Choosing a Lab 3: Personal Factors
Availability. You will occasionally want to consult your advisor. Is the PI always off in Greece, California, and DC? Are there regular lab meetings? One-on-one meetings? Are there certain hours the PI is in lab?
Advisingness. You will also want advice. Good advice encourages you when you’re at a professional dead-end, suggests new avenues or resources, refers you to other people when your PI doesn’t know the answer. Good advising trusts that you are a competent scientist, but recognizes its own limitations (dated knowledge, ignorance of a technique, etc.). Needless to say, bad advice is the opposite.
Ability to give good advice. That is, you want an advisor who recognizes her/his own limits. Your PI should tell you when she/he doesn’t know the answer to something, and suggest how to find out: look here, ask so-and-so, write to my colleague in Ithaca. Similarly, the PI should accept undesired results rather than pushing for the 'right' answer. If you believe you’ve done an experiment correctly but it's not the answer your advisor wanted, she should accept it. A bad advisor will say you did it wrong. Most importantly for a grad student, your advisor should tell you when to cut your losses and move on. This is the most difficult thing for an inexperienced student to recognize, and so the most important in an advisor.
Clarity of expectations. A good advisor will tell you what she/he wants from you, and why. They will help you lay out reasonable goals and tell you when you are or are not meeting expectations. A bad advisor will be passive-aggressive, will tell someone else that she’s displeased with your hours, will refuse to read your manuscript because you were late to lab meeting.
Commitment to getting you out. Related to the previous one. You want an advisor who wants you to graduate in X years, and who will help you stay on track. How long does the average grad student take in this lab? Does the advisor lay out what’s necessary for a thesis? Likewise, commitment to YOUR goals, not to making you into an advisor-clone, is desirable. Do people go on to non-academic careers? Do they get support?
Opportunities for professional development. Ideally, you want to learn stuff in grad school. Do students ever help review papers? (Neutral to good.) Do students have to review papers alone? (Bad.) Does the advisor play favorites, and only the Golden Child gets to review papers? (Also bad.) Do grad students have opportunities to write reviews? Do they go to conferences? Which ones, and how often? Does the advisor think conferences are for your own networking and professional development (good), or a prize for being a good little girl, or a reward for publishable data? (Not so good.)
Atmosphere. What kind of atmosphere does the advisor foster? Does he/she allow people to be derisive or attacking towards each other in public meetings? Does she/he ask mean, awful questions of seminar speakers? Are people afraid to talk to each other or the advisor? Do people make fun of the advisor behind his/her back?
2) Co-workers: Generally, a PI controls what kind of people are in his/her lab. (Sometimes, there is merely no selection.) The tenor of a lab will tell you something about what kind of people the PI tolerates and/or encourages.
Helpfulness. Good labmates are a knowledge base. They answer your questions, give you protocols, and help diagnose what’s wrong. Bad labmates tell you what to do all the time, refuse to share their reagents, and take you down in public.
Aggressiveness. Some people like the stags-in-mating-season lab style. However, if you prefer not to spar in public all the time, avoid labs that are full of people who may bite at any time.
Knowledge. Your co-workers should be like a miniature library of papers they’ve read and negative results. There should be fruitful scientific interactions. If it seems like everyone in a lab is brain-dead, don’t work there. If no-one there has heard of the Biggest Paper In The Field, run.
Optional: Selection for Bathing. Self-explanatory.
3) Everybody hates grad school. (Except the rare person like my darling spouse, who is a mostly happy grad student.) There are always awful parts, and science is 99% negative results. Steel yourself for personal disappointment, find some fun hobbies and distractions, and don’t take your work too seriously. You can always leave, after all.
4) Deal with your depression (if any). Some reports say 50% of all grad students become nonfunctionally depressed during grad school. Depression is a real illness, just like having the flu- for years on end. It will make your life miserable, your work worse, and your PhD take forever. If exercise, extracurriculars, and friendships don’t help enough, please seek treatment. Some of grad-school depression is situational, and having a life often helps, but it's still a real biochemical problem. SSRIs and other antidepressants can make the difference between crying on the couch every day and actually writing your thesis.