pursuits.
- Publication record of PI
A crucial step in selection of a PhD lab involves a meticulous examination of the publication record of the PI. This facet requires an assessment of the frequency and impact of PI’s contribution to the academic landscape.
The frequency of publications indicates the engagement of PI. Evaluate how regularly a PI publishes. Consider the number of papers where the PI serves as the corresponding author. It provides an insight into the leadership role of the PI in guiding the research projects to completion. A consistent output not only signifies an active and engaged researcher, but also suggests an advisor capable of offering valuable mentorship and guidance throughout the academic journey.
On the other hand, the reputation and impact factor of the journals where the PI publishes reflects significance of their work within the broader scientific community. Publications in high-impact journals also enhance the visibility and influence of the PI’s research.
Some may prefer a consistent output of publication, appreciating the ongoing engagement and mentorship, while others may place a higher value on the depth and impact of the publication. Deciding between the two is up to an individual’s preferences and academic goals. Understanding your own preference- whether you prioritize a steady stream of publications or aim for fewer papers with significant impact- guides the decision making process.
- Facilities and Resources
The critical decision of selecting a PhD lab also hinges on the thorough evaluation of facilities and resources available. Availability of cutting-edge equipment and shared resources within the department not only enhances the research quality but also open avenues for innovative explorations. Additionally, discipline-specific factors play a crucial role, particularly in the field of plant biology. For example, availability of facilities such as agricultural operations and green houses is crucial for researchers working in controlled environmental conditions.
Furthermore, an important aspect of your academic journey lies in specialized training programs, especially those tailored to your field, such as statistics, data analysis, scientific writing and many others. These programs not only enhance your skill set but also act as foundational preparation for the analytical demands inherent in research pursuit.
Equally significant is the consideration of mental well-being. It is imperative to assess whether the university /institute provides comprehensive healthcare services and mental health support. A supportive environment that prioritizes your overall well-being contributes substantially to a positive and thriving academic experience.
In essence, a comprehensive assessment of available facilities and resources is the linchpin in selecting a PhD lab as it is an important factor that supports your research goals and provides a conducive environment for your doctoral journey.
Survey data and analysis
We designed a short survey aimed at gathering insights from the plant science community to discern the factors prioritized by researchers at various career stages before deciding to join a lab for PhD. The survey was distributed to different universities across the world. 105 scientists from different career stages (Figure 1a) participated in this survey. The majority of participants were current PhD students (60.9%) with postdocs comprising the second largest group (21%).
We asked the participants about their priorities, among the 6 criteria outlined above, before joining a lab. The results showed that 44.7% participants identified Mentoring style and expectations of the PI as their top priority, followed closely by Research area (42.8%). Lab culture was also an important determinant for 35% of the participants (Figure 1b).
Additionally, we asked the participants whether, in hindsight, they wished they had prioritized differently after already selecting a lab. Although most participants said that they were happy with their decision, 33.3% of participants acknowledged that they should have prioritized something else. Notably, within this group, Mentoring style and PI expectations emerged as the aspect they felt should have been given greater consideration.
To ensure that we thoroughly consider the collective opinion of the participants, we asked if anybody had additional criteria in mind other than the ones listed above. We received some valuable and important information from this open-ended question. Based on the survey responses, here are some more points to bear in mind while choosing a lab.
It is possible that after joining a lab, you find that it is not the right fit for you. This could be for multiple reasons ranging from improper working environment to losing interest in the research topic. If you sense that things are not progressing according to your plan, act promptly. Consider talking with the graduate advisor or graduate program coordinator about the possibility of switching labs. This is a plausible course of action in academia, and it doesn’t reflect failure on your part. In fact, taking this step early on lowers the likelihood of ending up in a demotivating or toxic situation. It will ensure your happiness and well-being during the academic journey and lead to a fulfilling and successful career in the long run where your skills, aspirations, and passion are closely aligned.
We would like to thank all the participants who took the time to complete our survey. Additionally, a special thanks to the Plantae fellow members and departmental representatives who helped us to disseminate the survey to their respective institutions. Your valuable inputs have greatly enriched the study and
contributed to a comprehensive understanding of the factors influencing the decision of researchers in the plant science community about how to choose the best lab for PhD.
About the Authors
Abira Sahu is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Michigan State University Plant Research Laboratory, and a 2024 Plantae Fellow. Her research focuses on the regulation of isoprene emission from plants and its significance in plant physiology and atmospheric chemistry. You can find her on X: @AbiraSahu.
Alex White is a PhD candidate at UC Riverside, and a 2024 Plantae Fellow. She is interested in understanding receptor specificity between the karrikin and strigolactone signaling pathways in plants. She is passionate about science and communication. You can find her on X: @alex_plantnerd.
Prakshi Aneja is a PhD scholar at the National Institute of Plant Genome Research, India, and a 2022 Plantae Fellow. Apart from research, Prakshi is passionate about music too, and loves to play the guitar. She is an amateur photographer and enjoys snapping photos of nature. You can find her on X: @PrakshiAneja.