response to a reader
A reader and fellow mudphudder left this comment on my recent post on when I was dis’ed by a PI back when I was looking for a PhD lab:
So I read your latest post about getting snubbed by a PI (my worst nightmare.) I’m in the process of shopping for a rotation this summer. I’m an M2 now. I did one rotation prior to MS1 and one between MS1 and MS2. The first PI is bananas, the second one retired unexpectedly. So I gotta make the next one count. I have a few viable options. They all have R01’s so I’m not too worried about funding. One is doing research on the olfactory bulb, and since I plan to apply to ENT, this feels like a good option for me. However, this person has a teeny-tiny lab and publishes in middle-of-the-road journals. The main reason I am considering working there is because it’s ENT-related. Since my school has a small ENT department with no residency program, I feel like my app needs a shot in the arm that this could provide. I think I would be happy there also. Another guy is doing research that I think is absolutely incredible. I think about it and read about it just for yahoos. His publishing record hasn’t been great but he claims to have 3 manuscripts in the works. There are two other labs I am also interested in (sorry this is getting long but I have almost zero mentoring in my program). One is a small lab with an amazing PI that I get along really well with and I think would be a really good mentor. The research, however, isn’t particularly exciting to me, but perhaps that could change (?) Another lab is run by a well-know PI (in his field) using fancy-pants techniques that said he could get me out in 3 years unless I “really stunk.” Again, research topic is just “eh” to me. Any advice at all is appreciated! Also, not sure what you’re applying to, but since I’m interested in surgical subspecialties (namely ENT), I’m wondering if my research topic will matter at all to programs. No one has matched into ENT from my school in 15 years and the department is excited that I’m interested but kind of out of the loop about match stuff. Thanks so much for reading this beast of a message.
I feel for your situation. I knew another mudphudder who had a bad first lab rotation, the PI of his second rotation was world famous and then retired during this guy’s rotation. This mudphudder finally found a third lab to do a rotation in and where he was very happy. Moreover, the PI told him that he wasn’t retiring, moving, etc–i.e. that nothing was going to change. So this mudphudder joined the lab and six months later this mudphudder found out from a third party that his PI was moving to another university on the other side of the country. After all he had been through, this mudphudder ultimately ended up moving a few months into his PhD–spent the next few months doing nothing while his lab got settled at this new university and ultimately has ended up on the 9, maybe 10 year track. Which brings me to point #1: Don’t completely believe anything a PI tells you. Sorry–no offense to the PIs reading this post. But the bottom line is that if a PI has the opportunity to do something beneficial for his/her career, it will get done regardless of a graduate student’s or postdoc’s inconvenience. You know, education and all. Such an inconvenience! No one can reasonably argue the counter-argument. I make this point to get you thinking about the PI who told you that you would graduate in 3 years unless you “really stunk.” Let’s ignore for now the pathologic implications of the ”really stunk” part. Will that PI give you the 3 year deal in writing? Of course not. That PI may have a track record for putting out graduate students in 3 years, which makes it more likely that it will happen to you, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen to you either. If it’s not in writing, it’s not guaranteed. Especially if you are a student who has no recourse against a mightier PI.
Okay, now moving on to the subject of your PhD. First of all, ENT is a competitive residency to get, so I can understand the fact that you are taking that into consideration. But, in my opinion, the point of a PhD is to learn how to become a good researcher who can independently generate scientific questions and then figure out how to solve them in a systematic, organized way. Which brings me to point #2: For the purposes of your future in academia, I would argue that the subject of your PhD will make very very little impact. Many people I know who finished a PhD and then went on to a postdoc and later a faculty job did not follow in the steps of their graduate work. In fact, I think people who do their training in a completely different field and then take those skills to their ultimate career field have the potential to make much more impact. You may be thinking that doing an ENT-related PhD will help your chances for getting into an ENT residency. I don’t know if that is completely true. I think it probably helps a little but I don’t think that the pros significantly outweigh the cons, so I would put this consideration way down on your list of factors to consider. As a mudphudder you will be competitive regardless. If you are additionally motivated, you should take advantage of knowing what you want to do and do some little ENT-related clinical studies on the side during graduate school. Just make it clear that you are doing those projects in order to learn more about the field and that you will be doing the work on the side (i.e. your thesis work takes precedence during graduate school). But, if you stick with it, I bet you’ll land 3 or 4 ENT papers on top of your graduate school work just by doing that. Heck–I started doing clinical research on the side after I returned to wards (I’m talking during my surgery clerkship for example) and I’ll end up with a solid 5 clinical papers–4 first author out of it. So consider that possibility as well.
Point #3: In my opinion, you gotta be passionate about your graduate school research. That’s the only thing that got me through some dark times when nothing was working and it felt like no one on earth cared about my project except for me. I used to think about my work all the time–at the gym, watching T.V., etc. I really loved thinking about that problem, and I believed in the importance of it. In hindsight, if I hadn’t believed in what I was working on, it would have been really, really, really hard to put up with some of the stuff I put up with during graduate school. I’ve known people who pick labs just because of the lab and not necessarily the research. I think that’s a reasonable way of making your decision as well. But all of those people either ended up hitting it big or being really, really, really depressed. Think about it–if your project works out in a big-time lab then you’re the bomb. But if your project doesn’t work out in such a huge lab, you are likely to be forgotten, left behind and then you are stuck trying to work really, really hard on a project you feel “eh” on. The ideal would be if you can find a project in that super awesome lab that you are passionate about. (But always work on a project that your PI cares about–I wrote all about this before). Related to this, publication record is also a good metric to look at when evaluating possible thesis labs. If the lab published 1 paper per year and the first author of that paper is always a postdoc, then that may not be a very graduate student-friendly environment. I think as long as the PI is publishing good quality work frequently that is authored by graduate students, then that’s great. Of course Science papers may be better than Journal of Neuroscience papers, but it’s for you to decide how high to rank that factor in your decision making process.
To get back to finding lab rotations, I would not rule out doing a fourth rotation. Try talking to your graduate program director or MD/PhD program director about doing 2 shorter lab rotations if you want to explore two more labs. The point of a lab rotation is more to get a feel for the lab, the people and the work environment than to get substantial lab work done. You can argue that those objectives can be met in a shorter (e.g. 8wks, maybe 6wks if you want to push it) period of time. It is better to have some choices at the end of the day than it is to pick one lab and feel like you have to join it regardless of how the rotation works out. Also, always confirm beforehand that the PIs would have space for you to join the lab if you wanted to at the end of all of your rotations. That will save you a wasted rotation, but I make no guarantees…
This was a long post but this is an important process and decision–something that you will have to live with for the next 4-5 years (on average) of your life. I’ve made a some mistakes and some good (at least from my perspective) decisions along the way and have watched others do the same. I tried to draw from these experiences and I hope that at least some of this helps you.