On Choosing Research Groups & Grad Advisors


So, I’m like a month late to the party, but April 15th was the final deadline for most US PhD students to officially accept a grad school offer. Congrats, you guys! In a few short months, you will begin your grad school adventure!

However, the big decisions aren’t over. After all, not all of you were accepted directly into a lab. In fact, most of you will have to participate in rotations or find some other means to narrow down which group you want to join and which professor you want to work under. In other words, the next choice you will have to make is deciding which research group do you want to spend the next 5+ years of your life working with. No pressure, right?

I will admit it is a very daunting task. I remember the first few months of my grad school adventure was filled with lots of stress and anxiety. Over and over again I kept asking myself the same questions: Is this group a good fit for me? Is this what I want to do for the next 5 years? Am I making good decisions? How do I even talk to these professors? Help!

Well, while I can’t make your decision for you, what I can do is point out some things that I wish I had kept in mind during those first few crucial months! Because, research interests aren’t the only thing that should dictate your decision. There are plenty of other factors that can come into play in making sure you find the research group that’s right for you.

Do any readers have any of your own advice or additional questions? Leave them in the comments below!


Unfortunately, no matter how much you want to pursue a certain topic or work with a specific professor, the reality is: funding matters. Because funding can effect everything from what kind of experiments can you run to what resources you are given to how much time is going to have to be spent finding funding as opposed to doing research. So, one of the first things you should think about when you become interested in a lab is how is their funding situation and how it will ultimately affect you in the long term.

Mentor Style

Mentoring styles are like snowflakes. No professor mentors the same. And while you may prefer to have weekly progress checks, your professor might prefer a yearly check up. Therefore, think about how you best work under supervision and what type of guidance do you need to succeed. Do you prefer someone you can interact with on a semi-regular basis, or would you prefer not to see them unless absolutely necessary? Whichever it is, try to find a faculty member that compliments your work style. This will allow you to be a part of a group with optimal communication and just enough guidance for you to do your job properly.

Lab Dynamic

Though your mentor will play an crucial role on your experience in the group, the people you work along side are just as important. This is because, most of the time, they will be the ones training you on the different lab techniques, as well as giving you advice on surviving grad school and the next steps of your career. Therefore, being able to work with a group of people that share similar interests and have similar personalities is crucial. Do you want to be in a lab where everyone gets along but parties harder than you’d prefer? Or would you rather be amongst the friendly work-a-holics that never seem to leave the lab? Either way, it’s important to think of which work environment is best for both your needs and mental health.

Lab Track Record

This can cover a number of criteria. How often do grad students publish papers? How often do the grad students attend conferences? How long does it take for grad students to graduate and where do they end up afterwards? All of these questions should be considered when determining if the lab is the right fit for you because all of these things can ultimately affect how life will go after graduation. For example, the amount of publications on your resume is crucial if you want to continue in academia later on. On the other hand, the networks you can make at conferences can influence how difficult the job search will be after graduation.

Lab Expectations

Would you like a group that requires grad students to followed a strict work schedule? Or would you rather have the flexibility in our schedule to choose your own work hours? How much time you spend in lab is not always up to you. Sometimes a PI will already have outlined expectations on how much work you need to get done in a week. In other cases, there is a unstated but obvious expectation that life outside of lab simply does not exist. Either way, try and get a feel for which category your choice lab and how they view the importance of a work-life balance.

Some extra advice

Still feeling overwhelmed? Don’t stress out. I get it. It’s an important thing to think about and you’re scared you’ll make the wrong decision and end up in a lab that makes you unhappy. But even if that does happen, it’s not the end of the world. Most schools have procedures in place to help you deal with any problems you have with your lab without fear of backlash. And even in the worst case scenarios, most universities allow you to change your lab, even after your first year. Just remember to keep the above things in mind and talk to lots and lots of grad students. Their opinions are invaluable in order to get a true idea of what work environment your chosen research lab will provide.

Good luck!

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