The New Gastroenterologist

Not all labs are created equal: What to look for when searching for the right lab



As researchers, we spend a substantial period of our careers as trainees in a lab. As graduate students or postdoctoral fellows, selecting the “right” lab has the potential to make a huge difference for your future career and your mental health. Although much of the decision is based on instinct, there is still some logic and reason that can be applied to ensure the choice is a good fit. Four factors that should be considered are: 1) the principal investigator (PI)/mentor; 2) lab environment; 3) scientific output; and 4) the institution.


PI funding. The history of funding and the funding of your specific project are important factors to consider. No matter how significant the scientific question, not having adequate funding can be paralyzing. For both graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, it is in your best interest to proactively inquire about the funding status of the lab. This can be accomplished using online reporters (such as NIH Reporter or Grantome) and asking the PI. It is equally important to identify which grant application/fellowship will fund your stipend and ensure that the funding is secure for 4-6 years.

Dr. Melinda A. Engevik, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Houston

Dr. Melinda A. Engevik

PI personality. For better or for worse, the PI largely sets the tone for the lab. The personality of the PI can be a key determining factor in finding the right “fit” for a trainee. Ask your peers and current and past lab members about working with the PI. As you speak to lab members and alumni, don’t disregard warning signs of unethical behavior, bullying, or harassment. Even with the rise of movements such as the #MeTooSTEM, academic misconduct is hard to correct. It is far better to avoid these labs. If available, examine the PI’s social networks (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) or read previously published interviews and look for the PI’s attitude toward its lab members.

Mentoring style. The NIH emphasizes mentorship in numerous funding mechanisms; thus, it isn’t surprising that selecting an appropriate mentor is paramount for a successful training experience. A lot of this decision requires information about you as a trainee. Reflect on what type of scientific mentor will be the best fit for your needs and honestly evaluate your own communication style, expectations, and final career goals. Ask questions of the PI and lab members to identify the mentoring style. Find a mentor who takes his or her responsibility to train you seriously and who genuinely cares about the well-being of the lab personnel. Good mentors advocate for their trainees inside and outside of the lab. A mentor’s vocal support of talented trainees can help propel them toward their career goals.

Career support. One of the most important questions you need to consider is whether your mentor can help you accomplish your career goals. Be prepared to have an honest conversation with the PI about your goals. The majority of PhD scientists will pursue careers outside of academia, so choose a mentor who supports diverse career paths. A mentor who is invested in your success will work with you to finish papers in a timely manner, encourage you to apply for awards and grants, aid in the identification of fruitful collaborations, help develop new skills, and expand your professional network. A good mentor will also ensure that you have freedom in your project to pursue your own scientific interests, and ultimately allow you to carve out a project for you to take with you when your training is complete.

Research. The research done in your lab will also factor into your decision. Especially if you are a postdoctoral fellow, this will be the field/subject/niche in which you will likely establish your career and expertise. If there is a field you want to pursue, identify mentors who have a publication record in that subject. Examine the PIs for publications, citations, and overall contributions to the field. If the PI in question is young, you may not find many citations of papers. However, you can identify the quality of the papers, the lab’s experimental techniques, and how often the PI is invited to give talks on that subject.

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