How to pick a thesis lab

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Jan 30, 2006
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Picking a good thesis lab is perhaps the MOST CRITICAL and dangerous step you will make during your PhD. Far too many people have taken it lightly with dire consequences.
Similar posts have come up in the past, but I would like for people to contribute their recommendations to help 1st and 2nd year MSTPs as well as those who have already made a mistake and have to choose again.

Below are my 2c... these are lifted from a thread from 2006. Feel free to contribute below.


Although choosing a rotation is not a big deal, choosing a lab is, so take it seriously. The biggest mistake first year PhD students make is that they choose a mentor based on the type of research conducted in the lab. You are there to get a PhD, not cure cancer. If you get anything from this post, that should be it. I know many 6th year PhD students (and higher) who still don't have a thesis project because they chose their lab poorly, not because they are dumb or lazy.

The most important things to consider when choosing a lab are:

1. Personality (do you get along WELL with the PI and his/her mentorship style? what about the post-Docs you will be working with?) You are going to be in a small space with these people for a long time. You better like them.

2. Funding- Nothing worse than getting kicked out of lab because your PI can no longer afford you. This is probably not a big deal for most MSTPs, because we tend to choose well-funded and respected PIs. There is nothing wrong with asking about $$$.

3. Type of project you will get- Nothing worse than being handed a fishing expedition for a project which may develop into a thesis project, and have that never develop. You should come up with a hypothesis-driven thesis within a year of your training in that lab, otherwise you may spin wheels forever. You may even want to propose ideas to the PI during the interview, assuming you are well-aquainted with their work. The types of projects available in the lab should be discussed before the rotation even begins. The best situation is where someone has done all the thinking for you and set up a project for you. You may lose some power over your PhD (and maybe some respect) but you will have a quick, high quality PhD.

4. What others think- Perhaps more important than questions you will ask the PI are the questions you should ask other graduate students in that lab.
PIs have a way of romanticizing/selling their lab/work. They WANT graduate students- they are cheaper and better than technicians. Basically, we are slaves. They may say anything to get you, or they have a very egocentric view of what's going on in their lab. You need to seek out other grad students in the lab. Ask them what they think of it. What are the good and bad things about it? Are they happy? Would they choose another lab if they could start over? You'd be surprised at the number of people who would say yes to that last question.

5. What others think part II- It's also OK to seek advice from students outside the lab, based on the PI's reputation. If you are considering a lab and an older grad student says not to join a lab, there is probably a VERY good reason they are saying that. Many first year PhD students think they know what's best for them, but let me tell you now they do NOT. Also, you may want to avoid new faculty. You will have little to judge them by, and they may heavily rely on you, thus not let you go when it's time. Most importantly- listen to your elders. They know more than you, trust me.

6. Publication record- does your lab churn out papers? If so, this is good- you will be in them and your committee will get you out quicker.

7. and maybe here, because I can't think of more advice- is the type of research the lab conducts. How willing is the PI to let you wander away from the lab focus?

Other questions you may want to ask: Does the PI have any intentions to leave the institution in the next 5 years, are they planning a sabbatical? These are seldom mentioned and can ruin graduate school for many. This one is tricky because they often will not tell anyone about it until it is a done deal, and then you are screwed. Anyone with a high-caliber PI runs this risk... but you always need some risk.

Hope that helps. Good luck, we're all counting on you.

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Aug 13, 2005
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If you would like more school-specific information about choosing your thesis lab, please get in touch with your American Physician Scientists Association (APSA) Institutional Representative. We have pre-designed a package to help our reps create this forum for you. We have such a forum at UPenn and the students think it's really helpful. Please let me know how I can help.