It’s always easy to look back on things and think, “Man, I wish I’d known then what I know now…” So in an attempt to potentially help others, as well as an exercise in self-loathing, I’ve written down some things I wish I could have told myself three years ago when I was knee deep in the grad school application process.
Find someone who’s already graduated from the lab and talk to them!! I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. It can be difficult to track this person down, and if you’re like me and have a slight phobia of cold calling/emailing someone, then it can be a nightmare (and therefore easy just to avoid). But this person is your best resource. They’ve been in the trenches, and they’ve survived to tell the tale. Talking to current students when you go and visit the lab and meet your potential supervisor is a good start (and they might be able to give you the contact information of former students), but they may not be in a position to be completely honest about what things are really like (especially to a stranger). Also, if you can’t find any former students of the lab that in itself may be a sign… (obviously they’ve never graduated and are in PhD purgatory).
A program where you rotate around in different labs is not a waste of time. In fact it is amazing. Best thing ever. All schools should do this. I can guarantee that the first few months of lab work you do are not going to end up in your thesis, so you might as well spend that time actually doing something useful, if not vital, to ensure you end up in the right lab with the right supervisor. Do this and you get to spend time in various labs learning different techniques; networking with people all over your department; and figuring out whether or not you can picture yourself being there for five or more years. Don’t do this, and you will feel like an idiot in retrospect. It takes the dumb luck out of choosing a good supervisor and lab.
Money isn’t everything… and in fact, can have downsides. I’m sure there are quite a few people out there who are probably thinking sarcastically “poor girl” (however, that would imply that there are people reading this blog, which I’m pretty sure there aren’t). There are a lot of poor labs out there that are getting by on scraps, and it can be scary (and very risky!) going into a lab where they don’t know if they can afford you. What I’m saying here is don’t choose a lab just because it’s got grants up the wazoo – believe it or not, there are more important things than having money. Furthermore, having money can actually be a disadvantage to you in your learning. For instance, working in a lab that can afford a technician means you may not learn how to do a lot of basic things. Like how to use a pH meter. Or the balance. Or how to tie your shoes. Also, you can escape (/graduate) when your funding runs out in a poor lab, but in a rich lab, your supervisor can afford to keep you around for an extra few months… or years…
Bureaucracy is a bitch, and you won’t be able to avoid it. When you start applying to various departments, it’s important to recognize whether it went relatively smoothly or was hell on earth. Guess what, if the department was stupid during the application process, it’ll continue to be stupid when you’re a member of said department. Except you’ll be paying them money to be stupid to you (and you’ll feel stupid for it).
If you’re already sold on a particular lab, remember that a lot of supervisors are actually members of several departments. They will likely be able to direct you to the least-stupid one you should apply to. So what if you end up in the department of biochemistry when in your heart you know you’re a hard-core analytical chemist? What matters is the supervisor and lab you’ve chosen – the experimental work you’ll be doing will be the same regardless of the department you’ve put yourself in. And that’s what will really matter when you graduate, not what’s written on your diploma.
Trust your gut. Your gut is probably right. What was the feeling you got when you went to meet your potential supervisor and visit the lab? Was the atmosphere is good? Hostile? Were the students smiling and friendly or did they look like caffeinated zombies? Did your potential supervisor seem interested in your existence, or were you shoved onto an unsuspecting post doc? Did your potential supervisor have an idea of a project for you, or was he/she a bit sketchy on the details and his/her expectations for a grad student?
Some things to check out if you haven’t already:
You probably already know to look up your potential supervisor on pubmed in order to find out whether their research is an area you’re interested in. However, you can also check out who the first authors are on his/her papers in order to get a lead on former students to contact.
Your potential supervisor has applied for grants at some point. As such, there is a very good chance that their C.V. is available online somewhere. I’m not talking about the C.V. you might find on a departmental website, which is usually a good overview of whether the lab is doing research that is at all interesting to you. I’m talking about a C.V. that’s long enough to put your future thesis to shame. Check out the “Current/Past trainees/students” section. There may be contact info there of former students… but also, note how many PhD students have graduated from the lab. A supervisor who has not had any PhD students graduate and the first authors of his/her papers are all short-term post-docs is a bad sign in terms of what I would consider successful mentoring.
Most importantly, don’t panic. Just make sure you bring a towel and you’ll be okay. And here’s hoping what I now know as hindsight can be your foresight.