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Choosing the right lab for you

“Which lab should I choose?”

This is another common question I get from undergraduate students looking to go into Honours/Masters. Here’s what I usually end up telling them.

Writing as a wet-lab based Bacteriology Ph. D student residing in Australia.

Usually by the time students are choosing to study Honours and beyond, they have a rough idea of what fields they’re interested in. Their Majors are locked in, and they may even have some labs in mind to apply for. I’ve written more about how to look for labs in my “Is research/lab right for you?” post.

In terms of choosing labs, I think it depends on what you prioritise. Some things to consider are:

  • Does the project interest you? Would you be able to get enjoyment out of it?
  • Do the techniques involved in the project interest you?
  • Do you get along with the principle investigator (PI)/supervisor/Lab Head?
  • Do you get along with potential fellow lab mates?
  • Will the project stand you in good stead for future careers?

Does the project interest you? Would you be able to get enjoyment out of it?

Our Department has an info session where Lab Heads or supervisors (may not necessarily be the same person) go and advertise projects they’ll be offering. Info books of all the projects are available on the Department website to peruse at your leisure.

If you miss out on these sorts of events, again, check out the lab’s web pages- hopefully the Lab Head has a profile page that describes what their research is.

Obviously there’s a choice to be made here.

For me, I chose projects I was fascinated in myself. I know others who chose projects because it’s a wise career move (the project was in a field that was highly desirable- *coughs “BIOINFORMATICS”*). If you get both, fantastic! Basically, if the project summary alone is making you drowsy, maybe it isn’t for you. If it grabs your attention and it sounds interesting, proceed and contact the Lab.

Do the techniques involved in the project interest you?

Sometimes projects have some details of the types of techniques and experiments you’ll be performing. It ties in with the previous category, but maybe there’s a particular experimental approach you like (or would like more experience in).

For instance, I chose my current Ph. D project because it had a lot of Metabolomics/mass spectrometry components to it. I knew nothing about it, but I also knew that it might be a handy technique to be familiar with. Coupled with more traditional molecular techniques, I now have an “omics” level technique up my sleeve. Also, people love graduates with data analysis skills.

If you want to do Flow Cytometry/FACS, it might pay to look for projects that use that technique. If you prefer coding and writing scripts, try a bioinformatics lab.

Do you get along with the principle investigator (PI)/supervisor/Lab Head?

This one, to me, is very important. I value having a supervisor I can confide my lab (and sometimes life) problems to.

Obviously their primary role is not to be your friend. They’re your boss, first and foremost, but a supervisor can be someone to have good banter with.

Now, some people fall into a trap where they begin to view their supervisor as a parent-like being.

Again, they’re your boss, and you are their worker.

Basically you’re there because the supervisor can’t do lab experiments anymore. They’re too busy running the lab from their office, with no time to actually go into the lab.

But the main point of this tangent is that you can’t cling to them and expect them to look after you as a whole human being (although that would be nice) and sort out every little problem you might have. They’re far too busy for that, and also… you’re an adult. I added this point because jumping from an undergraduate student into a lab environment (essentially from classroom to workplace) can be a little jarring for people who haven’t worked full time in a professional work environment. And that’s what a lab is. You need to be aware that there’s a certain level of maturity required from you, as well.

Anyway- you’ve found a good project, you’ve figured out that a particular lab might be worth contacting. It’s now time to organise a one on one meeting with the Lab Head.

It can be daunting if this is the first time you have a professional meeting. I was lucky, in that the only two people I approached for Honours projects were down-to-earth, chill individuals who were very easy to talk to. But either way, you just have to send them an email and arrange a time to meet.

Depending on the individual, they may have a secretary/personal assistant who arranges their scheduling. Hopefully your contact notifies you if that’s the case. If they don’t reply, give them a few days and send a polite email asking if they could get back to you. These people are busy. Your email is likely one of hundreds they receive in a single day. Don’t take it personally if they don’t reply immediately, and do avoid passive-aggressive emails. Even if you don’t really want to work for them (maybe they’re preference 5), you never know what the future holds- you might end up working with them via a collaboration, or require help with a particular technique/equipment. Last thing you need is that negative air between you.

