Guidelines for picking a thesis lab

Guidelines for picking a lab

This is the most important decision you will make in graduate school. There is no exact formula: ordering the priority of importance of the individual factors described below is up to you. There also may be more than one lab that would well suit your needs and interests.

Initial Goal: Fact gathering. Start by looking through the web pages for the individual departments to find labs doing research that might potentially interest you. Even if you think you know what you want to do (e.g. cancer), take a broad approach here. Many many labs use technology or pursue ideas with relevance to cancer even if it is not the major focus of the lab, and it is more important for you to have an excellent training experience than to pursue a narrowly targeted specific topic at this point in your career. Each departmental or graduate group web page should have links to the PI’s (primary investigator, faculty member) home web page, where his / her research interests should be described. Sometimes these descriptions are vague or out of date. You can also look at their recent publications (use pubmed to search as well as looking at their web page; again, the list on the web page is often out of date) to get an idea of the type of things going on the in lab in the recent past. In particular, pay attention to the papers in which the PI is senior (last) author. The other papers represent efforts in which the lab made a contribution but did not initiate the work (and in which the work was performed primarily elsewhere).


1) Mentor Rank: Assistant versus associate versus full professor. You may receive advice that you should shun assistant professors because they are inexperienced and may leave because they fail to get tenure. Don’t take this seriously. Both are     true, but there are compensating factors. Assistant professors at Stony Brook rarely     fail to get tenure; associate and full professors are actually more likely to leave due     to receiving attractive offers elsewhere (there’s a lot of moving around in this     business). Assistant professors are inexperienced. But, they are also highly motivated concerning bench work because they just finished being very successful postdocs. They will be well trained in state-of-the-art techniques, understand everything that is going on in the lab, most likely will do experimental work themselves, and will be highly interactive with the relatively small number of people in their labs. Associate / full professors will have more experience at mentoring, but can be quite busy with university and national service responsibilities, may have larger labs in which students get less attention, and in some cases will be sufficiently distanced from the bench that they are less able to mentor effectively on a detailed experimental level. In this case, it becomes important to assess how interactive and helpful the other members of the lab will be, which in some cases will be terrific. In summary, mentor rank in itself is not an important criterion.

2) Publications. Use Pubmed to look up the recent publications (last 3-5 years) of the PI. This is quite important. Is the PI publishing articles? If so, where? Are they in the type of journals that you would want to develop a record in? Are most of the people in the lab getting publications at regular intervals? Talk to lab members about how the process of writing a paper in the lab works. Does a useful educational opportunity take place (e.g. the student writes the first draft and participates in the remainder of the process)?

3) Funding. This is harder to obtain. You can use NIHReporter to look up whether the PI has NIH funding, and Google will usually find NSF and some other funding. But these approaches generally miss things and in any case are out of date. It’s considered a bit rude to ask the PI how much funding they have – but you can ask the lab how the past several years have been, which is generally an indication of the future. In addition, you certainly can ask the PI whether s/he would have funding to accept you as a student were there otherwise to be mutual interest. No point in wasting a rotation on a lab that couldn’t accept you. Keep in mind re new assistant professors that they arrive with a large start-up package that will give them financial support for several years. Again, there is some risk since they may never succeed in getting a grant – but most of our junior faculty do succeed, and in the meantime they will have plenty of $.

4) Size of lab. This is particular constitutes a personal preference. Some students are more attracted to small labs, some to big, and there are pros and cons to both:

- Large labs will generally have experienced technicians, advanced students, and postdocs from whom valuable technical training and critical feedback can be obtained. There are likely to be a wider range of techniques in operation in the lab, a greater variety of reagents, more projects generating new research directions that would represent potential sources of ideas for your projects. The larger number of presentations made and papers written by lab members will also serve to provide an advance educational component. The key disadvantage is that the PI will generally be busy and when not, split between many people. You are likely to get very little time from the PI, and students who aren’t doing well and / or who are not assertive about demanding attention often get ignored for extended periods of time, which can add greatly to the length of the Ph.D. process (and lessen the ultimate quality of the work). If you are looking at a large lab, then the PI is not the only element to investigate. Find out about the lab members – are they happy? Interactive? Is it a good training environment? In the worst environments, you will hear that students are assigned to “help” postdocs, or that multiple students are put on to the same project (which are both bad since you need first author publications), or that a student doing badly hasn’t talked to the advisor for months and can’t seem to make an appointment to do so.

