A Brief thought on Choosing a Program

Nov 03 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There are lots of concerns about choosing a PhD program, the least of which is choosing to do a PhD. But I saw an advert, on twitter, to go work in an "exciting" lab. Yes, the lab is exciting, and in many ways, including the science.

But, I know the PI. Somewhere between "know of" and "talked with".  And I don't have first hand info, there certainly have been concerns swirling around this person for a while. He (yes, its a he) is one of those that women warn other women about. "Nothing actionable" they say "but, be careful, and don't ..."

Which raises the point, do your due diligence. Talk to people. Ask the questions: how long does it take to get a degree in this lab, who gets to be first author, how many people leave this lab? Ask the people in the lab, and ask the people NOT in the lab, but in the program.

4 responses so far

  • Microscientist says:

    Here's what I tell my students. You need to find a program with multiple labs you are interested in. Because once you get there, you will find out that lab A has no space, lab B has no money, lab C the PI died and just hasn't been removed form the web site (true story), and lab D the PI is crazy. You need to have options left after all of those get whittled down.
    Your word of of warning falls into my PI is crazy category. Female students I have separate conversation for, where I tell them to ask careful questions. My PhD program there was one faculty member where the program director made the call that no female grad students would rotate through "Dr Rico Suave's" lab. For their own protection. We also knew to only go to "Dr. Suave's" office hours in a group, never alone. The sad but true reality.

  • ImDrB says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the previous advice. When I was a grad student (newly departed from teaching high school science), I came in as a 'free agent', meaning that I would officially be advised by the department head who would endeavor to partner me with a faculty member whose work meshed with my interests. The woman with whom I was eventually placed was the most difficult human being with whom I have ever worked. I struggled, but I survived to finish that degree. And I learned SO very much.

    I have since gone away from and returned to my degree granting department, and now advise graduate students. Currently, I have an all-female lab group. It was not deliberate, but it has given me the opportunity to be the type of advisor that my advisor was not. And there is one overarching piece of advice that I tell every student I encounter.

    ALWAYS, always, always talk to the students who went before you, away from the influence of their advisor. It's the only way to get the real story.

  • cjb says:

    The advise from previous posters is spot on. Pick a program, not a lab, whenever possible. My PhD program had 100+ faculty participating, but the number that could actually fund students any given year, that you wanted to work with, and that were interested in working with you was a small number.

    Do your due diligence researching your options/rotations (confidentially talk to past and present trainees and employees), trust your gut, and don't assume you can go into a situation and expect that it will be different for you or that you can change it.

  • Agree 100%. I tell my students that they should pick a PhD program where they have at least 3 options for an advisor, and that they should visit the department if at all possible. If not possible, they should at least speak with potential advisors and current students.

    When I was looking at grad schools, the whisper network was alive and well. At each school I visited, a current female grad student would pull me aside and tell me who I should not be alone with. I have no idea if this still happens. At ProdigalU, I know of no current profs who need this warning, but some of the emeritus profs give me pause. This, of course, does not mean it does not happen, but whisper networks tend not to percolate up hierarchies.

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