Friday, August 26, 2011
In pursuit of a Ph.D.: How to choose a thesis lab and committee members
Part II of a three-part series in which graduate students at Washington University discuss their thinking behind choices they made at various steps in obtaining a Ph.D. in science.
Finding a good Ph.D. advisor is on top of many students' listsHaiyang Yu, of the Molecular and Cell Biology Program, knows that he is a very independent scientist. Thus, in addition to choosing a thesis lab with cutting-edge research and a good project, he placed a strong emphasis on mentors who give their students more freedom. Erica Koval, a student in the Neurosciences Program, firmly believes that the principle investigator (PI) is the most important factor in this decision. "Research is hard sometimes, and the PI has to be someone you can easily meet with and talk to about both your experimental successes and failures," she says. Erica also points out that since you'd want to be able to turn to your PI for guidance throughout your career, it's key to find someone who would be willing and able to give you advice about whatever career path you choose, someone who is "actively engaged in your training and success." Corinne Decker, a Ph.D. student in the Immunology Program, also cites the thesis advisor as the most important factor in choosing a lab. It is imperative for students to find a mentor with whom they are comfortable working and interacting. Corinne warns, "If you don't get along with your PI you might be very, very miserable!"
Small vs. large labs – both have their meritsWith a positive experience working as an undergraduate researcher in a small lab, Kristina Stemler sought something similar for her graduate work in the Developmental, Regenerative, and Stem Cell Biology Program at WashU. "I worked in a very small lab and got intensive training but by the end I was trained to be independent," Kristina describes of her lab background. "When I got to graduate school I searched for a thesis lab that would give me personal attention in my early years … but that would allow me to develop my own questions and allow me to work on my own." Thus, she eventually chose a small lab with a mentor who gives her attention yet understands her need for independence. Subhajit Poddar, a student in the Immunology Program, places himself on the opposite end of the spectrum and knows that the qualities of a large lab are important to him. In these labs, the mentor is usually very experienced, and there are plenty of post-docs and technicians who can help and answer questions. "In a larger lab, someone more experienced than you will always be available," he says.
What to look for in a thesis committeeAs Kristina is currently in the process of putting together her thesis committee, who better to ask about this than her? First, Kristina put together a list of potential candidates: faculty members with expertise in the different fields her project covers, professors with whom she'd like to interact, and people who could provide resources or training invaluable for her to complete her Ph.D. And importantly, Kristina then discusses her list with her thesis advisor before narrowing down her choices. Haiyang has gone through this process already and provides his two cents based on what qualities he was looking for. "For committee members, they should either be experts in the field, or be very smart and [have] a broad interest and great ideas," he suggests.