- Small labs are preferable for students who prefer to have extensive interactions with the PI, assuming the PI is available (not always true, say for a busy MD-type). Small labs tend to be a bit more feast or famine regarding funding (since they frequently operate on just one major grant) and in general students will have a greater burden in terms of setting up techniques and generating common reagents. This can be good – it fosters greater independence, at the cost of time.

- In the end, there is no specific recommendation here – but use your own personality as a guide as to which kind of lab you will be most productive in. Either way, assertiveness is key. In a large lab, you will need to fight for the PI’s attention and get people with no vested interest in you to help in your training. In a small lab, you will have to be facile at getting the same kind of assistance from people in other labs.

5) Lab morale: This (aside from whether the research topics interest you) is one of the most important issues. Talk to the students in the lab. Buy them lunch or a coffee and find out whether they are happy with their lab. Look beyond the surface. On the one hand, people generally feel an instinctive loyalty to their lab (or are afraid that their comments will get back to the PI). On the other hand, it is the nature of being a thesis student to be struggling with frustration on multiple levels most of the time, so try to separate out the specific complaints raised by the people you are interviewing to assess which are generalizable and would thus be likely to apply to you if you joined the lab (e.g. one particular project not working is not a useful piece of negative information; but the nature of the PI’s response to the situation would be).

6) Medical lab versus basic science. Ultimately, you will have a lot of exposure to medical research labs in your fellowship years. This is the stage in your training when you need to get a solid grounding in the approach of how to be a good scientist, which most often is best presented in our basic science labs. This is not to exclude all of our clinicians – there are some notable excellent clinical / physician scientists here. But use the guidelines above to determine the quality of the training environment. If the lab is lacking in people who can train you, resources to purchase the equipment and supplies you will need, or is publishing relatively little in good journals, then this is unlikely to be a lab in which you will receive the training you need, even if the PI is an MD trained in precisely the subspecialty you wish to be your career path. There are other ways to interact with these clinicians if you wish to.

7) CSHL versus Stony Brook. The environments and personnel at CSHL are stellar. However, students undertaking their theses at these institutions take longer on the average to complete them because

a) They lose time during the first Ph.D. year when they have to travel back and forth from Stony Brook to CSHL to take courses and do TA’ing. Not too much gets done in the lab in the first year. In contrast, Stony Brook students are able to pop in and out of the lab and get and keep things going. More inconvenience is encountered in subsequent years for thesis meetings, weekly student research seminars that all students are supposed to attend, qualifiers, and other mandatory events.

b) Time is lost when and if the CSHL students participate in the various integration activities we have ongoing at Stony Brook (monthly Clinical research speaker, clinical research, Clinical research symposium day). If they don’t participate, then the integrative aspect of the MSTP program is compromised. Re-entry into the third years is also easier for students at the home campus.

c) The labs at CSHL tend to be bigger / more postdoc oriented and the PI’s are traveling more and have to raise more money. This often leads to less attention per student. Highly independent and assertive students can do quite well; quiet students needing more attention in the early years may find themselves drifting until something eventually kicks in (sometimes a year or two later).

In the end, balance these negative issues against the strengths and attractiveness of the lab. If the lab you really want to work in is there, go for it. But give serious consideration to Stony Brook labs as well, since you are likely to get out quicker and have a richer non-thesis experience at the home campus.

Resources, resources, resources: The most important resources are your fellow students (MSTP and regular Ph.D.), the graduate program directors, and the MSTP Co-directors. Talk to everyone you can before committing to a lab. There’s a wealth of common knowledge out there about which mentors and labs represent the best training environments, and making a bad choice at this stage can cost you years of time and / or frustration.