What is the FIRST step to take to become an independent researcher?
Research your PI
You might be thinking: “Isn’t that a Catch-22? Don’t you go to graduate school to learn how to research?” Well, yes.
Selecting your PI will be one of the biggest and most important decision you will make in life. This will not only impact how you spend the next several years in graduate school but even (dauntingly) will influence your future career. Seriously, this is all very true and may even be more important than marrying your future spouse!
Don’t believe me? Check out our previous post where we go into the nitty, gritty details of why this is a crazy important decision. And, if you still are not a believer, check out this Nature blog, or this Science article, or this NCBI article from the NIH.
Believe me now?
Don’t freak! Before you start overthinking and double-guessing your pitiful decision to go to graduate school, be assured that this task can be accomplished! How? You must do your homework and research your potential future PI before making that commitment to join their research lab.
Here are 5 important things to consider before saying, “hi” to your new beloved boss.
1) Get the basics down. Know the answers to these questions before anything.
Before you commit to a lab, scope out all possible options in the department looking for incoming graduate students desperately trying to find a research home. Do the following research:
WHAT ARE THEIR RESEARCH INTERESTS? Well, duh. Of course that is the first thing you should be aware of. Read up on the laboratory’s website and give a good scan through their most recent publications. Are you interested in their research or could you entertain the idea of trying out a new field you may not be familiar with? You perhaps should not join a lab that conducts research that absolutely bores you to death. If you would rather be staring at a blank wall for the next several years than doing that research, then perhaps that lab is not the best fit for you.
STALK YOUR PI ONLINE. Use LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Google Scholar, and online governmental grant databases. How many papers have they publish in total? How about in the past year? What type of journals do they publish in? This will give you a good idea of their expectations for their graduate students and the quality (and amount) of work you are expected to accomplish.
What grant or funding do they have or did have? Where did the PI do his/her graduate and post-doctoral training? Do they collaborate with other research laboratories at the same University or in a different country? Do they attend national or local conferences frequently?
Can you find embarrassing pictures of your PI from their time in graduate school or college? Trust me, these may be useful for future group meeting presentations. (WARNING: check to see if you PI has a sense of humor before doing so).
2) Joining a lab is NOT a race. Do rotations and snoop around multiple labs.
Consider this as if you are going “bar-hoping” with your friends, except this is “lab-hoping” around the department. If your program does not require graduate students to do rotations before committing to a lab, you should HIGHLY consider doing this anyway.
Making a commitment to join a research lab is NOT a race. You should take your time to know the professors and other graduate students in your department. Taking 6-9 months to do your rotations in 2-3 different labs during your first is an excellent investment in graduate school which is absolutely worth the time. Do not think this is wasting precious time doing research to collect data for your first publication. If you want to get out in less than 5 years of graduate school, make sure this is a right fit for you to work effectively and to ensure you receive the proper training you desire for your doctorate degree. The last time you want is to immediately join a lab after a week into graduate school and then finding out you signed up for hell 6 month down the road.
And plus, no one knows exactly what they are doing during your first year of graduate school anyway (sorry to burst your bubble).
In fact, relationship building within your department and getting to know other professors and graduate students can be vital for your journey. You need other professors to serve on your qualifying and defense committees so might as well start making that introduction nice and early.
Learning about other research labs and their experimental techniques can be incredibly helpful for your project as well. For example, perhaps you completed a rotation during your first year in a biomedical research lab that frequently uses CT and MRI imaging techniques but you ended up committing to a completely different lab that focuses on organic synthesis and material science instead. Since science in academia can be incredibly unpredictable, you actually may one day during your 4th year find out you need to do CT and MRI imaging to bring your project to completion in order to defend your thesis. Well good thing you know where to go to ask for help!
And lastly, just be nice to everyone. You absolutely DO NOT that that reputation around the department as that ” really annoying cocky first-year graduate students” that everybody talks gossips about. No matter how big or small your department may be is, word gets around pretty quickly amongst graduate students and even professors too.
3) Go to group meetings.
For each potential research lab you may consider as your graduate school home, ask to sit in their group meeting. Like a curious explorer traveling through the jungles in the Amazon, this is the first time you get observe the animals, the graduate students, and the PI in their natural habitat. Take note!
Yes, make sure you are fully engaged during their group meetings and asking the (simple) questions up front is considered to be a huge plus! Professors love that.
Periodically, take a look at your surroundings. Are the graduate students and PI engaging with each other? Are the graduate students even socializing with each other? Can you see yourself with them every single day and every single hour and every single minute for the next 5 years of your life?
Are people in that lab intellectually asking questions about each other’s research or gossiping about the latest hook-up in the department?
And importantly, are people in that lab environment happy?
4) Meet the PI and do your own interview.
The moment you enter their office for the first time, the interview starts. However this is the time you must interview the PI too. After all, it takes two to tangle! Professors are VERY, VERY busy people so you must make the best use of your time with them in this first meeting. Practice your introduction before-hand to make sure you sound like an accomplished, confident, excited scientist, or at least pretend to. Prepare your list of questions to ask the professor such as:
- What are your expectations of your graduate students?
- How are the hours and days like here? Do you expect graduate students to come into work on weekends?
- How frequently do you engage with your graduate students?
- Do you collaborate with graduate students to write and prepare grants?
- How many years does a typical Ph.D. student stay in your lab?
- What is your training style (i.e., micromanaging, hands-off)?
- How do teaching fellowships work in their lab?
This may not be the best time to ask about vacation days or time off, perhaps save that question for their graduate students.
5) Meet the PI’s current graduate students and ask the same questions.
This is probably a much more valuable meeting for you as a prospective student compared to your meeting with the PI. Why? Current graduate students will TELL YOU EVERYTHING about the up’s and the down’s and the all around’s about the laboratory environment and their experience working with the PI. They will give you the truth, and nothing but the truth.
Ask them the exact same questions you asked asked their PI. You may be surprised how different their answers may be to those questions! While you do so, get to know these graduate students.
Oh, and this is a good time where you can safely ask about time off and vacation days.
Now you are ready to commit to a PI that will work best for you so that you can scurry along and begin your training as a graduate research assistant. One problem down, infinity more to go.
Now, how can you make sure your every-day decisions in this lab when working with your PI will lead on you on the path to success and that doctorate degree? Stay in the loop with the Grad School HACKERS to learn more secrets and tips to make this journey as quick and painless as possible. Well, no guarantees, but we will do our best.
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-the Grad School HACKERS