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Picking an Advisor: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

After picking a graduate program, the next big decision for a first-year graduate student is picking an advisor. One of the factors to consider in this decision is the academic age of the Professor and his or her lab. Do you want to work for the energetic Assistant Professor that joined the department last year, or go for the seasoned Full Professor with a twenty year history of training young scientists? Here I’ll break down the general pro’s and con’s of these labs, and perhaps give you some new things to think about in the process.

The new Assistant Professor

The Good: A young Professor is almost certainly going to have a small lab, and in the first couple of years he or she is probably going to actually be in the lab, working beside you. They will be heavily invested in your success, since he or she is unlikely to be successful themselves if you flounder or fail. The amount of personal attention will likely be very high, and when snags are encountered, they will be tackled head-on, possibly by the Professor themselves. In addition, an Assistant Professor still has a strong sense of ‘lab-time’, the amount of time it actually takes to accomplish a particular experiment, keeping expectations reasonable. Since the Professor has likely spent several years laying out the foreseeable path of his or her research, the research goals and milestones are well defined. The research topic is going to be ‘hot’, since hiring committees aren’t likely to hire someone proposing to start their career on a well-worn path, and the Professor will probably be energetic, which can lend a sense of energy and excitement to the lab, making it a place you want to be even when your experiments aren’t going well.

The Bad: The young Professor likely came to where he or she is – the manager of a laboratory – without any formal or structured training in management. You are one of their first employees, and they are about to develop a management style by trial and error. Lucky you. To make matters worse, developing that management style probably isn’t their top priority. In addition, all that personal attention and investment in your success can add up to a lot of pressure, real or only perceived. Suddenly a grant deadline looms, and that assay you’ve been developing has to be working in two weeks. Many who work in these labs really like their advisor, and can start to feel responsible for the success (ie – tenure) of their mentor, which can be heavy responsibility to bear as a graduate student. In addition, the lab may go through some periods where funding is very tight. During these times, experiments may have to be designed around the price of the reagents (even more so than they normally are) and you may be required to serve as a teaching assistant beyond the normal requirements for your program, both of which could unnecessarily lengthen your graduate career.

The Ugly: Some young Professors only management experience is supervising undergraduates or technicians, and they might attempt to supervise graduate students the same way – with very little room for independence or independent growth. Some Assistant Professors move the paper train along by taking their students data and writing the papers themselves. In most career paths scientific communication is (arguably) even more important than the ability to design and execute a well controlled experiment, so while this practice is faster, it does a great disservice to the student. Some young Professors can be so distracted by their other duties, dismissive of the value of management, or just so naturally ungifted at management, that the lab becomes a completely dysfunctional environment before anything is done about it.

What to look for: You have little, if any, history to draw on here, so your information likely has to be first hand. When you rotated in the lab, did the Professor have a clear plan, or did he or she seem to be making it up as they went along? The later could be a concern. Did they maintain a professional distance in their interactions with you, or did they try to be ‘one of the guys’? It takes a very special person to effectively lead while still being ‘one of the guys’, and it is unlikely that a managerially-inexperienced Professor is going to pull it off. Before you join a lab, you can sit down with a prospective mentor and ask what their philosophy is on graduate training and manuscript preparation. If they don’t seem to have clear ideas or plans that they can articulate on the spot, then you should be concerned. Working in a young lab can be exciting and rewarding, but make sure you are being trained, and aren’t simply a tool that the Assistant Professor uses to gain tenure.

The seasoned Full Professor

The Good: This Professor has already passed through the chaos of establishing the lab and his or her own career. They probably have a larger lab with lots of equipment, senior graduate students, and postdocs – in other words, resources outside of themselves. Many have two or more grants, lending a certain level of economic security in the lab. They have a system for training graduate students and running a laboratory that has evolved over time to create a functional environment. They have publishing experience and a reputation that both contribute to getting manuscripts published in respected journals. If they are highly regarded in their field, then some of that reputation will rub off onto you and perhaps make finding a postdoc a little easier. What you are doing isn’t necessarily the key to the future of the lab, so you are more likely to be given the time and independence to develop the project and yourself. All in all, a very stable environment.

