(Since I regularly repeat this whole thing to new students- sometimes without being asked.)
Choosing a Lab: The Personal and the Professional.
So you get to grad school and they hand you a 300-page booklet, one PI per page. But say you don't have any research experience. How do you know what kind of science you want to do? Well, I can't help you with that one. But how do you know what kind of lab to join? What should you look for?
A good lab is well organized: things are put away when they arrive, there’s a chore list and people do chores, there’s an ordering system such that you’re not running out of reagents all the time. Ask: How does ordering work? How are chores assigned?
A good lab has adequate funding and support: A lab of more than five people should have a dish-washer. A lab of more than ten needs a support tech. A lab of more than fifteen should have a lab manager. There should be a secretary, an organizational structure to handle ordering, possibly a stockroom. There should be enough funding for all the people there. Check: how many grant apps has the PI submitted in the last three years? How many were funded? How many of the postdocs have outside fellowships? Do grad students have to apply for fellowships?* Who guarantees the funding, and for how long? How much longer and how much money is left on the current grant? Is money, even tight for essential reagents? Is there a good variety of equipment available?
[Note: I know there are plenty of wonderful labs- and entire fields- with inadequate funding. I'm not saying you should never go there, just you should know it'll make your life harder. Money is nice. Helpful, even. And a good lab manager is worth his or her weight in SDS.]
A good (biology) lab is scientifically diverse: People should be working on substantially different things, not all in one little corner. People should NOT, EVER, NEVER be competing within the same lab to publish first. In most cases, there should be a range of experience (cell biologists, biochemists, etc.). Ask: Where did people come from? What did they work on before?
A good lab has research with possibilities:The research should be headed somewhere, and not towards a dead-end. There should be branching possibilities. The model should support more than one assay. This is hard to define specifically, but if the research premise sounds like a narrow bad idea, you're probably right. Ask people in the lab, or the PI: where is this research headed? Where is this field headed? Where do you see this lab going in five years?
A good lab publishes regularly: Check how many publications per year for the last X years. Did they all go to Science? (Bad.) Did they go to a range of journals? (Good.) Did they all go to Journal of Molecular Catalysis B: Enzymatic? (Bad.) Will you have to churn out a Science paper to get out? Do all the papers have a bazillion authors? (Bad.) Do grad students get first-author papers? (They should).
Next week: Advisors and Colleagues and Depression, Oh My!
*In biology, it’s relatively uncommon for grad students to have their own fellowships- for example, I am funded entirely off my PI's RO1s- however, in other STEM fields it happens more often.