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Before you choose your PhD research field, consider this…

In the next few posts, we will examine one of the most important decisions in grad school: Selecting a research group to join. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

  • Your previous life does not matter. Your research as an undergrad is an excellent head-start into your PhD. But it should not dictate your PhD. This is perhaps the most common mistake by first-year graduate students. While you do have some experience, you are not an expert yet. Do not get too attached to your senior undergrad course or your Master’s thesis. There are lots of choices ahead. So keep an open mind, because this decision will shape the rest of your life.
  • Okay, your previous life does matter a bit. You might have signed up for grad school because you care deeply about a specific project or because of your earlier research success. Great! Embrace your preferences, as long as you keep an open mind to other options. Also, your previous experience can say a lot about what you do not like. For example, if advanced organic chemistry was your weak point in undergrad, then seek your pleasures elsewhere.
  • Narrow your search. As a first filter, create a shortlist of 3-6 professors who work in a broad science field that interests you. Decide on a broad enough field such as “energy science” or “materials science” instead of restricting your choice to say “graphene nanosheets for enhanced performance of lithum-ion batteries”. You will not be ready to make an informed decision at first glance. And you do not want to eliminate good options. 
  • Make the most of lab rotations. Many programs require you to go through “lab rotations” before you decide on a research group. The way this works is that you spend some time (two to eight weeks) with a group and learn what their work is about. You might even get your own mini-project. Then you switch to another group and do the same. This is the best possible way to learn your preferences and make an informed decision. In addition to seeing first-hand how the research is like, you will get to spend time with some of the more senior group members and ask them (courteously) about the research field and their career plans. Treat this process as an opportunity, not as a boring chore. If your program does not require you to do a rotation, do something of that sort anyway. Simply approach a couple of professors you are genuinely interested in and meet with some of their students.  
  • Do not waste your time or anyone else’s. Time is precious. If you are not genuinely interested in joining a particular group, do not just meet with the professor and have them explain their work for 45 minutes only to leave after the meeting and not come back for the next five years. 1) It’s not nice. 2) People can see through the fake interest. 3) This will create some awkward moments when you meet in the hallway over the next several years.
  • Consider the job market. There are other things to consider, beyond your personal interests. Not all PhD fields create the same opportunities. True, companies sometimes just want a smart problem-solver who can work in a team and communicate effectively. But more often than not, they want someone with a specific skillset. And it is not enough to have a random PhD if you want a specific job. Ask around and study the market landscape. Take advice from senior students, postdocs, and professional blogs. Some of the market trends are easier to foresee than others. For example, data science and cyber-security are rapidly emerging fields that will not wither and die anytime soon. If you want a job in the tech industry, those are relatively safe options. That being said, smart and motivated students eventually do find a way to get the job they want (or want the job they have), but let’s not kid ourselves that finding jobs is super-easy. 
  • Consider the strengths of your institution. Your PhD program might be renowned for a specific research field. For example, the department might have an instrument suite for cutting-edge research in neuroscience. Or it might have a strong tradition in polymer science or nanotechnology. Or it might be closely linked with a national lab or user facility that specializes in magnetism or renewable energy or whatever. Those advantages are definitely worth considering. Think of it this way: Your future prospects will improve if you are a top student from the top specialty of your institution.

Here’s the PhDeal. This is what you will be working on for at least ~5 years, so you might as well choose something you enjoy. It does not have to be what you dreamed of since you were a kid. Things are never that idealistic. But it has to be the type of research problem that you imagine yourself caring about, and is not repulsive to you. Your passion is for science in general, not yet for an ultra-specific research problem. That will come in time. But you need to be at least comfortable with your decision, because it will live with you for a long time…

These steps will help you with the pre-screening of your research preferences. Now for more details on selecting the professor…

Before you choose your PhD advisor, consider this…

Okay, it’s not like you’re getting married. But choosing your advisor is a really really consequential decision. This person will influence your career and life, at least for the next few years. Here are some factors to consider: 