The Bad: While there are certainly many exceptions, sometimes all that stability comes at the expense of energy and excitement in the lab. The lab may be working on something that was cutting-edge 20 years ago when the lab was started, but may not be now. You may be working in a system that the field seems to have left behind, or working out the details of a process that was discovered one postdoc and two graduate students ago. These projects may be relatively safe, but unlikely to turn heads at a meeting and may not be motivating enough for intellectual adrenaline junkies. The independence you have can also have a dark side – time can start to stretch out while the Professor patiently waits for you to solve one technical hurdle after another. It isn’t uncommon for the lab management to have evolved via lowest common denominator (simply banning anything that somebody once complained about), leaving the lab heavily regimented with lab rules and a less than energetic and creative environment.

The Ugly: While senior Professors have a management style, it isn’t always a good one. Some tire of managing all the group dynamics in a lab, and start viewing their trainees as children whose behavior is simply an obstacle to research. Consequently, a very patronizing style develops that may actually hinder the development of professional behavior of the trainees. You can get lost in the crowd, not only of the current crop of lab members, but with those from the past. One Professor that I knew routinely called one of his graduate students by the wrong name – which he usually ‘apologized’ for by saying “Oh! Well, yes of course I know your name – you just remind me of him.” Some seem to give up any active role in mentoring at all, and view the tenure of the graduate student in his or her lab as simply an opportunity for the student to prove themselves, not unlike teaching someone to swim by tossing them into a lake and merely observing the results.

What to look for: The best way to determine if you will be happy in a well established lab is simply to talk to the current lab members. Ask how happy they are, and how they would characterize their interactions with their advisor. Ask about the general traits of people who have been successful and happy in the lab, as well as those who struggled. Then take an honest look at yourself and ask which group you’re most similar to. If there is a history of dysfunction in the lab and the current lab members aren’t happy, walk away. There is a real “But I’m special” syndrome that many first year graduate students contract that causes them to ignore history and join dysfunctional labs. In the end, it invariably turns out that they weren’t as special as they thought, and have all the same problems as the people before them did.

What I’ve painted here are the two opposite ends of the spectrum, and Associate Professors can fall anywhere in between. Some have the positives of both groups with few of the negatives, and sadly some seem to have only the negatives of both groups. In addition, all labs and Professors are different, so don’t make any assumptions based on a Professor’s academic age. (I’ve know Assistant Professors with two large grants working next door to a Full Professor struggling to get one grant funded; Assistant Professors that are natural leaders while some Full Professors that ‘mentor’ with curse-laden diatribes; et cetera, et cetera.) Gather all the information you can from your rotations keeping in mind some of the issues I’ve discussed above, then determine which environment fits you best.

If there are any other aspects of a new versus established Professor that a student should consider before joining their lab, please add them in the comments!

12 Comments

  1. 1o year in science on January 15, 2016 at 10:29 am

    Primary rule: if the lab is named after last name of PI e.g. Smith lab, run away

  2. Matt Plantinga on July 26, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Many PhD programs in the USA (at least in the biological sciences) include laboratory rotations during the first year, which are basically “try-outs”. The student chooses 2-3 labs, and if the professor is willing, the student spends a semester/quarter in the lab. This gives the student a chance to see if they will fit into the lab culture, what the professor is like as a mentor, and what sort of work is done in the lab. At the end of the rotations, the student can then approach the PI that most interests them, and if all works out, be able to join that lab. I think that these rotations can be incredibly helpful. The information you provided is also invaluable, and can even be applied to choosing labs for rotations. Of course, the rotation system only works if the PIs are kind enough to reject rotation students if they don’t have the money to actually support them; that way, nobody wastes a rotation on a lab they can’t join.

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