Choosing a phD Research Group

It’s officially starting to come onto my mind.

Choosing a Lab (Pt 1)

Choosing a Lab (Pt 2, Professional Factors)

Choosing a Lab (Pt 3, Personal Factors)

The above links are all from the Natural Scientist blog – I was quite impressed with their advice and thus decided to share. Then add a couple of comments based on my own experience and ideas.

Absentminded and/or Crazy professors: prestigious...but harmful to your postgrad work?

I’ve been looking through the Faculty Profiles of various American Chemistry Departments for a while to see what grabs my attention. In the USA (unlike UK) you usually apply to the faculty, not to specific professors, then you make the decision about which research group you’ll join in your first or second semester. That takes the pressure off me a bit, allowing me the chance to change my mind once I get there…BUT, I need to discuss what I want to do in my Personal/Research statement, and some schools ask that I name a couple of professors I’m interested in working with. I want to get some solid choices nailed before I’ve actually GOT to start writing the statements in October/November.

A few days ago, the following thought flew across my head. “What does it matter what research topic I choose, I’m probably going to end up hating it eventually?!”

This is where the personal factors (how often the research head comes into the lab to say hello, the work ethic in the group) matter as much or more than whether I choose a Chemical Biology group or work in a Chem Bio/Organic Synthesis crossover. I can battle through dead-ends, unexpected results or challenging experiments. Goals can be shifted, emphasise can be re-applied, new techniques or knowledge can be learned. Useless supervisors are harder to modulate.

Coworkers - in it together?

The main take-home point made in Natural Scientist’s blog posts is: talk. Talk to the current grad students, the postdocs, the ex-members of the group. Ask them specific questions (“How long to people take to get their phDs in this group?”) and pick up the atmosphere (bitchy, aggressively competitive, stressed) to get a good idea of how the group is led.

The good news is that you don’t even need to go near the group itself to get an uninhibited low-down. Gossip about researchers travels fast, character flaws spread even quicker:

“She’s a useless cow and I don’t think much of her research.”

“He’s a tyrant. Don’t join his group.”

“He’s undergoing treatment for alcoholism.”

“He seems to be in the lab quite regularly…”

All genuine remarks made about various researchers I know of, some of the comments made by academic staff.

I’ve discovered that I don’t mind if a research head is forthright and tells me outright that there a lot of errors in my draft that must be corrected before submission. I have a problem if the researcher keeps their (high) standards hidden before you submit the first draft. Then it feels like they’re deliberately trying to trip you up. It’s OK for a researcher to be relaxed; I don’t think it’s personally helpful if this leads to a lazy group who don’t push themselves to get results. It’s OK for a researcher to put their foot down and say they want results. When it becomes not only acceptable but compulsory to come in at weekends or stay until 8pm every night to appease the boss…I don’t think that’s healthy. If the boss is never around to see if you’ve sloped off or stayed overtime…I don’t think that’s healthy either.

General Lab Environment? Well, working for a famous professor with their massive well-funded lab doing cutting-edge research sounds quite appealing on paper. On the other hand, your lab might be so large that you barely know/interact with your co-workers and the culture is cut-throat. Working in a small group for a newbie professor probably won’t do your CV as many favours…but you might have a happier time doing your phD in a close-knit group where everyone takes turns to bake cakes.

Cupcake provision. Surprisingly relevant...

Basically, I think there’s a balance to be sought. You’ll never find a perfect researcher or research group. You should be well-informed about their strengths & weaknesses before choosing their group. You should also know what you’ll be able to put up with and what makes you work.

It is important to be able to respect your coworkers. Without respect you have nothing: you can’t share advice or support, you can’t speak up if you have a problem. You might have the best rapport with the coworker who parties hard at the weekend and comes in to work late. You might have the best rapport with the coworker who is in every day at 8am on the dot and who keeps their fume hood spotless. I know which one I respect more, but other people have different preferences.

***

Still thinking, still gathering data. Hopefully I’ll make a good choice…

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