  • Will you enjoy the science? Obviously, this is the main criterion.
  • Do they publish? Of course they do. But how often and how good? Check out their record on Google Scholar or Web of Science. Do not just count the papers, see if they are publishing in high impact journals. Also check how many papers their recent graduates have published. This will not give you any guarantees for your own PhD career, but might inform you on what to expect. Sadly, caring too much about publication records and metrics like the “H-index” (look it up) is incredibly unhealthy for science. None of these metrics will give you an idea about how much you will enjoy the science. But hey, we live in the real world. You need to know if students in that group have decent publication records, because that is important for future job prospects.
  • Do they have active research grants? One way to find out is to ask. But you can also look it up. Check info on their research website. Also, federal agencies like the National Science Foundation have a public record of their grants. Simply go to their website and look up the advisor’s name. Here is why having money in the lab is a good thing:
  1. You would not have to teach all the time, since you can be a research assistant and earn your stipend from the grant. While it is important to gain some teaching experience, you want to focus on your research as much as possible. Of course, some students prefer to have as much teaching experience as possible, which makes this a non-issue. (Medium importance, but depends on your own preferences).
  2. You will not have to worry too much about tailoring your experiment to limited supplies, chemicals, instrument time, and equipment. This is only true to some extent, as you will not have an unlimited amount of money anyway. Plus it is important to learn proper lab management and not be wasteful in purchasing chemicals. (Low importance)
  3. You will have a bigger chance of going to good conferences. Attending conferences will be crucial for network building, learning new science, and landing a future job. Do not underestimate the value of conference. In fact, when deciding to join a group, ask how often the students get to attend conferences. (Very important)
  • Where do their students end up? Some PIs have a solid record of landing their students an industry job, others can help them find a good postdoc position. This is clearly not zero sum; some professors simply have better connections overall. Have a look at the current job status of the group alumni. Their names are typically posted on the professor’s website, and you can probably figure out their current jobs with a quick online/LinkedIn search. As much as you like to be pure and passionate about science, you live in the real world. And you definitely want to consider future job prospects. Of course, no one will simply hand you a job because of a certain PI. You still have to earn it. 
  • How many years will you need to graduate? Very important. The typical duration for a PhD in the USA is 5 years, a bit more if your research is in the life sciences. You can sometimes graduate a bit earlier if you have a job lined up. Or maybe a bit later if you are still job-hunting. If your plan is a job in academia, you might prefer to stay an extra semester until those last couple of studies mature into publications. Anyway, the main question is how the graduation time in your group compares to the average in the department, and whether students tend to stay longer because of the nature of the research. Then you need to judge how important that is to you.
  • What do their students say? When you are stuck between two choices, you want to get that extra nudge to finalize your decision. You can talk with some of the students in those groups and get a feeling for waht the work is like. Do not expect them to tell you: “It’s horrible, run away if you can… you have been warned… fly you fools.” But you can still get some important information. Here are some questions to ask:
  1. What are the main things you like and dislike about working in this group?
  2. Why did you decide to join this group?
  3. How often do you do group meetings? 
  4. Do you go to many conferences?
  5. How often do you take vacations?
  6. How often are you a teaching assistant, and a research assistant?
  7. What type of instruments or techniques do you operate regularly? And what other techniques did you learn?
  8. What kind of job are you interested in after you graduate?
  9. What professional skills did you develop in this group that you wouldn’t have elsewhere?

Here’s the PhDeal. All of the above are valid points to consider. But the clincher is to talk directly to the professor. Here are some items to discuss:

  1. Do you have a vacancy for this particular project that I like?
  2. What is expected of a graduate student in your group? Of course, I am ready to work as hard as possible, but is there a general expectation?
  3. What kind of instruments or techniques will I learn? I am particularly interested in this instrument.
  4. Would I be a research assistant for some time? Or will I be teaching all the time?
  5. Will I have the chance to go to conferences?
  6. How often do the students meet or report to you?
  7. What will I be doing in the lab on day one?
  8. What are usually the career preferences for alumni from your group?
  9. Are there any department or external collaborations involved with this project?
  10. Can I sit in the group meeting next week?

These questions will give you a feeling of how your prospective professor thinks, and also show that you are serious about work from day one.

But that’s not all. Let’s go a little bit more in depth.

Is it a good idea to join the group of a new assistant professor?