Generally during these types of meetings, the supervisor will obviously talk to the student about the project on offer, but they’re also looking at the student for enthusiasm and engagement. If you rock up expecting to do very little talking- unfortunately that is not what’s expected. You should come armed with questions and discuss the project. This is why you should do some background reading on the lab and understand what they do. Maybe read some papers they’ve published in recent years.

Take it as more opportunity to suss out what kind of person the Lab Head/supervisor is (they’ll be doing the same to you). Also- they have your academic transcript. Don’t go in thinking you can talk yourself up. Just be honest.

Once the meeting is over, think about how you went. Again, I prize the inter-personal relationships more than anything else, so I highly recommend paying attention to this. If, throughout your meeting and interactions with your potential supervisor, your gut was telling you something wasn’t clicking (“they aren’t quite understanding what I’m saying” “I don’t like their tone” “I don’t like their mannerisms toward me” “they didn’t seem to care about what I had to say”)- it’s probably a good sign they’re not the right supervisor for you.

Your supervisor is the person you need to be able to comfortably and explicitly talk to when you f*** up.

And I don’t mean, any old f*** up (experiments fail 90% of the time). I mean- it’s entirely your fault, the scale of it is huge, and you have to own it all. You should still feel comfortable enough that when you tell your supervisor you’ve made a colossal mistake, you don’t need to be fearful of how they’ll react and treat you. If you think they’ll yell at you- not okay. If you think they’ll start criticising you as a person (“you’re useless/pathetic”, “you’re an idiot”), as opposed to criticising the way you performed the experiment (“you’ve clearly used the wrong buffer”, “why was this technique used instead of this?”), that’s also not okay. Basically, if their response isn’t to come up with a practical solution forwards, then they’re a bad supervisor.

Unfortunately there are plenty of supervisors like the former that are out there.

Something to note, too, is that your Lab Head doesn’t necessarily equal your direct supervisor. Especially in larger labs, or where the Lab Head is quite high up in the career ladder, you might get assigned a different person. If that’s the case, I would encourage arranging a time to meet that person as well (if possible). The Lab Head might be fantastic, but the supervisor might not be.

Do you get along with potential fellow lab mates?

A lab is a team environment. Even if you prefer working alone, it’s actually quite important to be able to adapt and work as part of a lab/team. That means you should probably suss out what the other lab members are like. If possible, try and reach out to a lab member and see if they’d be happy to chat to you about what their lab is like to work in. I would target a student, because they would know best if the Lab Head/Post-Docs have any issues. You’ll get to hear an honest opinion from the lowest tier of lab member status. If there’s any power harassment going on, the students will know. Not that you can’t trust what a Lab Head/supervisor says, but I’ve seen instances where people were fooled into thinking the Lab Head/supervisor was fantastic, when in fact they just had a front. Awful, but again, the reality is that there are terrible people in any field.

Will the project stand you in good stead for future careers?

This one, again, comes down to what you value. For me I chose a fundamental research field, where the results don’t necessarily lead to cures or better society in that sense. I chose it because I just love knowing things, and learning how intricate little beings control other living things… The stuff we work on may one day help another researcher figure out a cure for something, but we in particular don’t prioritise that.

But, if you want to be more savvy about this, you can choose labs and projects based on the skills you’ll gain from it. Some research fields are “in” (like fashion, but with less clothing), and you’ll be more employable if you have experience in said field. If you choose projects in an area that’s not so popular, or is becoming outdated… maybe not so employable. Doesn’t mean you won’t gain skills from it (maybe I’ll talk about that in the future), but particularly if you want to stay within research, it might pay to pick a project that has more longevity.

Something else people consider as part of this is to choose a lab that is- to put it bluntly- wealthy. If they’re getting grants left, right and centre, they’re more likely to be able to pay you and keep you on as an employee, post-studies. Unfortunately with research grants being the way they are, it’s extremely difficult for labs to be funded (National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia generally has a success rate below 15%). Chances of getting into the small handful of labs that are getting consistent funding is somewhat low (but still worth a shot!).

At the end of the day, much like with other career posts, you just need to know yourself well enough that you can figure out what you prioritise and what you can compromise on.

Hopefully this is food for thought.

Categories: Careers

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A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬

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