Need Advice Picking a Thesis Lab

uniqenam

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Jun 28, 2011
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  1. MD/PhD Student
    Do a 3rd rotation. It sounds like lab 2 will be an awful experience due to the lack of mentorship, and I don't think that you're going to enjoy 4+ years of aimless wandering with no one to help you. Also the lack of a grad student is a big red flag to me. I really would do a 3rd rotation if your institution allows it, to see if that lab has the mixture of both good mentorship and exciting science. It might be good to do one out of your field of interest (or at least tangentially related) in a lab that is known for both, just to see how it compares to the first/second lab that is more in your field.
     
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    URHere

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      When I started my PhD, I had a very similar choice to make. I rotated in one lab that had a number of students and postdocs, but where everyone essentially focused on slightly different angles of the same research question. In the other lab, the vast majority of people I worked with were "permadocs" (PhDs who loved working with the PI so much that they stayed for decades, despite being professors at a nearby university). There were no expected hours or lab meetings…people just worked the amount they found appropriate.

      I ultimately joined lab #2 and there were positives and negatives to that decision. I will admit that I floundered for about a year and a half before making any real progress on my PhD. I had chosen my project without any real oversight and I didn't make the best choices. I also didn't publish or present anything for the first two years because my PI never brought it up and I never thought to ask.

      That being said…I ultimately loved my experience in my lab. At the start of my third PhD year, things absolutely took off and I was surrounded by experts who thought about things in very novel ways : they helped my projects maintain momentum and they were very passionate about the work. In the course of one year, I attended half a dozen conferences and wrote several papers. I came to appreciate the lack of direct oversight because I had complete freedom over my projects and that ended up being a very good fit for me. I think I learned more through my "trial by fire" than I would have in a lab where I had more direct guidance. By the time I defended, I had absolutely zero regrets about my choice.

      I would say that you should try a 3rd rotation just on the off-chance that you find a lab that is an easy fit. As for your current rotation, I think you should take the initiative and build a project for yourself (assuming your PI is amenable to the idea). If you can do that, you may have a better idea of what it's like to work in the lab. If you aren't comfortable with that level of self-direction, then it may be better to find a lab with a more traditional way of managing students.
       
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      acetylcholine

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        How did you pick your MD/PhD program, ultimately? Did you indicate in your application who you would like to work with?

        No? (I'm baffled how you got in then; PhD programs essentially require this.)

        Go find other graduate students and ask them about both mentors.
         

        quebaldy

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          How did you pick your MD/PhD program, ultimately? Did you indicate in your application who you would like to work with?

          No? (I'm baffled how you got in then; PhD programs essentially require this.)

          Go find other graduate students and ask them about both mentors.

          MD/PhD programs are not PhD programs and they have significantly different application processes and requirements. MD/PhD programs may want to see that you have an interest in a particular field but don't necessarily want you to have only one or two specific labs picked out before you matriculate. I've heard many stories of students even drastically changing their intended research focus during their pre-PhD MD years.
           

          okemba

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            makingsmiles,

            Can you try just talking to PI #2 and being frank about your concerns, and saying, "Hey... your lab seems really cool, but I would appreciate more direct mentorship / weekly meetings / oversight?" If you don't ask, the answer is always no...
             

            Petypet

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            1. Attending Physician
              How did you pick your MD/PhD program, ultimately? Did you indicate in your application who you would like to work with?

              No? (I'm baffled how you got in then; PhD programs essentially require this.)

              Go find other graduate students and ask them about both mentors.

              Every school has different experiences. At my school you don't even rotate, you interview profs/students/post-docs in the lab you are interested in. The thought is why do rotations and learn certain techniques that you won't ever use.

              I really like this lab's clinical focus and creativity. Funding isn't an issue for both labs.

              TL;DR: One lab: excellent mentorship, questionable work. Other lab: great work, questionable mentorship.

              Thank you!!! Btw, do most people get a rotation project or at least something they could work on with continuity?


              Ultimately mentorship is useful but many people do just fine with poor mentors. Choose a lab that you are legitimately interested and the mentorship will work itself out. For me, my PI was very wealthy, and I only saw him once a week 2/3rd of the year, and the other 1/3rd he was in China and I updated him via gchat. I learned from other grad students how to write grants, submit papers, etc. That said, talk to other students to get a true feel for what things are like. From my experience, the PhD research is not the be-all-end-all, and you are going more through the motions and laying the foundations rather then setting in stone your career pathway. My research projects changed monthly, and ultimately I had a very well rounded thesis. I would focus on finding a mentor that has a history of getting students out in the desired time. You don't want to stay there any more time than you have to and some mentors may have a history of keeping students an extra year or two.
               
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                TL;DR: One lab: excellent mentorship, questionable work. Other lab: great work, questionable mentorship.

                Those both sound bad but the second one sounds worse. I would stay far, far away from someone who has not had a grad student in 5 years (or ever?). Mentoring grad students takes time, energy, and knowledge. You do not want to be stuck with a PI who does not know how to do it.

                On the first lab, it's not good if you don't think you will get good publications but I'm wondering if that is really true based on your description? It sounds like a very functional place. How did the PI get so many students if they aren't publishing? I would ask the upper-year PhD students in that lab and maybe some recent grads if you can find them, what their productivity was like in the lab. If their productivity is really that poor then I agree with other posters that you should do another rotation.

                Thank you!!! Btw, do most people get a rotation project or at least something they could work on with continuity?
                This really depends on the lab, but I'd say if you got a well-defined project that you were successful at for a summer rotation, that speaks well of the organizational skills and mentoring capacity of the PI.
                 

                bd4727

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                  Being on the other side and having seen lots of smart students both excel and flounder during their PhD and in the transition to faculty afterward, I would say that unless you are incredibly brilliant (like top 1% of people ever to go into science) then the best PhD mentor to have is a someone who is the best combination of 1) famous PI, 2) will let you graduate quickly, 3) will make your PhD time enjoyable or at least not a negative experience.
                   
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