Choosing a Dissertation Laboratory

Laboratory choice for thesis work is arguably the most important decision you will make as a graduate student, perhaps even more important than your choice of institution. Unlike setting up an experiment, there are no standard formulas or protocols that will ensure a perfect choice. Everyone is unique and what you desire in a lab is likely to be different from your fellow classmates. Self-reflection and -knowledge of the kinds of environments in which you thrive is critical. Laboratory rotations will aid your decision process by allowing you to try out different types of labs and research projects. Taking full advantage of these opportunities will help you identify the features of laboratory life you enjoy, as well as those that you should avoid.

It is understandable to be nervous about choosing a lab. The decision is not a trivial one. However, try to keep the process in perspective. You are not choosing the lab or the research field where you’ll spend the rest of your career, just this first portion. The objective is to choose a lab where you’ll garner excellent training in how to think like a scientist, and where you’ll have the freedom to develop independence yet get support when help is needed. If your thesis lab provides you with these things and you dedicate yourself to training and research, then numerous avenues will be open to you for the next phase of your career.

Below is a general guide (also click here) to help you with the process of identifying rotation labs and selecting one for your thesis work.

Narrowing the field
Your first task involves selecting 4-6 candidate laboratories from under the BIG umbrella for a potential first rotation. It may be helpful to first decide what fields of research or research problems interest you to narrow your choices. Take advantage of the poster sessions held during Orientation days held in early September; these are tremendous forums to meet and interact with many different PIs and to identify fields and mentorship styles that resonate with you most. Discussions with upper year students and the BIG office and attending any Rotation Club meetings will also be helpful in making your choices.

Selecting the first set of candidates for potential rotations takes the most time, with the process will becoming easier as you move through year 1 and learn more about the research environment at HMS and about yourself. We encourage you to be flexible and to leave yourself open to being inspired by a new field or research question discovered in class or in a seminar. Such experiences may lead you to change your initial focus or selection of potential rotation labs. Doing so is not unusual and can lead to incredibly exciting and rewarding experiences.

Scouting selected laboratories
Once you’ve identified a small handful of labs as candidates for rotations, then gather additional information about the lab and possible projects by meeting with the PI as well as current and/or former students from the lab. Attending lab meetings is also helpful, informing on lab dynamics and how the research group functions. We recommend first sending an e-mail to the PI to inquire about rotation possibilities and to set up an initial meeting to discuss further. Read some background papers from the lab prior to the meeting. It is also useful to have in mind what your potential preferences are for a thesis lab. Does a big lab or small lab appeal to you? Do you want daily or less frequent interactions with your mentor? What mix of students, postdocs, and technicians would you prefer? Does lab location on or off the main HMS campus matter to you? With these features in mind, you’ll find it easier to zero-in on the best possible rotation lab for you.

Questions to consider asking a PI at your initial meeting:

  • How many people are in your laboratory? What is the lab composition (students/postdocs/technicians) and what is their experience level?
  • How often do you meet with your students?
  • How would you describe your mentoring style?
  • How often is lab meeting held? May I attend a lab meeting to learn more about the lab?
  • What is the lab’s current funding situation? Will you be able to take on an additional graduate student at the conclusion of this academic year?
  • How are projects distributed in the lab? Is there overlap among lab members or do most members have distinct projects? How is potential overlap managed?
  • What is the atmosphere like in your department? What are the major events (seminars, retreats, trainee talks, journal clubs, career panels etc…)? Is the atmosphere collaborative?
  • Is it possible to meet with some current students in the lab to learn more about the lab environment?

Questions to consider asking current/former students:

  • Given the choice again, would you choose this lab for your thesis work? Why/Why not?
  • How often do you meet/interact with your PI? Are the meetings helpful?
  • Is your PI supportive of your development/training? In what ways?
  • Is there a commitment on the PI’s part to send members of the lab to conferences or courses to advance their research and/or career?
  • What is the general environment in the lab? Friendly? Supportive? Competitive?
    Does the lab have interactions with members of adjacent/nearby labs? What is the overall environment of the department/unit like?
  • Are their experienced postdocs or technicians in the lab or surrounding labs to help with experimental advice?
  • What are lab meetings like? How often are they held? Is constructive criticism given? Are ideas freely shared?

Things to do and think about at the end of a rotation
At the close of a rotation, you should set up an “exit” meeting with your PI. If you’ve enjoyed the rotation and would consider joining the lab, you should express your interest and ask if the PI if joining the lab would be an option once you’ve completed your remaining rotations. If you remain unsure, you should ask any additional questions you may have about the lab that will help you make a decision.

What to do when your rotations are complete?
Once you’ve completed your rotations, take some time to reflect on all of your experiences. Think about which labs, if any, you can see yourself being excited to work in and having a successful graduate career. It is also typical to schedule additional meetings with rotation PIs to learn more about what projects they see as potential foundations for thesis work. If you’re still undecided after this, speaking with the program heads or other mentors about the decision can be helpful. A fourth rotation is also possible if needed to find a good fit – in this case, please consult with a program head.