Choosing a Dissertation Laboratory
Laboratory choice for thesis work is arguably the most important decision you will make as a graduate student, perhaps even more important than your choice of institution. Unlike setting up an experiment, there are no standard formulas or protocols that will ensure a perfect choice. Everyone is unique and what you desire in a lab is likely to be different from your fellow classmates. Self-reflection and -knowledge of the kinds of environments in which you thrive is critical. Laboratory rotations will aid your decision process by allowing you to try out different types of labs and research projects. Taking full advantage of these opportunities will help you identify the features of laboratory life you enjoy, as well as those that you should avoid.
Rotations provide an excellent opportunity for you to try out a variety of labs to find the one that best fits your interests for pursuing thesis research. You typically perform rotations in at least three laboratories throughout the course of the first year. The length and timing of the rotations are flexible, but we recommend that you spend at least 8 weeks in each lab. To help you identify potential rotation labs, current students organize a weekly “rotation club” in the fall each year where they present their experiences rotating in different labs and provide advice to new students in choosing a lab.
It is understandable to be nervous about choosing a lab. The decision is not a trivial one. However, try to keep the process in perspective. You are not choosing the lab or the research field where you’ll spend the rest of your career, just this first portion. The objective is to choose a lab where you’ll garner excellent training in how to think like a scientist, and where you’ll have the freedom to develop independence yet get support when help is needed. If your thesis lab provides you with these things and you dedicate yourself to training and research, then numerous avenues will be open to you for the next phase of your career.
At the conclusion of your first year [by August 1st], you will choose your thesis advisor and laboratory. The faculty member that directs the lab will be your primary mentor for the remainder of your graduate training. Additionally, the department and/or special interest program to which your advisor belongs will become your intellectual and community “home.” These communities organize numerous activities throughout the year, including: research seminars, trainee talks, social hours, annual retreats, career workshops, and more.
The deadline to declare a Dissertation Lab is August 1st of your first year.
Narrowing the field
Your first task involves selecting 4-6 candidate laboratories from under the BBS umbrella* for a potential first rotation. *BBS faculty members are often first choices, but please know you are also allowed to work with faculty members within Harvard HILS. If you do not find a HILS faculty member, then you cannot work with them. It may be helpful to first decide what fields of research or research problems interest you to narrow your choices. Take advantage of the poster sessions held during BBS Orientation days held in late August/early September; these are tremendous forums to meet and interact with many different PIs and to identify fields and mentorship styles that resonate with you most. Discussions with upper year students, the BBS office, and attending Rotation Club will also be helpful in making your choices.
Selecting the first set of candidates for potential rotations takes the most time, with the process will becoming easier as you move through year 1 and learn more about the research environment at HMS and about yourself. We encourage you to be flexible and to leave yourself open to being inspired by a new field or research question discovered in class or in a seminar. Such experiences may lead you to change your initial focus or selection of potential rotation labs. Doing so is not unusual and can lead to incredibly exciting and rewarding experiences.
Scouting selected laboratories
Once you’ve identified a small handful of labs as candidates for rotations, then gather additional information about the lab and possible projects by meeting with the PI as well as current and/or former students from the lab. Attending lab meetings is also helpful, informing on lab dynamics and how the research group functions. We recommend first sending an e-mail to the PI to inquire about rotation possibilities and to set up an initial meeting to discuss further. Read some background papers from the lab prior to the meeting. It is also useful to have in mind what your potential preferences are for a thesis lab. Does a big lab or small lab appeal to you? Do you want daily or less frequent interactions with your mentor? What mix of students, postdocs, and technicians would you prefer? Does lab location on or off the main HMS campus matter to you? With these features in mind, you’ll find it easier to zero-in on the best possible rotation lab for you.
Some points to consider when scheduling rotations include:
- Research interest
- The PI and his/her mentoring style
- Lab size, location, personality and sense of community
- Availability of funding
- Rotation timing within the academic year
Questions to consider asking a PI at your initial meeting:
- How many people are in your laboratory? What is the lab composition (students/postdocs/technicians) and what is their experience level?
- How often do you meet with your students?
- How would you describe your mentoring style?
- How often is lab meeting held? May I attend a lab meeting to learn more about the lab?
- What is the lab’s current funding situation? Will you be able to take on an additional graduate student at the conclusion of this academic year?
- How are projects distributed in the lab? Is there overlap among lab members or do most members have distinct projects? How is potential overlap managed?
- What is the atmosphere like in your department? What are the major events (seminars, retreats, trainee talks, journal clubs, career panels etc…)? Is the atmosphere collaborative?
- Is it possible to meet with some current students in the lab to learn more about the lab environment?
Questions to consider asking current/former students:
- Given the choice again, would you choose this lab for your thesis work? Why/Why not?
- How often do you meet/interact with your PI? Are the meetings helpful?
- Is your PI supportive of your development/training? In what ways?
- Is there a commitment on the PI’s part to send members of the lab to conferences or courses to advance their research and/or career?
What is the general environment in the lab? Friendly? Supportive? Competitive?
Does the lab have interactions with members of adjacent/nearby labs? What is the overall environment of the department/unit like?
- Are their experienced postdocs or technicians in the lab or surrounding labs to help with experimental advice?
- What are lab meetings like? How often are they held? Is constructive criticism given? Are ideas freely shared?