A Guide to Choosing the Right Lab

by Louis Ho

Choosing the right lab can be a daunting task. Especially if you’re planning to stay for the long-haul. Whether you’re totally set or about to flip a coin. Here are some things to consider before you take that leap of faith.

The People – One of the key features of a lab are the people in it. No matter how much you like the research, things can really turn sour if you don’t gel with the students, post-docs and technicians in the lab. Every lab has its own culture. So, before you decide if a lab is right for you, ask yourself, what do you bring to the table? What new perspective and skills do you have? These are the people you are going to be spending most of your time with, day-in and day out, so there must also be a mutual sentiment–although a little bit of discourse is always healthy.

The Supervisor –  Your supervisor plays a key role in your development as a scientist, so before you sign on the dotted line there are a few things you should consider about your PI. What kind of supervisor are they? Are they very hands-on technical mentors who will guide your experimental design? Or, do they look for more independent workers? Do they have other administrative duties? Do they have the kind of connections perhaps in the industry that you’re also interested in? What is their track record with students who have graduated? Is this someone you have had meaningful conversations with that can provide genuine advice?

The Field – Are you truly interested in a field of research? Look for clues, in your everyday life that make you interested. Are you interested in labs that deal with more basic research that ask fundamental questions of nature or is the lab more applied? Are there medical implications that you are totally passionate about? Whether you have personal connection to a disease, or you just find protein crystallography neat. The more interested you are, the easier it will be to persist in those dreary days when experiments fail (and trust me, they will).

Your Aspirations – Where have past graduates ended up? Does the lab have an outstanding pedigree of people with successful careers in academia, industry or government? It’s never to early to consider these long-term goals when thinking about your future. People don’t always end up in the same field after their PhD. In fact, it’s quite rare for people to stay in a field of interest. However, it’s important to consider the your graduate education as a primer for where you want to end up once you graduate.

Finally, and this sounds totally cliché, follow your heart. Nobody knows you better than you. Take your time to consider all the factors into making your decision. Good luck!


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