Obvious disclaimer: The discussions here (and on this whole website, and in life, for that matter) are based on suggestions/advice/experience rather than solid expectations. So do not take anything here (and on this whole website, and in life) for granted! That being said, there are many advantages to joining a new assistant professor:

  • Steep but exciting learning curve. They will be with you, fighting in the trenches (rhymes with lab benches), because this is a critical time for their career as well. You will get pro-tips and details on experiments. They might even be doing experiments themselves. Besides learning a lot, there is added value from the professor being more “in-touch” with your project. They might tend to value your work more. After all, they have been through this not so long ago. If an experiment fails, they will more easily understand why it did. 
  • Publishing is a must. Clearly, a new assistant professor needs to get those publications out. Publishing top quality papers is absolutely necessary for them to secure tenureship. There is always a feeling of freshness and efficiency in a young research group. In a way, the work must be done, and must be published. Not that you will get those papers for free. On the contrary, you will probably have to work even harder to get there. 
  • Building the lab. You will learn a lot from the fun (and very tiring) experience of setting up a lab from scratch. You might even have a say in what instruments are purchased. Or assist in installing them. You will see the workplace grow from an empty space to a buzzing lab. This can create a special bond with your professor as one of their first students. Exciting times! Every step the group members take is new and interesting. Mind you, it is also a lot of hard work…
  • Start-up funds. A new assistant professor will usually have a start-up grant from the department. The objective is to set up the lab quickly and efficiently, to begin producing top-quality science. As such, you might have the chance to be a research assistant instead of a teaching assistant. This will help you focus more on your research work, and not be pegged back by teaching duties at this critical stage. On another note, the professor will seek external grants from funding agencies. You might be involved in writing or editing those proposals. Great, more work! Actually, this will give you a first-hand look into how a research proposal is prepared and submitted. You would also understand the research vision of your professor and how your own project fits into the larger scheme.

However,

  • Does this group have less visibility? A young and rising professor will need time to build their career and reputation. And you will not benefit from a deep network of connections built over years and years. Counterpoint 1: This is not necessarily bad. When you graduate, you can earn yourself a good postdoc position with a big name (professor’s former PI?). Counterpoint 2: A new professor is typically very active and has “fresher” network of connections that can provide opportunities for collaborations and future jobs. 
  • Too much stress? There is no easy way of predicting if this will be a factor. No one can tell for sure if stress levels correlate with the professor being new or well-established. It really comes down to the nature of the professor and the group members. But you could be working harder than expected because of the extra pressure to publish. Remember that excitement we talked about? It can easily devolve into more tension than excitement. But you’re up for it, right? 
  • Less collaborations? A new professor is usually reluctant to jump into collaborations immediately. They want to first establish the basics of their lab as quickly as possible, before launching into departmental, national, or international collaborations. Counterpoint 1: Then again, they will be bringing a new capability or expertise to the department, and might see some openings for rapid collaboration projects. Again, there are no general rules here. Ask about potential collaborations. Another issue is that you will not be picking up a half-finished project from a previous grad student who just graduated. Your projects will be starting from step one. Counterpoint 2: But your first project might be an extension of your professor’s recent post-doc work. So you never know how this will work out. 
  • Risk alert! What if the professor does not get tenured? That’s not good. You would have invested a lot of time and energy into building a particular skillset. And now you need to change your research field or even your graduate program. Wrapping up quickly and graduating would not be great either: your advisor will no longer be in a professorship position to recommend you in the future; a big disadvantage. So there is an element of a risk to it… Counterpoint: Keep in mind though that the overwhelming majority of assistant professors do get tenured. After all, the department is not investing time and money in a professor in the hope that they do not succeed.

Here’s the PhDeal. Go for it! This group will be exciting, intense, and productive.  

What about the opposite side of the spectrum? Is it a good idea to join a very large group with a senior professor?

Is it a good idea to join a senior professor with a very large group?

Let’s look at the benefits:

  • Established science. Reading their best papers is already a steep and exciting learning curve. You will soon be part of those papers. Of course, the other PIs also run good research programs; they’re there for that exact reason. But it’s good to be part of a group that has a long history and proven record.
  • Name recognition. Senior professors are usually well-connected and already established in their research field. This could be a significant boost in your future job search. Their recommendation letter weighs a lot. They might have already placed several group alumni in research positions, and they know what it takes. Note that the main criterion in hiring new research faculty is often their graduate or postdoc advisor, in addition to their institution.
  • More room to think big? You might have the chance to go after more ambitious projects. Senior professors can afford to take risks and fail, because they are not worried about tenureship. Again, this is not a binding rule and will largely depend on your actual professor. Another possibility is that they get more offers for collaborations because of their name recognition. If you are lucky enough, you might even get to travel for a research visit!

