Teaching Ph.D.s how to make better choices: Choosing a Ph.D. thesis lab

There’s a scene in Jurassic Park, before it all starts going horribly wrong, where the main characters – an impressive set of selected scientists invited to the park – see their first giant brontosaurs.  They are so struck with wonder and awe and possibility, that they fail to recognize signs that all is not right in their seemingly perfect Meozoic theme park. We all know how that tuned out (summary: badly. Many perfectly good scientists are unnecessarily eaten alive by raptors and a T-Rex).

I sometimes think of this scene when chatting with some first years about the experience of choosing a thesis lab. They’ve worked very hard to get here, selected to join an impressive entering class to work alongside giants (leading scientists), that the critical questions they should probably ask when considering a lab sort of fades out for the hope that it will all just turn out okay.  These filled-with-wonder first years are one of the four archetypes of students that we hoped to reach in our recent “Choosing a Thesis Lab: Considering Your Options” workshop.

The second type of students we were trying to reach were the uninformed students; those students who were uncertain about which factors to consider and really wanted tangible criteria to evaluate their options.

The third type of students were the minimizers: those students who were ignoring or downplaying the elements and personal preferences that were the key to their previous success: factors like the need to work in a quiet lab, the desire for a close working relationship with a PI, or the welcoming environment of being a member of a lab with a particular ethos. The desire to work with a big name PI – regardless of fit – seems to lead some students to reframe non-optimal aspects of the lab (for them at least) as ‘growth opportunities’. The boisterous lab is “my chance to grow out of my shell,” the absent PI is “my opportunity to develop independence,” etc.

A variation of the minimizers are those students who see troubling issues during a rotation, but discount them: The “people in the lab are a little curt but I’ll win them over,” or “The PI seems to be going through a difficult time and yelling a lot, but the research direction of the lab is fascinating (and the other two rotations don’t thrill me), so maybe I just need to stop taking things so personally, ” etc.  And so it goes, as every year some of our students choose labs that aren’t conducive to their productivity. Ultimately they – and their professional trajectory – suffer unnecessarily.

Finally, there are the students who are keenly aware of how awkward is it to ask PIs the questions that everyone recommends one ask a PI, because it would require a level of candor and/or self-awareness for their responses to truly be useful. Both a candidate and an interviewer feel a strong pull to be less than candid, and present their ‘best selves’:

  • Student: “How’s funding in your lab?”
    • PI: “Terrible, I just found out my latest RO1 won’t be renewed. I’m really worried.”
  • Student: “What’s the time to graduation for students?”
    • PI: “Oh, somewhere between 6-8 years.”
  • Student: “Are you aware that the university average is five years?”
    • PI: “Yes.”

Where would an inquiring student even take a conversation from there even if PIs were that candid?  What’s even more strange to me is how insistent a number of people are that these questions aren’t awkward in the least. In article after article after podcast, the recommendation to root out this information is always the same, and a little difficult, considering the power differential between student and postdoc. In a world where it is understood that job candidates spin responses during interviews to make themselves look good, it’s unclear to me why people don’t seem to acknowledge that the PI might also feel an (unconscious) need to defensively deflect and spin.

So their funding situation is “dynamic with some promising leads,” the “average time for students to graduate 6-8 years, but for students ‘not afraid of hard work’ it could be five years,” and every PI’s conflict management style is rated Thomas Killman “Highly Collaborative“.   For these aware students, we wanted to give some suggestions about how to frame these questions to PIs and offer suggestions about how to get the answers to questions like these without directly asking the PI.

We designed our workshop like a career counseling appointment, giving first-year students who had just completed three rotations the space to think and talk and listen to themselves and their peers in a structured format. Participants would:

  1. identify the pros/cons of each of lab they rotated in of key facets (PI, funding, etc.)
  2. reflect on what elements are important to their productivity, health and long-term career goals
  3. consider their decision-making style (because how you make a decision is almost as important as the decisions you make. Your process needs to feel satisfying’)

This workshop is part of a three-part approach designed to educate students on how to choose a lab throughout the year:

  1. September: OCPD introduces criteria for students to consider in choosing a lab before they begin rotating.
  2. April: Associate Students of Graduate Division (ASGD) holds a ‘Choosing a Thesis Lab” panel, to hear later stage students share their perspective and experience in choosing a lab right as their finishing up their third rotation.
  3. May-June: OCPD follows up on the ASGD panel with our  ‘Choosing a Thesis Lab: Considering Your Options’ Workshop, giving students a chance to systematically brainstorm their options with peers.

Ultimately, the skill we’re trying to develop is professional discernment; in this case, self-awareness about what work environments one thrives in, the ability to assess different lab environments based on meaningful criteria, and how to identify internal and external barriers that could blind bright students to the opportunity that is the best fit for them (like an over-emphasis of the attraction of working in a prestigious lab, or the downplaying over personal preference and lab fit for research area).

We received some positive feedback after our workshop (in particular, appreciation for the pairing of a panel with the workshop, and the chance to consider their options in a structured format), but we’re still tinkering.

For example, students who knew that all three rotations weren’t right for them were looking for help in determining next steps and seemed to find the conversations about the systemic issues affecting choice (who decided that 3 the right number of labs to rotate in, anyway?) and the impact of personal decision-making preferences more useful than taking the time to reflect on the three labs that they had already discarded. So, we’ll probably be tinkering with it some more, but are convinced that a choosing a thesis lab panel benefits from being paired with self-reflection/brainstorming workshop.

Finally, definitely offer lunch. No one makes a good decision on an empty stomach.