Katie Lye is the chair of the Healthy & Inclusive Labs Committee at Medicine by Design. Through open discussion forums and targeted programming, the Healthy & Inclusive Labs Committee aims to identify and address key challenges affecting equity, diversity and inclusion of labs and well-being of trainees across the Medicine by Design research community. The committee also maintains a list of resources to assist trainees in their academic and professional development.
Last month, I defended my PhD. Now that I’m at the end of this chapter, I have been reflecting on different aspects of my lab environment that helped me grow as a researcher and a professional over the past six years. For all prospective students, there are several factors to consider when choosing a lab environment that is right for you. It is important to thoroughly research and visit prospective labs, talk to current students and members of the lab and gather as much information as possible to make an informed decision.
Research Area and Alignment: Firstly, consider the research area of the lab and how it aligns to your interests and career goals. It is crucial to work on a topic that you find intellectually stimulating and personally fulfilling. After taking a course on pluripotent stem cell-based therapies during my undergraduate program, I knew I wanted to contribute to more amazing advancements in regenerative medicine and sought out labs performing cutting-edge research in the field.
Advisor Compatibility: The relationship with your advisor plays a significant role in your graduate experience. Look for an advisor who is supportive, accessible and has a mentoring style that suits your needs (e.g. hands-on or hands-off). Talking to the supervisor as well as current and former students can help you grasp the full picture of a typical student-supervisor relationship in their lab.
Lab Culture: A positive and collaborative environment can enhance your learning experience. I had the opportunity to do a summer research project before I started graduate school in the same lab, which allowed me to interact with lab members to get a sense of the overall atmosphere and the general work-life balance in the lab. I appreciated that my lab had several experienced post-docs to mentor me on various lab techniques and several students for peer support.
Funding and Resources: Research labs will have different funding situations and available resources. Adequate funding ensures that you can pursue your research without difficult financial constraints and also means that necessary equipment, facilities, and technical support are more likely to be available. Newer labs may represent an opportunity to participate in grant writing, a translatable skill in both academia and industry, to build the lab’s financial infrastructure if that’s an area that interests you.
Publication Record: Examine the lab’s publication record to determine its productivity and impact in the field. A lab with a strong track record of publishing in reputable journals can provide valuable opportunities for disseminating your research and enhancing your career prospects. In some graduate departments, publishing a peer-reviewed research paper is a degree requirement. A newer lab will have less of a publication record but could be an opportunity to be part of a highly productive and cutting-edge environment motivated to publish high impact papers.
Future Opportunities: Beyond the research area of the lab, it is important to think about the potential opportunities for collaboration, internships, conferences, and career advancement that may arise from being associated with the lab and the institution. For example, my thesis project was funded in part by Medicine by Design, which frequently hosts a variety of opportunities to connect with a wide variety of people. This helped me build a strong network that will support me in my career endeavors after graduate school.
Once you have found a lab that is right for you, be sure to check out our new page of resources relating to mentorship, mental health, professional development, and individual development plans that will help guide you in your graduate studies.