However, the drawbacks are worth considering:

  • Higher standards for publishing. Wait is that a bad thing? Yes and no. At a later stage in their career, many senior professors (not all) are less excited about publishing. Or they might only be interested in top quality publications. This is great if you are super-hard-working and a little bit lucky. But it might also mean that you spend many years in grad school without a publication. A “decent” or “good” study might just not cut it for them, and they would deem it unworthy of publication. Of course, not everything is about publications. But you live in the real world. For them, it’s just another paper. For you, it might make or break your career. You do want to publish at the highest standards, but you also need the safety net of one or two solid papers in case your big ambitious project fails (or is not published in time for job applications). Check out their recent publication record.
  • Surprisingly less research money?! More senior professors might have less research money. They obviously do not have any start-up grants from the department and agencies such as the National Science Foundation often prefer to give grants to early-career scientists. Now the other part of this argument is that you will be part of an established lab anyway. Your group does not need to purchase new instrumentation just to get started. They can continue to drill out excellent science with the equipment they already have. Ask about their current funding status.
  • Mega-group culture. A senior professor might have a large research group with an army of postdocs, undergrads, and grad students. Depending on how the group is managed, this kind of competition can be healthy and beneficial for everyone involved. You would be bouncing ideas off of each other, learning from senior members, and urging yourself to produce top quality science in the tradition of your research group. You will also have more chances for internal collaborations and more successful projects. However, this environment can be completely unhealthy, if the atmosphere is negative and draining. You will also receive less time and attention from the main advisor. Oh yes. And your senior professor might be involved in administrative roles which means even less time for you. 
Here’s the PhDeal. Go for it! You have to be self-driven in a mega-group, but you are up for the challenge.

That being said, is a mid-career professor the safest choice?
Is it a good idea to join the group of a mid-career professor? … and final words

At this point, I should re-emphasize that this article series will not predict the future. Believe it or not, professors – just like other humans – cannot be sorted into rigid categories. Each person does their work differently. For example, regardless of their career stage, some professors are micro-managers while others are more hands-off. Do not take the information in these articles (or any other section, or anything in life for that matter!) at face value. Do your own research about the professors you are interested in.

For the case of a mid-career professor, you should know pretty much what to expect by asking the right people. The group will probably be producing a steady stream of good quality publications. By now, they have built a strong network of connections and developed some level of recognition in their research field. A tenured professor is expected to be in a faculty position for many years to come. In many ways, this is a safe choice.

Here’s the PhDeal. Ultimately, everything you read here does not count nearly as much as sitting face to face with your prospective advisor and discussing science. That should be your primary source of information and inspiration. Your decision should find the right balance between your research interests, your career goals, and your preferred work environment.

What if your first choice advisor does not have a vacancy for you?

Do not take this personally or think that you are not good enough. There is only a limited number of spots in each group. By the way, professors do not have deep superhuman judgment. And their decision to turn you down is not the end of the world. Time to start your new journey with a different group. In a few months, when you are settled with a new group, this will all be a distant memory. Always be proactive and positive. During your PhD, a lot more is in your hands than out of your hands.

Okay, what if you are stuck in a decision between two groups you really like?

Here is a reality we are not always comfortable with: A decision to do something is at the same time a decision to not do something else. You cannot be part of this exciting research group and that completely-unrelated-but-also-exciting research group. There are no half-decisions here. Just decisions. There is no “best of both worlds”. You have to let go of one of those worlds. Sure, the onus is on you to do the proper research before selecting your group. But beyond that, you will not predict the future. If you did, it would not be half as much fun. At this point, trust your gut feeling, and make a choice. Then start strong and remember: A lot of your career will depend on you regardless of this choice, and you will make the most of your chances. 

Do not worry about making the right decision. The right decision is the one you just made.

You just joined the research group, how do you choose your first project?

