Getting Started in a Lab
New graduate students need to ask the right questions to pick the best place to work and launch their careers, writes Tom Daniel.
If you are a new graduate student in the sciences, you will rotate through several labs during your first year. Your challenge is to find the right lab for you -- one that best matches your intellectual interests and that helps prepare you for your career.
How to get started in a lab?
Sample a range of lab environments and cultures. Find a lab that will help you develop as a researcher.
Find outwhat the ground rules and expectations are:
- How many hours are you expected to be in the lab? (Remember that research is not a 9 to 5 job; you should look forward to hanging out in the lab -- but also make sure you know specific expectations for your time).
- What’s the definition of “progress” in lab work? What’s the definition of progress in graduate work in your discipline?
Look for opportunities that will benefit your career:
- Will you have an opportunity to publish?
- Will you get credit -- as an author, co-author -- for the work you do in the lab? Will your intellectual work really be your own? Seek a lab that gives ownership of your ideas to you.
- Will you have a chance to push beyond the boundaries of particular grants?
- Will you be able to collaborate with other labs?
- The best lab is not necessarily the one that pays the most.
- Success is not always about being comfortable -- so look for a lab where you will be pushed a bit.
How to evaluate labs?
Both established and new labs have great merit.
- In an established lab, find out: What’s the lab’s track record? Where have people ended up working after their lab experience?
- Recognize that some younger faculty members -- who do not have well established labs and therefore do not have the same track record as established labs -- often bring the newest ideas to the discipline and are often willing to spend time with graduate students. Such labs might be a better place to try new things.
- Where do people in the lab publish? In top-tier journals?
- Ask other students about the labs.
- Trust your instincts.
Be clear about your own expectations for mentorship in a lab:
- How often would you like to meet with faculty mentors? (Make sure that the time you request is for the most pressing matters; don’t waste time on minor details that you can find out elsewhere).
- Can you get on the mentor’s calendar? (Ask other graduate students in the lab about the nature and extent of mentorship).
Make good use of your lab work: Publish early and publish often:
- Publications are the currency of success.
- Publications are a guaranteed path to a relatively carefree thesis preparation.
How to succeed in a lab?
- Participation is the key to any successful lab. A successful lab draws on a variety of skills, so contribute.
- Recognize that a good lab is one with mutual mentorship; that means you need to contribute, too. As a first-year student, you may well have expertise that others in the lab don’t have. Be a good citizen; contribute the work. Recognize that you have the potential to be a valuable contributor from the very first day you walk in the door.
- Learn from others and support others in the lab. Recognize the expertise of all of your lab colleagues (faculty, visiting scientists, postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, and even high school students).
- During your first year, aim to complete a research paper that can be presented at a meeting or submitted.
Tom Daniel is professor of biology at the University of Washington.
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