If you are pursuing a degree in science, then finding an academic advisor and searching for a suitable lab to be a part of is very important for your future success. It can become like a second home while you are pursuing a graduate degree. A lab gives you the practical training needed to work in the science field after graduation and is practically a requirement when job hunting. But how do you begin your search for a lab? I will share with you some positive and negative experiences and tips from my friends and me, and hope that our experiences can help you avoid potential issues.
I have been very fortunate to have only had positive experiences in my lab, most likely due to a set of guidelines I used when choosing the lab. I joined my first lab during my master’s degree studies at the University of Connecticut, which paved the way for me to pursue research in genetics and molecular biology. After graduation, I joined Pfizer Inc. as a contract researcher, where I gained invaluable experience with automation and drug screening. After my contract ended, I was able to use my previous experience to gain a full-time research position at Takeda Pharmaceuticals in Boston, Massachusetts. I left Takeda to pursue a PhD and found my current academic supervisor and lab through extensive research. I can tell you that finding a lab that matches your goals, learning style, and work-life balance is crucial. I hope my perspective and experience will help guide you to your ideal lab where you can succeed and be happy. If you are looking to pursue a career in science, then consider joining a lab as early as you can, especially by the 4th-year of your bachelor’s, because it will give you essential hands-on research experience for either your resume for job hunting or application to graduate school and other labs. Most labs are happy to take 4th-year bachelor’s students who are planning to enter the school’s graduate program and continue their research in the lab. Many schools offer lab rotations for school credit where you spend a few weeks or months in various labs, allowing you to gain firsthand experiences in the labs, and can help you find a match. It is important to ask some of the following questions to the supervisor/advising professor, other lab members, and yourself so that you can find the right lab for you.
What type of research does the lab do and is it interesting to you?
The first thing you should do before beginning your lab search is to think about what you want to learn, what research you want to conduct, and what you have interest in. I did a Google search of my prospective or current university/company and a research topic of interest to me. This will give you a good list of labs related to your field of interest. Most laboratories have a website that provides a description of the lab’s research interest, the research being conducted, and a list of their publications. I recommend reading through a few of the professor’s and students’ publications to see if their work aligns with what you are looking for as well as considering the caliber of their publications and journals. Once you find a lab that is doing research that you are interested in, then you should email the principal investigator (PI, professor, or advisor) of the lab and introduce yourself, explain your research interest, and express your desire to apply for their lab. If they would like to take on a student and have the capacity, then they will probably offer you an interview/tour of the lab. The most important thing during your search is to ask as many questions to as many people as you can, so you can get a good understanding of what your future research life will be like.
How does my supervisor teach and how will I learn?
I have had professors and managers who taught me one-on-one as a mentor, and I have learned a great deal through their personal training. I have also worked under those who were more hands-off, delegating the teaching responsibility to other members, and acting more as an advisor/manager. Hence it is essential to consider the teaching and managing style of the academic supervisor and to take an introspective look at the kind of support you need. Do you require someone to teach and support you one-on-one, or do you work better alone and require help on request? I have friends who entered a lab where their research project was interesting to the lab and the professor, but the supervisor could not understand the details or technical aspects, so they were unable to receive the needed guidance for their specific research. There were no other students or an assistant professor/supervisor to help them, so they decided to move to a different lab to receive better support for their work, which is an important consideration to make if you find yourself in a similar situation. During the tour and interview process, you should ask the professor and the lab members about the teaching style of the lab; does the professor, assistant professor; or post-doc give any guidance to the lab members? Also ask them if there is anyone familiar enough with your research plan to be able to provide you support and feedback? It should be expected that your academic supervisor and/or lab members are able to provide you with support and feedback when needed.
What is the expectation for me and what can I expect from joining this lab?
The PI/supervisor of the lab sets the atmosphere and expectations for the lab and all of its members. I have heard of labs where frequent high-level publications were expected of its members so that the lab and professor can receive prestige and more funding from grants and the school. Such a high-paced lab can be great for an ambitious and work-focused student who aims to have many high-level publications before graduation, leading to better career opportunities and benefits. But many students cannot handle such pressure and wind up becoming burnt-out from long hours, weekend work, and eventually dropping out of the lab. I have a friend who studied at another top university in Japan, who unknowingly entered what they called, “a black lab”. He likes the research that the professor was conducting and that he was fluent in English, but after he joined his whole graduate school life revolved around the lab and research, spending most weekends and free time doing research and writing high-level publications for his supervisor. He ended up graduating but hated the lab and research culture, so he moved back to his home country, questioning whether the degree was worth the strain on his mental health. However, most of my supervisors and labs have always been considerate of their members and never placed such constant, intense pressure on us. If a student is feeling mentally and emotionally drained, they are given time off to take a vacation and refresh themselves. My labs have been flexible in regards to attendance and leave it to the students to set their own reasonable timelines for work, publications, and presentations. Every student is able to have a good work-life balance and take time for themselves as needed. I believe a lab with high but reasonable expectations and a great support system for students is very important criteria for success. It is important to ask the supervisor about the expectations of the lab and what kind of support is there to help the lab and its members succeed and not feel overwhelmed.
Will the lab be a home or a prison?
Labs are composed of various individuals with different backgrounds giving each lab a different atmosphere to them. The people inside the lab will be like your family during your time in school. I have heard from some friends that their lab members rarely ever meet due to their research and work being conducted online, so convening is unnecessary. They feel unconnected to their fellow lab members and feel isolated and lonely. In my lab, everyone is friendly and happy to help each other. In addition, I feel really close with my lab members since we have regular gym sessions together, dinner parties, and trips to help build our bonds and connections. For me, this has been one of the best labs I have ever been in, and it feels like a family to me as most people are supportive of one another. But this kind of environment may not fit your personality. If you are an introvert and like being on your own, having a quiet and disconnected lab may be better for your comfort. It is important during your tour and interview to ask the supervisor and lab members about the environment of the lab and how people feel about the atmosphere. Even before the interview step, during the initial Google search, you may be able to find lab photos of trips and events. I actually put my current lab as my top choice over Tokyo University because I saw the fun atmosphere that was present on their web album of past events. I prioritize team building and lab cohesion very highly in my decisions for a lab.
I hope you take my experiences and advice to heart when choosing your first or next lab. The best thing to do is to talk to many different people to get a good understanding of the lab and advisor before committing. The only one who can determine the right lab for you is you. Thinking about your goals, personality, and priorities will help steer you to your own lab home. Do you want somewhere that will challenge you and help you get many publications and achievements, or somewhere that allows you to have a good work-life balance in a fun atmosphere? Do you want a micro-managing advisor that pushes you to publish and succeed, a mentor, or someone who just oversees your work and provides basic support?