The following was written by Rebekka O. Sprouse, Ph.D. Candidate, Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics | Vice-President, Graduate Biosciences Society (2006-2007)

Areas of Research

This is the first and most important criterion on which you should base your decision.  The research is what will make you want to come to work everyday.  Lab atmospheres can change and frequently do, but the research will stay the same throughout your 4-5 years here.  A good way to begin your search is to read summaries on the departmental websites, to attend research talks whenever possible, and to talk to other students.  Making appointments to talk to professors will allow you to learn about their research in more detail and to decide if you would be interested in a rotation.

Mentor Teaching Style and Personality

Although you want to love your research first and foremost, it is also important that you have a good relationship with your mentor.  Your success in lab can be directly related to your mentor’s advising style, so make sure it is compatible with your own goals.  Professors vary in their accessibility, managerial style, expectations and personalities.  This is something that is impossible to judge upon the initial meeting with a professor.  Pay attention to their habits throughout your rotation, especially during the second half.  Most often, a professor will be more attentive and accessible during the first part of your rotation to make sure you get a good start, but this may fall off towards the end, and this is how it will most likely be if you join the lab.  Talk to other students in the lab about their experiences, but remember that older students can sometimes be biased in their opinions.  Two students can have entirely different experiences in the same lab, so don’t rule a professor out simply because you’ve heard someone had a bad experience there.  Decide for yourself based on your interactions with the professor during your rotation, paying special attention to the factors that are most important to you.

The following questions may be ones to consider as you carry out your rotation:

What are their expectations for work? Some professors require you to be at work at certain times, while others can be more lenient.  Some expect more time to be spent in the lab on the weekends.  Do the lab scientists seem competitive with each other? This may be due to the influence of the mentor.  While you should not ask questions like this to the professor directly, it will become clear as you spend more time there what other people in the lab do, and what is expected of you.

What are the mentor’s records for graduating students/publishing papers? This will be more important to you depending on your ultimate career goals.  Some professors have tight guidelines for graduating (publishing 2 papers, etc.), and some are driven more by the pursuit of knowledge than publishing.  What is the overall publication record in the lab?  If a lab hasn’t published in the past few years, this may be a lab to stay away from.  Decide what is most important to you.  If a professor has graduated the last few students in 5 years, it’s safe to say you’ll be there for about 5 years.  The trends in the lab can help you decide if this would be a good fit for you.

How accessible is the professor to questions/advice? Some students won’t see their mentor for weeks, while others talk to theirs everyday.  It’s important to have some interaction with your mentor to make sure you stay on track, but you may not be the type of person who wants to give daily updates.  Will you have to make an appointment to talk to your mentor, or will your mentor be available anytime? Have other students in the lab complained about the lack of accessibility?

Is their personality compatible with yours? While you probably won’t be best friends with your mentor, it will be much easier if you find them easy to talk to and personable.  Communication will be very important, and having open communication will make the road to graduation much smoother.  Do you want to keep the interaction purely research-related, or do you want to be able to relate to your mentor on a more personal level too? These are important things to think about.

Lab Atmosphere/Funding

These last two points are things that should be considered, but not dwelled on.  Lab atmosphere can be important in making your decision, but don’t give it too much weight, as it will frequently change during your time here.  As a graduate student, you may be around longer than others who pass through the lab, including undergrads, post-docs, and technicians.  It’s nice to get along with the people you will see everyday, but don’t choose a lab just because you get along with the people.  If you don’t get along with anyone, however, this is probably not the lab for you.  Does the lab size matter to you? Are there post-docs in the lab that could offer help if you mentor is unavailable?  These are all things to consider.  Choose a lab where you like the atmosphere, the research, and the mentor, realizing that the atmosphere is the most variable.

Funding can be an issue in deciding whether or not to join a lab, but this decision will probably not be up to you.  A professor will decide if enough money is available to accept you into the lab, and will most likely tell you this before you start your rotation.  It might be good to ask if they envision themselves moving in the next few years, but most professors can’t predict this.  Keep in mind that funding/moving can always become an issue, and is often unpredictable, so choosing a lab that is your best fit should not be heavily based on this.