Choosing your PhD lab will be the most important decision of your entire scientific career.
It will shape your way of scientific thinking and it will release you either with strong technical knowledge and publications or nothing to show.
The tragedy of choosing a PhD lab is that you are forced to choose a scientific topic but you are actually looking for an empowering work environment and a career mentor.
If I would be only allowed to give you one advice, it would be:
DONT CHOOSE THE TOPIC, CHOOSE THE BOSS !!
You can make a rough choice about your scientific interests. Doing research on insects or with human cells, avoiding animal experiments, working on the immune system or the brain ...
But then you look for a boss with a good track record of promoting careers. This is not that easy to find out, but hey ... you are about to become a scientist. And figuering out difficult issues will be your daily job. 🙂
A start can be simply the publication list of your future PI. Do the people from the first papers still appear on papers 10 years later? Thats not a good sign. It shows that the PI does not release students after their graduation to follow their own career.
What happened to the PostDocs? Did they move on to open their own lab? Or did they leave science?
And yes, this means that you need to get out of your nutshell and actually TALK to people, talk to lab member ... talk to former lab members ... and simply talk to your potential boss himself / herself. If your future boss has no time to answer some of your deeper questions, is resisting to even touch the topic about authorships that gives already a hint about your future in this lab. Beware.
Should you join a young group leader without any record of promoting careers or better a big and well established lab with high publications?
The answer is tricky and more philosophic. Young group leaders are risky because you just dont know how they will perform. But they are also an enormous chance for your career. They have the potential to build up young and motivated teams that are flexible and fast. (Or they simply never manage to build up any proper lab.) Mentoring is often better because the boss is still hanging out in the lab more often than on conferences. Big and established labs tend to be slow with lots of politics going on in the background. Not always a safer option.
Well, the best would be a young group leader that still has all the enthusiasm to perform in science if you would know that they have certain business skills that enable them to become quickly successful.
Well, if you are truly looking for such a lab, please contact me, I know one.
And remember: Choosing your PhD lab will be the most important decision of your entire scientific career.
Better to choose wisely for 3 more months than being stuck in a non-fit lab for the next 5 years.
How do you find a great boss?
People have different personalities, we have likings and dislikings. A lab that I like might be a non-fit for you and other way around.
Once you are coming close to a decision its a good idea to „work“ in the chosen lab for a week. This is a common recommendation for any job out there but its rarely done. During an interview or a short talk people can hide lab unsatisfactions but if you hang out with these people for a week you do figure out issues. People simply complain a lot and you will quickly feel the mood in the respective lab. After such a week your decision might be cristal clear in either directions.
And one more thing ... if you have a weird „gut feeling“ ... DO NOT join that lab. Some things cannot be explained logically ...
Have I done all this myself in the past? NO
Have I always taken the right decision? NO
Have I had a stellar scientific career? NO
But I learned a lot, often in a hard way. To prevent some of you from making the same mistakes I am writing these lines.
I can share my experience of the last 20 years with you. Maybe I can give you a neutral opinion, maybe that can help you in your decision process, maybe it just makes you aware of the issues out there.
I love science. And I want to make the scientific environment better. Thats my mission.
Do you want advice for your personal lab decision?
Just write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will be happy to help you with comments and suggestions.