Congratulations on joining. Now the fun begins! The next few posts will describe the first steps with your new research group. Let’s talk about choosing your research project:

  • Start with a relatively safe project. On day one, you do not want to re-invent the wheel or go after some pie-in-the-sky. You should start with a project that follows a well-established line of research in your group. Bigger risks will come later in your PhD. This will get you settled more quickly, with a lower threshold to producing meaningful results. Soon, you will become familiar with the experiments, instruments, and academic life in general. Another option is to pick up a half-finished project from a group member who is graduating. 
  • Follow orders, but make your preferences clear. Especially at the start of your PhD, you want to do what your advisor suggests. Trust their experience, but at the same time, be very clear about your preferences. For example, say clearly that you want to work on simulations in addition to your experiments. Or that you intend to learn how to use a particular instrument because of your long term career plans. Voice your goals and opinions. Your advisor will understand. And you will become more comfortable in the long term.
  • What were working on again?! At this point, your advisor is explaining stuff about your project that you do not fully understand. Or even slightly partially kinda understand. Or even comprehend as English. Do not worry. Or actually… Worry a little bit, but not too much! The learning curve is very steep. You will have to do a lot of reading to catch up. Ask for advice from your group members. When you hit roadblocks, go back to your advisor and ask for clarification. Some of your questions will be cringe-worthy. Shrug it off. Soon enough you will become familiar with the project. And soon after that you will become the world-beating, universe-leading expert on this topic. And soon after that, you might even find a job! Do not let the early stages of your PhD make you feel inadequate or out of place. (That’s what the later stages of your PhD are for! Boom. Tiss. Tack! Kidding, just kidding. Folks that was clearly just a joke!).  
  • Once you’re off the mark, go! After you get some good data, you can start being more ambitious. You might build on your first project with the “next natural step”. Every science question you answer will raise a new question; actually tons of questions. You can also challenge yourself with a different (but relevant) research problem. You might prefer to run two projects at the same time: 1) a “safe” project that is good science, but not necessarily world-changing and 2) a more ambitious project that has a larger chance of failing, but a higher impact. In later posts, we discuss how to manage more than one project, how to make the best of your relationship with your advisor, and how to be independent but still productive.
  • Science being science, things are a bit more complex. Of course, there is no such thing as a genuinely “safe” project. If it is too safe, then it is not worth doing. Every interesting project has an element of risk to it. As a rule of thumb, remember this: Research projects will drag longer than expected. You might think that you will get in the lab and after one month BOOM get this result and then the next month BOOM get the next result and then BOOM BOOM write the paper and become rich and famous and incredibly powerful. The reality is much different. Even after your main result, there is still a long way to complete and publish the study. As long as you are working hard, be patient. 

Here’s the PhDeal. Once you take on a research project, your PhD has officially begun. But it is easy to be overwhelmed with the added load of your courses and teaching duties. Your focus will be split between many task. However, try to make time for your research as much as possible, and as soon as you join the group. Establish your lab space, get into your office, and work in the lab whenever you can. 

Next we discuss learning from your new colleagues. 

You just joined the research group, how do you interact with and learn from your colleagues?

Welcome to your new research family. We discuss your first steps using a list of surprisingly useful clichés.

  • First surprisingly useful cliché. Be friendly and passionate. This will be your workplace for five years. Make it pleasant and make it home. If there are any tensions in your group, elevate yourself above the politics. The sheer power of a fun character can transform the atmosphere of the whole group. This does not mean that you should fake something you are not. Simply be positive. 
  • Second surprisingly useful cliché. Be proactive. As much as you can, learn from everyone in the group. Take the initiative to become closer to your colleagues, while also not being intrusive. For example, kindly ask if you can meet with them to talk about their science. Be interested and not intimidated. 
  • Third surprisingly useful cliché. Continuity is vital for the group. The reason is simple: better communication between incoming and graduating students means more efficient research and papers for everyone. Do not be shy to ask senior grad students about experiments, analyses, and some of the administrative aspects of your PhD. They also asked others for help not so long ago. Always be sure to acknowledge their help and support. Also, do not ask for their assistance in every little detail after spending a grand total of two milliseconds thinking about it. Give things a good try that shows your commitment and independence, then ask for help whenever you need it. 
  • Fourth surprisingly useful cliché. Take responsibilities. Even from an early stage, do not shy away from taking responsibilities. These include updating the chemicals inventory, cleaning a certain lab area, writing a safety report, or preparing order forms for chemicals and supplies. When the group members are asked to volunteer for these tasks, take the initiative! For one thing, you will familiarize yourself more with the lab. You will also slowly build a reputation as a leader and a team player. Take some responsibilities. Someone has to do it. Everyone is busy. Not just you. 
  • Fifth surprisingly useful cliché. Not everything is “what’s in it for me?” Do not over-calculate things. If you do someone a favor, do not charge it to an imaginary account in your mind and argue later for a return favor. Just be a good team player and work hard. It generally comes back to you. A pleasant personality makes it easier for you to earn your rights. No one wants to pick a fight against a positive pleasant professional popular person. 

