Is it risky to do research with an un-tenured, new professor?

Dec 6, 2013
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I found a professor willing to let me work in his lab, but this is only his 3rd year at the school.

Pros, from what I can tell, are that he is very open to having undergraduates publishing and doing their own projects. Right off the bat he said that his goal is to help me develop a project with presentable and publication ready data. He suggested that I go and read some papers and come back with my own project idea... <---kind of daunting, but also cool that he is letting me do this. He is very accessible and I have no doubts that I can easily form a good relationship with him.

Cons, I'm not too sure about for this specific lab, but may include funding issues and inexperience in general: his PhD and post-doc was in Chemical Engineering, but this is a Biology-focused lab, which I thought was a little strange. I've attended several lab meetings and his knowledge in biology/bioengineering doesn't seem that extensive. Maybe I'm just being over-critical. Also he's un-tenured (but on the tenure-track), so his letter of rec might not hold much weight compared to a more well-known professor.

I'm curious to see if any of you have also joined brand new labs, and how your experiences went. It seems like a good opportunity, especially since the PI is so open to letting me publish, and I would be able to have my own project right off the bat, but at the same time I am concerned about the productivity and risks of a lab that's starting from the ground up. Also, I would have 2 years in this lab before I apply for medical school. On the other side, more established labs come with their own trade-offs: less face-time with the PI, less opportunity for independence/intellectual input, but they're more well-oiled machines.

For those of you that have worked in either new labs or older, "big-shot" labs, I would love to hear your opinions!
 

Espadaleader

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I am with a new tenure track professor at a prestigious institution. Its awesome. You are their first so you will get your own project, publish and have more autonomy that a "big shot" that you never see. I would say go for it.
 
OP
R
Dec 6, 2013
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I am with a new tenure track professor at a prestigious institution. Its awesome. You are their first so you will get your own project, publish and have more autonomy that a "big shot" that you never see. I would say go for it.
What would you say the downsides are? Do you find that the professor's relative inexperience affects you in any way?
 
Aug 8, 2013
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What would you say the downsides are? Do you find that the professor's relative inexperience affects you in any way?
I joined a lab two years after it was started. Overall, I have loved the autonomy I have gotten (been working there for going on 6 years now :) because I stayed on full time after graduation) and have been able to distinguish myself in presentations/abstracts/publications/posters. The biggest downside has been the fact that my ability to move forward has sometimes been halted by a lack of set-up/equipment/systems that have been debugged properly. While I have learned a lot about troubleshooting and setting up experiments from the ground up, it would have been easier to get more done if all the lab infrastructure was already there.
 
Jun 29, 2013
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This is a difficult decision, and I think you've already thought through a lot of the pro/con. I've been working with a new assistant professor for a couple of years (pysch research), and I've really enjoyed my experience. She knows me very well because we work one on one, and I’ve been able to work on my own project as well.

At the same time, I do wish I had joined a more established group. We’ve had to troubleshoot a lot, and my PI has shared with me her worries about funding and her future at the university. Our team is also very small, so there are not a lot of opportunities for mentorship and networking. While I do love the autonomy and building a program, I think at this point in my education, I would benefit more from learning from an established lab. There's a lot to learn from people who are doing it well. Also, older faculty may also have more contacts at the university and in the field. You never know how these relationships could help you in your path.
 

nemo123

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Jul 22, 2011
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As an undergrad, a new professor certainly beats an old one. After all, you'll be one of the first people in the lab and the PI will interact with you often. You'll get a ton of autonomy, and your name will go on pubs that go out to journals. These PIs need to get a lot of research done and publish often so they can actually get tenured, so you should definitely learn a lot from a new one (even if he/she works you to the bone).
 
Sep 4, 2013
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Not to be devil's advocate but I am sadly on the other side of the stick when it comes to doing research with a tenure track professor. The project I am on with my PI is interdisciplinary so she is working with another tenure track faculty member. They are both extremely proficient in their respective fields but the lack of communication between the two is astounding and has made my job much more difficult. The main reason I tell you this is just so you make sure you know what you are getting into. This is only one negative out of many positives so I say go for it because generally it turns out great! Best of luck!
 

member1029

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Nov 2, 2012
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Well said, nemo.

I think that you should find someone whose research fascinates you and who can afford to take a personal interest in your development as a scientist. The way I did this was to email and subsequently meet with many professors whose work I found interesting.

As my PI's first lab member, I had an amazing opportunity to design a research project, train newer lab members (a few grad students, a postdoc, and an undergrad), first-author a paper, co-author another, and design a conference workshop.
 

Goro

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If the professor is on tenure track, then it won't be until year five that he/she will be on the block for a tenure decision. If denied, then they'd have to be out by the end of year six. Yale purposely hires two professors for a single tenure slot. Their logic is that one will be able to get a job somewhere else and bring the "Yale training" with him/her.

I found a professor willing to let me work in his lab, but this is only his 3rd year at the school.

Pros, from what I can tell, are that he is very open to having undergraduates publishing and doing their own projects. Right off the bat he said that his goal is to help me develop a project with presentable and publication ready data. He suggested that I go and read some papers and come back with my own project idea... <---kind of daunting, but also cool that he is letting me do this. He is very accessible and I have no doubts that I can easily form a good relationship with him.

