What to look for when choosing a lab/supervisor (Principal Investigator)

The choice of a lab and supervisor is critical for undergraduates entering grad studies. Up to the present, choices have been relatively clear. There are many quality Graduate Schools in Canada (and the US), with Neuroscience programs that have a broad range of subspecialties. Many of these options meet or fit in to a student’s interests and career goals.
The choice of supervisor (PI) and lab, however, will define one’s Graduate school experience. My lab enabled me to think more creatively and introduced me to new skills and new technology, while exploring many interesting aspects in neuroscience.
It may be quite a challenge to determine the ‘right lab’, as a brief interview and lab tour are the foundation of this process. Your commitment may last 2-7+ years. It will affect future studies and career. What questions should you ask? What should you look for? This blog’s purpose is to highlight important features to consider when choosing a lab. There are four major considerations in selecting a supervisor: the importance of a PI; qualities of a PI; lab size; and student input via opinions and experiences.

Importance of a PI

The quality of a PhD is determined by the student. A good PI smoothes the process. It may be easier to publish under some PIs than others. Some senior PhD students mention how they are primary authors on 5 papers in addition to multiple co-authorships. Others may only have 1-2 first authorships and take longer to graduate. This does not reflect on student or PI quality. Projects vary in complexity. PIs may divide research over multiple papers, while others insist on novel technological developments. A student that is required to develop a method of MR imaging, or develop a new genetic engineering technique, before applying it to a disease may require several years before their first publication. This increases if their supervisor insists on publication in high impact journals, and the student conducts and analyzes data with little outside help or collaborations. These complex projects increase the length of a degree: master’s degrees may extend to 3 (or more) years, while PhDs may be 7+ years. A lengthier degree is neither better nor worse than a shorter degree. The extra years aren’t relevant if a student has developed a valuable set of skills, with high-powered publications to add to their CV. Ideally, the project stretches the student while enabling a reasonable number of publications. It is important for a student to understand a lab environment before entering it.

Qualities of a PI

Be aware of a PI’s area of interest. You must possess a flexibility of mind. Select a lab for which your skills are suited. If you are initially interested in studying Alzheimer’s, other conditions or diseases may also be acceptable. A supervisor should be accessible, and have the appropriate resources to assist students in directing their research. Ideally, a PI is an appropriate mixture of hands-on and hands-off. They allow you to develop as an independent researcher, while ensuring the project remains on-track and focused. Most labs send their students to conferences to present their findings, which provide an opportunity to network and present. The number of conferences should not be the determining factor. More important qualities are whether a PI’s temperament fits in with your personality, and the variety and potential of projects. These are the factors which determine the quality of the Graduate School experience, not attendance at an extra conference abroad.

The Lab Size

Generally, smaller labs allow greater student access to the supervisor. Larger labs have more equipment, more project choice, and possibly more collaboration opportunities. These factors may seem important, and often are, but a PhD candidate is mainly focused on a single project. For all the opportunities a large lab may offer, you may only be able to take advantage of a few.

Student Opinions

To determine whether a supervisor is a potential fit, inquiries of current/former lab students may be beneficial. A PI may introduce a potential student to current lab members, and provide email addresses. Connection with these individuals, or other outsiders, can be useful.

 

Joe Steinman

BSc (Chemical Physics, Trent)

MSc (Medical Biophysics, U of T)

PhD candidate (Medical Biophysics, U of T)

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