It is hard to know how to pick a group to work with or even what things you should be on the look for when deciding on a research project. Whether part of your undergraduate degree, work experience or choosing a lab for your PhD, there are some things you might want to consider before making your decision and this list might help you out.
1. Consider whether this is really something you want to do, particularly if it is a PhD! Laboratory research can be really difficult both mentally and physically at times. It probably won’t be a 9-5 job and you may have to work strange hours depending on your project. The thing I like to tell people to consider is why they want to finish this project, not why they want to start it. Starting is easy, it’s the doing and finishing parts that are tricky bits! Make sure you are doing this for the right reasons before going ahead.
2. Work out what you are interested in studying. The topic you pick is going to take up a lot of your time once you commit to it, so it may as well be something you are interested in, right? This doesn’t have to be specific down to the very last detail, but maybe you’re interested in immunology, or plants or DNA! Find whatever sparks interest and excitement in you and then look for a project that has something to do with that area. The more you enjoy your work, the more motivated you will be and the more likely you are to succeed!
3. Find out what the group is like. Ok, so you’ve found a few projects you like and now you need to pick one. Have a look at the research the group is putting out, what is their publication record like? If you are new to the field or don’t feel comfortable making these judgements yourself, seek help from somebody more senior than you who can help you through this part. You don’t need to pick a lab that is publishing solely high impact factor papers (this is often field specific) but at least ensure that they are putting work out there because you want to work in a group where things get done, not a group that is stagnant.
4. What is the group leader/your potential supervisor like? It is really important to have a good relationship with your supervisor as they will play a large role in how your project and your time in the group goes. You should be able to communicate with your supervisor and trust that they have your best intentions in mind, not just their own. Chat to some of the people working in the group and find out what the group leader is like and whether they get along. Most importantly find what works for you. Some people like a really hands on supervisor others like to be left to work through things themselves and either is fine so long as you end up in the environment that best suits your working style.
5. What is the rest of the group like? Much like knowing what the group leader is like, the rest of the lab and the general lab environment is so important. Firstly, because you will be seeing a lot of them it is definitely good if you get along with one another, but secondly these people can help you and you want to feel comfortable asking people to show you the ropes.
6. If the lab is part of an institute, consider what that place is like, or is part of a university, what that environment can give you. Do they offer support academically and otherwise to their students? Will you be made to feel welcome and part of the team? Labs at universities and labs at institutes both have their advantages and disadvantages, so asking the right questions about either can help you make your decision about what will be the best fit for you.
7. Will you have the opportunity to go to presentations, seminars, conferences? These are all really great ways to meet other scientists and see what is happening outside of your usual space. Most places will encourage you to attend these luckily so shouldn’t be an issue, but If you don’t get the opportunity to do this, I probably would consider looking elsewhere.
8. Are scholarships available? You want to be able to survive as well as complete your research and maybe that means the lab will pay you or maybe they know or scholarships or bursary’s available. Depending on your situation this might be really important for you so sometimes it’s best to ask up front.
Ok, so you’ve considered these things and found a lab and a project that ticks all the right boxes for you? Go get em!