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How to choose the right mentor (PI) and lab in graduate school?

Choosing the right mentor (PI) is a crucial aspect of having a successful and fulfilling graduate school experience. It is important to find a PI who is a good fit for you personally, as this may vary from student to student. This guide is primarily directed towards students, but PIs may also find it helpful in understanding how to better support their current and future students. This guide will provide a more detailed method for selecting a PI. It is important to note that while some mentors may not excel in every area, this is not a definitive factor in their effectiveness as a mentor. Additionally, the presence or absence of an extensive lab website does not necessarily reflect the quality of a mentor. The following criteria and questions are meant to assist you in making a well-informed decision.

The right PI

Regardless of your current stage of training as an undergraduate, graduate student, or postdoc, the ultimate goal is to advance to the next phase of your career. This does not mean seeking out prestigious PIs simply for the sake of reputation. To effectively move forward in your career, it is important to be well-prepared and developed, and to find a mentor who will provide the necessary tools and support for your growth. Choosing the right PI requires some self-reflection and may involve compromising on the specific research project in favor of a stronger training environment. Keep in mind that prioritizing scientific prestige over mentorship can lead to a poor fit and an unhappy experience. When evaluating potential labs, consider projects that interest you, but also consider the overall mentorship and training environment. One way to learn more about a potential mentor PI is to attend their seminars and observe their presentation style and interactions with others. Not only does this allow you to learn more about their research, it also provides insight into their communication and collaboration skills and gives you an idea of the lab culture. Pay attention to how they respond to suggestions and questions as this can be telling of the overall atmosphere in the lab.

The right lab

While it is important to ask if the PI is a supportive and positive influence on students, the lab is also important to your well being and scientific progress during your stay in graduate school.

To get a better understanding of the PI's behavior and lab culture, consider asking the lab members the following questions individually during private interviews:

  • Do students in the lab have time off when they go on vacation?
  • Do students in the lab frequently work more than 40 hours per week, late nights, or on weekends?
  • How does the PI handle negative results, poor quality data, or confounding results?
  • How does the PI support students when they have life changing events?
  • What have past students gone on to do after completing their degree in the lab? (If none of the PI's past students are still working in science, this may be a red flag for high burnout in the lab.)
  • How long have you been in the lab and how long do you expect your degree to take? (Longer than 2 years for a Master's degree or more than 5-6 years for a PhD may be red flags in certain fields.)
  • Does the PI allow you to attend conferences? How often, and is it dependent on presenting an abstract?

It is important to keep in mind that these are just potential indicators and do not necessarily reflect the quality of a mentor. It is important not to eliminate labs based on a single criterion, but rather to consider what is important to you in terms of your training and development. As a prospective student, it is important to be excited and enthusiastic about the work being done in the lab you choose. Use the suggestions provided to find the right lab for you. Best of luck!

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