So, it's your first year of grad school — congrats! But your first year is during a pandemic — yikes! Graduate school is stressful enough without having to worry about a deadly virus. Hopefully, this post will help you navigate through your first year by providing concrete advice for choosing your new lab and acclimating to a new workspace.
As a first-year STEM student, your school likely requires you to conduct research in various labs (usually 2-4) for a temporary period of time. After these rotations are complete, you will choose a lab as your new home for the next 4-7 years! It's an important choice to make, and you aren't alone if this process brings about some anxiety. Here are 10 tips to help ensure you arrive at the right decision.
1. Keep an open mind. You might arrive at your school with a PI or research topic in mind. Unfortunately, there are many factors at play that dictate what you will research other than your preferences. Have a Plan B and C just in case Plan A is not in your cards.
2. Shrink that chip on your shoulder. Its tempting to show-off and be over-competitive with your new lab mates. Don't. It's an awful way of making new friends. To be blunt here, your new co-workers don't care how smart you are. They want a lab-mate who is a hard-worker and helpful to work alongside. Be yourself. Save the energy you would spend on trying to impress others to do well at the tasks at hand.
3. Remember why you are there. The purpose of a rotation is to test out a lab. You are not there to churn out data, work long weeks, and publish a paper in a short amount of time. If you feel anxious or overworked during a rotation, imagine what five years in that lab will be like.
4. Ditch the "that's not how my old lab did it." saying. Your new lab will do things in new ways, and there might be a reason for that. When starting work in a new place, it's easy to get caught up in comparisons to the past. But this is a fresh start, embrace the changes and be willing to learn from your new lab-mates and mentors.
5. Ask about funding. $$$$. This point cannot be stressed enough. Just because a PI is taking on rotation students does not mean they have funding to bring you on as a full-time student. Before rotating with a PI, ask if they have money to cover your stipend. If they do not, consider rotating elsewhere. If a PI does not directly answer this question, they might be baiting you to get free labor.
6. Discuss potential thesis topics. Many labs treat students as employees. The students produce data like lab techs, and the thesis is an afterthought. Labs with this mindset are reluctant to let students graduate because they are precious cheap labor. It's important to have research expectations outlined before joining the lab as a student.
7. Speak to other students and faculty in the department. Check-in with others to learn about the reputation of the lab.
8. Ask about time off. Trust me; you need time off. The ideal answer to this question is, "of course, you can take vacations, just communicate with me first." Inquiring about vacation time is an imperative question if your family does not live nearby. Ideally, you should be able to take time off around the holidays and also have personal vacations.
9. Ask about the work schedule. Some labs have strict schedules; others are come and go. Your PI should not demand or coerce you to work more than 40 hours/week. Overtime is your choice.
10. Discuss career development with your PI. It's helpful to have a PI who is also a mentor. Are they invested in your success? Do they support you taking time off for career development? Are they open-minded to non-academic careers? A "no" to any of these questions is concerning.
Lastly, look out for the following Red flags. Any of these behaviors are serious and should not go ignored.
Does the perfect lab exist … hmmm …. perhaps not. Even if you are careful in choosing a lab, you may find yourself feeling unsure of your choice in the future. Start building a support system around you now. If a PI puts you in a difficult position, you'll be happy to have a supportive thesis committee and empathetic mentors outside of your lab to advocate for you.
Good luck this year! And as an academic, remember to stay positive and be kind.