The Chemist: Picking the Right Research Group

Hey Everyone! This week we decided to talk about our criteria to pick the right job, well in my case the right research group. For all of my soon-to-be graduate students choosing an advisor is practically the most important decision you have to make in grad school. This is the person that's going to be writing your letter of recommendation letter, whose research you'll be doing for at least 5 years, the person that's going to mentor and guide you during your journey, and the person who ideally will have your back and support you to your committee members. I've had to choose an advisor twice, once in undergrad at Pitt and then when I got to OSU. For me, the criteria I used to join the Meyer lab was the same criteria I used to join the Badu lab. Here's what I considered.

Advisor Mentorship Style

This is the first thing I considered when choosing my research group. You want to make sure your mentee style matching well with how your potential advisor mentors. I'm fairly independent when it comes to research so I knew I needed an advisor that would let me explore the science. I also needed someone I could go to for advice if I got stuck. What I love about my current advisor is that he's really good at adapting to our needs. He knows that he can give me a list a things to get done, because I'm good at multitasking, and in a few weeks I'll report back. I'm not the type that needs to meet with him on a weekly basis. A lot of times we have impromptu meetings in the hallway or on the elevator and he'll ask for an update. He also has an open door policy and I can always just go in there and ask him questions and he'll help me talk through concepts or experiments. He's also the type that doesn't really mind when we come into the lab, as long as we're producing, he's happy. Our relationship is such that he trusts the work I'm doing and knows that I'm going to exhaust every avenue possible before saying something doesn't work or that I'm stuck. He knows what I'm capable of, a lot of times before I do, and he pushes me to be the best scientist I can be.

Available Research Projects

This one is important! One thing you have to realize is that not every project on an advisor's website is something they're actively working on. Funding dictates a lot of the research going on in a group so being upfront and asking a potential advisor what projects are available is crucial. You want to make sure that what they're pursuing aligns with your research interests. Yes, graduate school is hard and I'm really open about that, but the one thing that keeps me going is the fact that I love my projects. When my advisor and I had our first meeting I asked him what projects he had available for students to work on and I basically called dibs on the one I'm focused on. Long story short, I'm developing a new platform for mass spectrometry. It also has a lot of wiggle room to branch out into other applications, different from the one he was interested in at the time, which I'm currently exploring now. You want to always think long term about the research project you're interested in because you'll be working on some variation of it throughout graduate school. A lot of times you'll get other smaller projects along the way, but those won't come until after you've picked a group.

Group Dynamics

This is one of those criterion that's flexible. The group dynamic when you join a lab is bound to change because people graduate and new people join your lab roughly every year. What you do what to consider, however, is the group dynamic when you join a group. I was looking for a group that actually talked to each other and was helpful. I didn't want to feel like I was alone on an island, I wanted to actually build relationships with my group members. The people that are in your lab are the people you see all day, everyday so you don't want it to be awkward - at least I didn't want to work in that type of environment. Everyone's different so if you're the type that is completely fine with going in, getting your work done, and going home, look for groups with that type of dynamic. Personally, I need human interactions and I wanted to work with people I actually like and my group gives me that. Some of us hang out on the weekends, go to lunches/happy hours, and they're extremely helpful. I can always turn to anyone in my group and ask a question if it's something I don't know and they can do the same with me.

Other Resume Building Opportunities

The last thing I'll share with you all is look for a group that'll give you other opportunities that look good on your resume. Does this group participate in outreach? Is there the potential to mentor undergraduate students? How often do they typically publish or present their research? All of these things are important to have on your resume or CV when it's time to graduate. My current group publishes fairly regularly (a few times a year as a group), a few of us have undergraduate students working with us in the lab (I've had 4 total and even had 2 high school students work with me over the summer), we participate in Breakfast of Science Champions (an outreach event for middle school students), and I typically present my research twice a year. Graduate school is about the research, yes, but you also want to make sure that's not all you're doing. Publishing and presenting at conferences is essential so you want to make sure you join a group where that's possible - some projects take longer to complete than others so make sure you account for that if you're looking into more biological or organic research.

I hope this was helpful for those that are looking to join a research group. What other things do you look for when joining a team for work or school? Tweet me some responses!

- The Chemist