My PhD wasn’t easy and neither was my master. So, you may ask, if my master was “painful” why did I go for a PhD? First of all, I’m crazy, I admit. But I thought that the PhD couldn’t be worse than my master. Wrong! I think it was different but it wasn’t “great”… Do not misinterpret me, I end up having results to publish but they only showed up really late… Nevertheless, after a PhD mourning period (as my PhD supervisor calls it) I realized that I still love science and I actually think I can do science for the rest of my life.
I presume that at least 50 % of PhDs recognize themselves in this story. During my master and PhD (especially when I was struggling with the pain of no results) I would have several talks with my colleagues about how to choose the best project/lab. I now realize that at the time that we have to choose the lab/project most people don’t know exactly what they should pinpoint as key aspects to consider. Thus, looking to what was my friends experience and mine, I believe that there are some key points that you should take into consideration when choosing a lab and project to work on!
Starting with the field of study (neuroscience, stem cells, immunology…), when students are choosing a lab/project they tend to think that the field of study that they pick is what will define their future path. Well, I believe that is not true! What will define you is your skills! Of course, the field where you will be working on is important, but it will be the combination of what you know theoretically and experimentally that will make you unique. So, don’t forget to ask yourself, if I choose this lab/project what will I learn? Don’t focus your choice only in the field of study.
What about the supervisor? To choose a “good” supervisor you should know yourself! A good supervisor for me doesn’t mean is a good supervisor for you. Why? Because people give importance to different supervisor personalities and methodologies. For example, if you are an open mind you don’t want to choose a supervisor that is closed mind. You should try to know with the lab members how is the supervisor for example in terms of methodologies – do you have to do exactly how he/she says or do you have freedom to design an experiment to accomplish a specific goal previously discussed? Does he/she tries to understand your results when they do not fulfill the work hypothesis? Is he/she able to change the working hypothesis? These are some of the examples that you should consider. Someone told me once “you should choose a supervisor that you admire as a scientist”.
And what about coworkers? I think is obvious that you will take advantage of a lab where people discuss ideas, results and problems! Believe me, you will find so many problems along the way, if you are surrounded with open minds that are problem solvers you will be in good hands! Of course, you don’t know that for sure but you can always have an idea about it when talking with them. Oh, and make sure that there is a “friendly” environment!
Finally, the project per se! As mentioned above, make sure that your project will make you have a hand full of skills. Nevertheless, if you are starting your PhD and you would like to design your own project, make sure that you are engaged in a lab colleague’s work. That will make you learn the lab procedures, you will help on his/her experiments which means you probably win co-authorship on his/her paper and importantly these will give you solid bases of a good PhD hypothesis because you will have then increased your know-how on the subject of study.
At the end, balance the pros and cons of the labs that you are considering and good luck on your choice!