Surprisingly useful cliché conclusion. Here’s the PhDeal. There are so many people to meet, on top of all your teaching, studying, and research duties. Do not be too overwhelmed. Just be positive. Not because you are faking it, but because of you are genuinely excited about your career. 

Next we will discuss how you can start learning stuff… 

You just joined the research group, how do you learn stuff?

Everyone is busy. You want to be busy too. But you still don’t know how to do those experiments or operate that instrument. How do you learn stuff?

  • Request to shadow a more senior group member. The best way to learn from a group member is to observe as they do their work . You can courteously ask for pointers as they perform their experiments. It will not be too much of a hassle for them since they are doing the work anyway. In fact, some of them might even enjoy this.
  • Yes, shadow a more senior group member. Do not underestimate the importance of this. Do not lay it off completely because of your courses or teaching duties. Sometimes an afternoon of learning from a senior researcher can save you several months of troubleshooting later on. No kidding! Do not be dismissive of anyone’s work thinking that your work is completely different and not relevant. You are in the same research group after all. Be aware that the type of research you do will change over the next five years. Try to learn from everyone. 
  • Did I mention that you should shadow a senior group member? Do not delay. They will soon graduate and leave, or become even busier. Again, doing this might save you a whole year of failed experiments. Learn their tricks. Some tiny tricks and details are not described in a publication, but are crucial for an experiment to work! You want to learn those details, not simply a broad overview of the experiment. Take notes that you can understand and that will truly help you replicate the results. Do not just take notes for the sake of it.
  • In addition to shadowing, ask for personal training. You should make the best possible effort from your part to learn the skills you need. But many times, your effort alone is not enough. Do not hesitate to ask for specific help and training sessions. When you receive training, do not have the mentality of “Okay, let me get the general idea now, I will figure out the details later.” That never works. Instead think that “I should be able to operate the instrument just after receiving this training now.” We will discuss instrument training at length in a later post.
  • Study the research papers that your group has published. This will make learning the experiments much easier. You are going to read the group papers at some point anyway, so the sooner the better. Also, it will help your colleagues teach you at a deeper level. They would appreciate your interest and you would understand the details better. Reading their papers does not necessarily mean that you should be familiar with every tiny detail. Even they have already forgotten them! But it helps to know the general methods and the main conclusions. You want to quickly establish how your project fits in the general direction of the research group. And what research problem has been solved versus what is still an open question. And who’s doing what. All that good stuff.
  • Learn from group meeting. Always be curious. Do not be disinterested in a colleague’s presentation simply because they are working on a different project. There is always something to learn. Sometimes the interesting part to you is not even the main point of their talk. It might be a general concept that’s new to you or an introductory slide or a technical method they used. 
  • Visit your advisor. Do not hesitate to visit your advisor and ask questions. As long as you are trying your best, any question is reasonable. It is expected that you have many knowledge gaps as you start. You always learn something new from re-discussing the same topic with your advisor.

Here’s the PhDeal. You want to quickly develop a sense of who is an expert in what. Create a mental list of the points of contact for particular skills and techniques you need.When you are learning, you will not understand everything immediately. But do not worry. As long as you are doing your best, and keeping good notes, your skills will develop soon enough. In the meantime, do not be a drifter in the group, simply surviving on the bare minimum that is asked of you. Instead, be proactive and involved; always ready to take responsibility and contribute. 

Just do your best.