How to Choose the Right Lab: Advice from Someone Who Didn't

One of the biggest stresses in the life of many first-year chemistry graduate students is choosing a lab. Although many factors go into completing a successful Ph.D. program, this early choice is one of the biggest ones. Whether it’s before you begin your graduate program, after completing several research rotations, or through any other mechanism, choosing a lab in which to complete your Ph.D. is no small task.

This decision will have a huge impact on the projects you work on, the places you spend your time, and the people you spend your time with over the next five or more years. In my experience, there’s a lot of pressure on grad students to find the right lab, but there’s not enough easily accessible advice about how to do it.

Perfection Is a Myth

First, I want to dispel the myth of finding a flawless lab. Many people agree that no lab is faultless; however, there’s still a lot of talk about choosing the ideal fit. Although it’s important to find an environment in which you can survive and—ideally—thrive, I don’t believe that means looking for the perfect lab, or even the perfect lab for you.

Choosing the right lab is more like developing a close friendship than looking for a soulmate. There are many options that can work for you. A few possibilities will be automatically disqualified because there are, unfortunately, some labs that are inherently problematic. Toxic workplaces do exist. Of course, you want to avoid these environments. Aside from them, as in choosing people to pal around with, it’s important to consider factors that are neither right nor wrong but will still have an impact on your experience.

Midway through my second year of graduate school, I realized I wasn’t in the right environment. The lab I initially thought was a good fit for me—that I had been working in for months—turned out not to be what I needed. Ultimately my Ph.D. found a happy ending thanks to a fresh start in a different group, but the path to getting there was not a smooth one. Here’s what I wish someone had told me when I was starting out that might have saved me some of the pain I experienced.

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