Choosing a laboratory

Independent of the type of research you want to do there is something that you HAVE to do and that is choosing a lab. This process can vary a lot: there are institutions that will have lab rotations (mostly during your masters) while there are others in which, in order to register for the program, you have to be accepted as part of a single lab. My institution makes part of the latter.

So today I will tell you how I chose my lab, just to give you an idea of the process in general. Please keep in mind that policies might be very different wherever you are planning to study, so always do your research.

1. Find a topic that interest you

This one applies to any case. You wouldn't go to study to a university that has a strong history in Ecology if you really don't care for it. So, first and foremost, take some time to think what is it that you want to study. Start with the broad topic (Molecular Biology, Ecology, etc) and then try to go as specific as you can. This is just because is not the same thing to work on MolBio in zebra fish, than in flies, for example. Once you find your topic (not your thesis topic; that comes later) you can pass to the next step.

2. Find someone who works in the subject you want

For this you have multiple resources such as PubMed or even Google Scholar. Try to check who is working on what; what are the details of their work and obviously where are located. If possible, consider how long has it been since they have published and what was the type of last publication they had (review, research article, letter), since you can see then the type of work that is being produce in their lab and to what rate/extent. Not only that, but this can also determine the type of financing that the lab is receiving, which inevitably will affect your project, shall you decide to work with this person.

3. Contact

Now I am going to start talking a bit more specifically to my case in particular. When I had found my possible topics, and hence advisors, I contacted them through e-mail. A word on this: they might not have posted in their site that they are presently looking for students; even so, if this is the lab you are really interested in you should contact them. Worst that can happen is that they will say no, but on the other hand you might just be the perfect candidate for an opening they were going to have eventually. I initially contacted 4 professors, of them only 2 answered at first. None of them was looking for a student at the time I contacted them. Both asked for more information (grades, recommendations, etc) and in the end, I was accepted in my present lab.

Some professors will ask for an interview, either by Skype or if possible in person. This was not the case for me, but a lot of my friends at the institute were.

4. Try to talk to other students

Whenever is possible, talk to prior and present students. In a way, you are also interviewing your professor, to a very different level off course, but none the less. Is the professor good at guiding new students? What about mood swings? Anything in particular you should know? This is important, because you are considering spending a lot of time under this person's tutelage and if she/he has a particular character that you don't think you can get along with, it might be a very long PhD indeed. This part is not always possible, but with the amount of contact tools we have nowadays you can at least try.

5. Get informed about payments

Not all programs will pay you as you are doing your PhD. But you need to know this in advance. Are there scholarship programs? Are you eligible? I once met a PI that would only accept students that arrived with their own scholarship. Some others will pay directly the student. Again, this is just so you get all your info before making a decision. At least in science, a PhD is more than a full time job, is long hours, weekends in the lab and taking a lot of work home. Make sure that you will be able to cover you basic needs (food, transportation and off course housing) and for how long. This might sound horrible, but trust me, I've met students that weren't being paid, which meant they had to find a part time job; this has a nasty effect on your research and obviously in the time it takes you to finish.

Those are my 5 points to check when choosing your future lab. I would love to hear the ones you considered too. Let me know in the comments, and in the meantime, keep working on good science ;)

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