K.D. Shives is pursuing a PhD in Microbiology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. She can be found blogging about current topics in microbiology at kdshives.com and on twitter @kdshives.
Some of you reading this will be starting graduate school this coming fall. Congratulations! You are just beginning what will be one of the most difficult and rewarding processes of your life. Those of you going into PhD programs will likely do rotations in various labs during your first year before settling in lab where you will do your thesis research. Choosing this laboratory is extremely important as you will end up spending more time with these people than your family and establishing good working conditions is critical to finishing your dissertation in a timely fashion.
Here is some advice that I wish I had gotten before embarking upon the laboratory rotation selection process that will help with yours:
Find a rotation lab BEFORE the semester starts. It is important to have a first rotation arranged well before the semester begins. Depending upon the size of your institution and area of interest it may be difficult to get spots with popular labs unless you arrange it over the summer. Otherwise you may find yourself in a position where you have to take a rotation in a lab that is not appropriate for you.
Find a lab with funding. The funding situation is in academia under the current economic climate is less than ideal. Many labs are struggling to maintain consistent funding as budgets remain static or are outright decreased. This directly affects how many students can be taken on by an investigator. Try to find a group with a good funding history and current funding if at all possible.
Talk to lab members other than the principal investigator. If you are interested in working in a lab you will be spending most of your time with the day-to-day members and not the PI. Ask the research assistants, other graduate students, and post-docs what the lab is like and try to get their input as well. Ask about the lab management style, is the PI a micromanager or very hands-off? What conditions do you work well in? You cannot discount how important it is to work well with your lab mates. While you may not become the best of friends, a relationship built on mutual respect will get you through graduate research without too much pain.
Read at least one recent publication from the group. This is a good way to get familiar with recent work from the lab as well as the common techniques used by the group. This is also a good starting point for meeting with different investigators as you will be familiar with their work and better able to discuss your rotation options and potential projects within the lab.
Read the grant. Really. Just read it. It is a long and boring document but it is the heart of the modern academic research group. What the lab wants and needs to accomplish for funding purposes is all right there in the grant and provides an invaluable guide to what you will be doing in a group. Reading the grant can clarify the aims of a lab and give a very clear picture if the research is in your area of interest and appropriate for your thesis research. It’s also a valuable experience if you’ve never read a successful grant before and are unfamiliar with the format.
With these basic guidelines in mind you should be able to find multiple labs that will be a good fit for you personally and support your thesis research. Good luck and happy hunting!