Russian Roulette…(aka Choosing a thesis lab)

DISCLAIMER: These opinions are strictly mine and not backed up by any scientific evidence.


As a 4th year graduate student, I don’t think I’m seasoned enough to be jaded/disillusioned. I also think I still remember my trepidation on choosing the lab I was going to spend the rest of my 20’s in.

So here we go…my top 5 things to consider when choosing a thesis lab

1. Do I like my prospective labmates?

I dig science too so I can talk about scientists. We can be awkward..socially awkward creatures focused only on our research and things that interest us. Perfectly content sitting at the microscope with headphones on and shutting out the world. However, if you are not this type of scientist and you are the more social type…do not convince yourself that you are in grad school strictly for the science and would do well in a lab full of the aforementioned scientists or people you do not get along with. Sure it might work..but it probably won’t.

You more than likely chose rotations based on science you were interested meaning that you could probably do “good science” in any of those labs. However, you are going to be spending a lot of time with these people, no point being unhappy.


2. Do I like my prospective P.I?

OK…like might be the wrong word here. Does anyone ever really LIKE their P.I (principal investigator)…(I actually do..great guy he is!). Depending on the school you attend, there will more than likely be a lot of big name, big time scientists (Nature/Science publishing types, Nobel Laureates, Demigods in theirfields even though no one in the real world knows them)….some with egos to boot. You want to have a healthy like/respect for your P.I. and not because of what they have published or what you think you will get out of being a member of the lab. P.I.s are people too..and if you wouldn’t like/respect your P.I in “real life”…what makes you think you’d be able to work for them for 5+ years…it’s a lose-lose situation.

3. Do I like the science?

I think rotations take care of this question. Unless you chose to attend grad school because your parents made you, you know you like science. You know you want to make some sort of contribution to the scientific community et al. You need to join a lab that even when you go through periods when your experiments don’t work (aka 3rd year), you are still excited enough about the field in general to stick around.


4. What type of worker am I?

I feel that the only people who successfully make it through grad school with their love for science intact are the ones that treat it like a regular job.

a. Set regular work hours and stick to it for the most part

b. Set goals (monthly, quarterly, annually) just like you would in your career and work to meet them

c. Do not be afraid to talk to your boss/challenge their ideas

d. Don’t let other people determine how far you go in your grad school career..take responsibility for every single aspect and take advantages inside and outside the lab to grow.


5. What do I want to accomplish during my time here? 

Set goals and timelines…talk about your goals with your P.I before you join to make sure they are on board. Be flexible…life happens. Be willing to reevaluate your project and determine if you are going in the right direction often! Don’t be afraid to ask questions…Don’t be that person who thought they knew everything until they woke up in year 9 realizing they just pissed away 9 years of their life and have nothing to show for it…ooooop! yep I said it!


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