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Choosing a Lab

Graduate Peer Mentoring -- Choosing a Lab
September 2010

1.    How do you put together an initial list of people to rotate with?
i.    Ask older students and program personnel about the faculty
ii.    Ask lab personnel what they think of the lab.  How comfortable are they talking about it honestly?
iii.    Interest in research topic.
iv.    Is the PI taking students this year?  If so, how many?  How many people usually rotate with them? 
v.    Take notice of those who attend the program retreat and who you met at interviewing dinners, etc. 
2.    Once you have a list of people to rotate with, meet with the PI and other people in the lab.
3.    Select rotation.
4.    Perform rotations.
5.    Select a thesis lab. 

1.     Lab Environment:
a.    Size of lab
b.    Distribution of lab members (number of grad students, technicians, post-docs, research associates, junior faculty)
c.    Personalities of individuals in the lab (competitive, helpful, etc.)
d.    The physical space and location
i.    Building/Windows/basement
ii.    Does everyone have a desk and bench, or are they shared?
e.    How are reagents ordered?  Are they shared or individual?
f.    What do you have to make yourself?  (buffers, gels, etc)
g.    What equipment is available to you within the lab?  What do you need to go outside of the lab for?  (microscopes, plate readers, etc.)
h.    Are there other labs which the lab has a high level of interaction with?
i.    Be aware of how you are treated.  Are you treated as an equal or someone who doesn’t know anything?  Are you treated as a technician for a post-doc?
j.    How is authorship on papers decided?
k.    How are funds distributed?
l.    What is the lab turnover like? 
m.    Lab meetings/Departmental meetings
i.    What is their structure (round robin/present every week)?
ii.    Are there journal clubs?
iii.    When are the meetings?
iv.    Make sure you attend a few before choosing that lab.   You can even attend them before rotating in the lab with PI’s permission.

2.    PI’s style
a.    How often will you meet with your advisor one-on-one?
b.    If you need to speak with your advisor, do they have an open door policy or do you need to make an appointment?
c.    Are they willing to look at raw data?
d.    What are your PI’s other obligations (administrative, clinical)?
e.    Will you be assigned a preceptor?  How long will they be there and what level are they?
f.    Who do you go to if you have a problem?
g.    How often does the PI travel?
h.    If you are interested in alternative careers, how accepting is the PI?  Make sure you make him/her aware of your current intentions.
i.    Does he/she provide guidance and opportunities for professional development?
i.    Will they let you attend meetings?
ii.    Will you be a part of meetings with collaborator’s regarding your project?
j.    Will you have a co-mentorship under a junior faculty?  Can you have a co-mentorship with another faculty member?
3.    Lab/PI Reputation
a.    How do people respond when you talk about the advisor and your decision to join?
b.    Among faculty at Hopkins
c.    Among students
d.    Among your program administrators
e.    In the field.
i.    Where and how often does the lab publish?
ii.    How do people respond to you at meetings?
4.    Project
a.    What is the PI working on?  Is it something that you are interested in?
b.    How are projects assigned in the lab? Will you have your own project?
c.    How are projects funded?
5.    What is expected of you?
a.    Are you okay with performing all techniques used in the lab (i.e. are you okay with animal work?) Does your advisor agree that you can stay away from them? Do they adhere to these agreements?
b.    Are you expected to apply for your own funding? 
c.    Will you write your own papers or do you just collect data and someone else writes?
d.    How many hours are people expected to be in lab?  Are you expected to be there between certain hours? 
i.    Pay attention to how others behave.
e.    What is the vacation and sick day policy?
f.    How much are you expected to publish?
g.    Lab duties
h.    Can you have a life outside of the lab?
6.    What do students go on and do?
a.    How many students has the PI mentored?
b.    What have they gone on to do?
c.    What kind of publications did they get?

7.     Tips and Tricks
a.    Talk to people in the lab.  Are they willing to talk to you about the PI and the lab openly and honestly?
b.    Don’t assume that you can change the lab.
c.    Be aware of red flags.
d.    Always address a PI in an official manner unless given permission to use their first name.
e.    Never say anything that you would not want repeated to another lab member or the PI.
f.    You are graded on your rotations? (is this true for all programs?)

How do you join a lab?

8.     Have an official meeting with the PI to express interest in joining the lab.
a.    Wait until after you have completed all rotations (unless you are very certain, then have a meeting and say “I am interested in joining the lab, but I need to do another rotation”)
b.    Set up a meeting.
c.    Remember that you can be declined, so have a back-up.
i.    Competition with other students
ii.    Funding fell through
iii.    PI didn’t like you
9.     How to decline an offer
a.    In person, if possible.
b.    In an email (but only if you cannot set up a meeting with the PI).

What happens if it doesn’t work out?
•    Remember that you are not the only person who experiences problems with their advisor.