Cons, I'm not too sure about for this specific lab, but may include funding issues and inexperience in general: his PhD and post-doc was in Chemical Engineering, but this is a Biology-focused lab, which I thought was a little strange. I've attended several lab meetings and his knowledge in biology/bioengineering doesn't seem that extensive. Maybe I'm just being over-critical. Also he's un-tenured (but on the tenure-track), so his letter of rec might not hold much weight compared to a more well-known professor.

I'm curious to see if any of you have also joined brand new labs, and how your experiences went. It seems like a good opportunity, especially since the PI is so open to letting me publish, and I would be able to have my own project right off the bat, but at the same time I am concerned about the productivity and risks of a lab that's starting from the ground up. Also, I would have 2 years in this lab before I apply for medical school. On the other side, more established labs come with their own trade-offs: less face-time with the PI, less opportunity for independence/intellectual input, but they're more well-oiled machines.

For those of you that have worked in either new labs or older, "big-shot" labs, I would love to hear your opinions!
 

nemo123

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Jul 22, 2011
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If the professor is on tenure track, then it won't be until year five that he/she will be on the block for a tenure decision. If denied, then they'd have to be out by the end of year six. Yale purposely hires two professors for a single tenure slot. Their logic is that one will be able to get a job somewhere else and bring the "Yale training" with him/her.
That's alarming and cruel on Yale's part... Given the number of PhDs out there, do they really think that's realistic (besides the fact that Yale fired them after 5 years so that'll be a black mark on their CV anyway)?
 
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DrEnderW

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I had an amazing opportunity jumping on with a newer professor on tenure track. It was an awesome experience because of the excitement (and pressure) to start producing publishable data. I ended up getting two pubs (one was 1st author) and presented at 4 international conferences. More importantly, you get to be a integral part of the lab team and are rewarded with a lot of responsibly with an opportunity to learn a ton of new techniques. It's great to have a meaningful say in the research process instead of just being the one guy out of 10 people that runs a gel every couple weeks. I think the chance of this type of experience increases in smaller, newer labs. With that being said, there are obviously potential downsides as well.
 
OP
R
Dec 6, 2013
4
0
I had an amazing opportunity jumping on with a newer professor on tenure track. It was an awesome experience because of the excitement (and pressure) to start producing publishable data. I ended up getting two pubs (one was 1st author) and presented at 4 international conferences. More importantly, you get to be a integral part of the lab team and are rewarded with a lot of responsibly with an opportunity to learn a ton of new techniques. It's great to have a meaningful say in the research process instead of just being the one guy out of 10 people that runs a gel every couple weeks. I think the chance of this type of experience increases in smaller, newer labs. With that being said, there are obviously potential downsides as well.
Wow sounds like joining that lab was the right choice for you! How many years did you work there before you ha results you could publish? Also, what were the downsides you personally experienced?
 

edgerock24

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How pretentious do you have to be to care about how long a professor has been at your school? He is clearly qualified, and let's be honest -- the only reason you care to do research is to make your eventual medical school application look better. That's it. Unless you want a PhD or something as well, do your year of research or so and mark that off your checklist.
 
OP
R
Dec 6, 2013
4
0
How pretentious do you have to be to care about how long a professor has been at your school? He is clearly qualified, and let's be honest -- the only reason you care to do research is to make your eventual medical school application look better. That's it. Unless you want a PhD or something as well, do your year of research or so and mark that off your checklist.
Actually I am considering MD/PhD, so...I really want a meaningful and productive research experience...
 

DrEnderW

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Wow sounds like joining that lab was the right choice for you! How many years did you work there before you ha results you could publish? Also, what were the downsides you personally experienced?
I worked in the lab for two school years and full-time for 3 summers after working in a different lab freshman summer. I began presenting at conferences junior year and submitted my first paper senior year. The project we were working on was novel so it took a couple years to get solid data. There were no graduate students or any full-time techs - all of the work was done by the prof and undergrads so that slowed things down during the school year as well.

Some of the potential downsides would be that it can sometimes take awhile to get published... For example, I did a research year after graduation and submitted a paper after a month of being there because ongoing projects nearing completion fell in my lap. Another downside would be the potential to publish in less prestigious journals while a lab is starting out, however this isn't always the case and prob isn't that important as a pre-med. It can also be a lot of responsibility and a lot of work, which can be a pro or con depending how you look at it. Sometimes I would put it 15+ hours of research a week on top of a varsity sport and school so that got to be a lot and may have had an impact on my grades.
 

DrEnderW

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let's be honest -- the only reason you care to do research is to make your eventual medical school application look better. That's it. Unless you want a PhD or something as well, do your year of research or so and mark that off your checklist.
That's a pretty ignorant outlook...

A lot of medical students, residents, and physicians conduct serious research without a PhD. Pubs and research only become increasingly important as you advance your career (especially in certain specialties). Aside from that, people actually enjoy research and want to meaningfully contribute to a project. Doing a year of pre-med research is 0% impressive if you aren't deeply invested in a project or produce results. If you don't want to pursue research that's your prerogative. I assure you, no one cares to hear your fabricated opinion of why OP wants to be in a lab. If it does interest you, research begets more research. Having experiences and skills will open doors for future opportunities and networking that can substantially impact your career.