Almost Docs: How to pick a research lab

This was originally shared on (which no longer exists???) While I thought I had re-published all of my important articles from that site last year, I guess I missed this one. 🤷🏻‍♀️ Please note that I wrote this in 2014!!!

Whether you’re a pre-med who wants to build your resume for medical school, a medical student who wants to fill a free summer, or a graduate student, you’re probably going to be doing research. Before you jump in to trying to join a research group, I am here to warn you that not every research environment is equal (as I’ve learned the hard way, which sort of makes me an expert so you probably heed my warning). If you do it right, there is a lot to consider when finding a research advisor that is best for you, which is ultimately what’s important.

If the thought of picking a research advisor makes you feel a little like this:

Then this list of considerations is for you.

1. What area of research do you want to be in?

First things first, you need to narrow down your options. Often this will be in your major or graduate program area, so hopefully you’ve already had a chance to reflect on this. Do you want to do biology or engineering or anthropology? Whatever it is, look for professors who are doing research in that area.

2. Does your personality fit with that of the Primary Investigator (PI)?

Before asking to join a lab, it is essential that you reach out to the PI (or the professor in charge of the lab, for those who do not know). Talk to them about their research and the lab environment and by doing so, try to gauge how well you would work together. The PI will be your primary advisor in the lab and you need to make sure that you will be able to work with them and be successful.

3. How involved is the PI in their students?

Some PIs expect a detailed schedule of their students’ work and oversee it closely while others lay back and don’t keep a close watch on their students at all. Of course these are the extremes, but you will find PIs along a whole spectrum of involvement. Depending on your work ethic and confidence, one extreme or the other may be better for you. It is important to understand how you work to understand what you’re looking for in a PI. Remember, if a PI is more laid back, you will have to be more driven and independent to get the work done. On the other hand, if you’re more independent, a PI that sort of hovers will be quite frustrating.

Also, ask the students in the lab about the PI. You may find out even more information to sway your decision (such as if the PI has a short temper – true story).

4. How much do students have control of their own project?

This related to #3 and mostly pertains to those students in graduate school. To become an independent researcher (as is the goal of graduate school), you need practice planning your own research. If your PI doesn’t let you do much of the planning, you won’t get this experience and you might get stuck doing work that you do not want to do.

5. Do students get adequate guidance?

How often do students in the lab meet with the PI? Are there regularly scheduled individual meetings? Do they have to present regularly at group meeting? Does the PI have an open door policy? Is the PI always traveling? Are there senior scientists, post docs, or senior grad students in the lab that can provide guidance as well? Research is based on mentorship and you need a mentor that will be available to you.If you’re new to research, especially, figure out whom you will be working with and if you will be able to work well with them. Will they be a strong supporter of your development as a researcher?

6. How large is the lab?

A large lab may mean getting lost within the students and not having adequate access to the PI, but it also means having lots of students to rely on and work with as well as greater resources. A small lab likely means a more personal environment but possibly less equipment. Will a small lab be adequate for the research that you would want to do? How personal of an experience do you want?

7. Do you get along with the students?

You will likely be spending most of your time with the other students in the lab rather than the PI. It is quite important that you will be able to get along with them otherwise working in the lab may not be the greatest experience. How close are the students? Are there cliques? Does your personality fit within the group? Do they like to chat? Do they like to chat so much that it affects work time? Do they hang out outside of lab? Being social and working well together is great. Being too social and not getting enough work done is not so great.

8. Will they pay you?

Oh, the ever so important issue – money. As a novice to research, it is often expected that at least initially you will be volunteering in the lab. Perhaps if the PI has enough money, they will be able to pay you eventually, which is an important thing to figure out early on. For graduate students, this will determine whether you will have to do additional outside work to make your money.

9. If you’re a grad student, will you have to TA?

Going along with #8, the usual way for graduate students to earn their stipend other than being paid by their PI is to serve as a teaching assistant. Of course, this takes away time for doing research, which is what you’re there to do (unless you’re an awesome person who also likes to teach!) Many programs require at least some TA experience, but depending on the PI’s funding level you may need to do more than required. Also, if you’re not comfortable with teaching/have no interest in doing it, you also may not want to join a lab that will require it for your pay.

10. How well funded is the lab?

Money isn’t just essential for your pay; it is essential for the research. Does the PI have enough money to do the work that you will be doing or will you be restricted by funds? This can likely affect your success in the lab if you cannot do the work that you need to do to get results.

10. How much time is expected from you?

Does the PI want 10 hours a week or 70 hours a week? Do they not care about the time as long as you get the work done? Do they require you to work on weekends? Most of us try to have lives outside of lab, so this is an incredibly important consideration and the required time can vary drastically.

11. How long does it normally take for students in the lab to complete their degree/publish a paper?

Being published is a major measure for the success of a researcher. If you want to publish as an undergrad or a medical student, it is important to try to feel out the chance that you would get published from your work in the time that you have. If you are a grad student, you want to make sure that you will be able to publish in an adequate amount of time since you usually need to publish to get your degree.

12. Where does the lab normally publish?

Not every research journal is equal. Some hold much more prestige than others and many people look at where people publish as a marker of their success not just if they publish. If this is important to you, look to the PI’s papers and see where they tend to publish. It is important to note that often publishing in the top journals requires much more data, which means it likely takes longer to produce a paper for journals of that caliber, so that might also be a deterrent.

13. What is the specific research topic in the lab?

Finally, we’ve reached the topic that many make a mistake by considering too greatly. Sure you picked a field of research in your first consideration, but you haven’t yet considered the exact topic in the lab. There’s a reason – it honestly isn’t that important as a trainee. If you’re going to be doing research as your career, then you’ll have more freedom to study what you want, but as a trainee, the most important thing is becoming skilled as a researcher. Maybe you want to study RNA splicing in liver development but you end up studying signaling pathways in neurogenesis. Guess what, you’re still doing research and getting the experience that you need to move on to the next step in your career path. Picking a broad topic within your field of choice – such as cancer like me – can be a good idea as a basis for your career, but don’t pick a specific area that restricts your choice of labs, which may make it harder to find a lab that fulfills the other considerations.

Now with this guide, go forth and find a research lab that is best for you and discover great things!


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