I write this not in the expectation that any of my dear readers need my unsolicited advice, but from the need to get it off my chest. Besides, maybe someday, advice will surpass plastic wrap as my most-searched topic!
In the beginning, there was the delusion.
New grad students often think that only the professional climate matters, that interpersonal relationships will have nothing to do with their success. It's all about the science, and nothing else matters! Ha ha ha. WRONG.
A bad lab will suck out your life and energy. Your motivation and mental health will go to hell, which will wreck your thesis, health, and everything in between.
A good advisor will give the advice you need, when you need it. He will be tolerant when you are sick, or getting married, or taking a three-day vacation. She will read your manuscript even if you're late to lab meeting.
A sexist lab will treat you like an idiot if you don't fit into the alpha-whatever mold. You will be condescended to and dismissed. You will feel you can never wear a skirt again. A bad lab will leave you depressed and hopeless.
In a good lab, your co-workers will help you. When experimental disasters befall, there will be support. They will encourage you to keep going.
You think it won't happen to you
But it will. Bad labs don't make an exception because you're nice. And you think I'm making this up; no one lab could be that bad! But these things ALL happen in my lab.
Why yes, if I had known this five years ago...
One scream if by land?
The best way I know to discover a lab’s personal atmosphere is: ask a senior grad student. Not someone who’s been there a year or two and is full of bushy-tailed enthusiasm, no. A nice cynical fifth-year (or third if you're in Europe). If there aren’t any, try to find someone who’s left (check the lab’s webpage or the publication record for departed members).
The postdocs know some of the ups and downs, but they are both more experienced and less vulnerable than grad students. For one, they usually have their own funding. And they have enough experience that bad advising is less harmful; for example, a better handle on when an experiment will never work.
If you want the real dish, ask your informant to speak to you privately, and tell her/him you won’t repeat it. And don’t.
Bribery by coffee or chocolate won't hurt, either.
Next week: So Do Good Labs Smell Like Dead Chicken? (No.)