What to consider when picking a research project.

As somebody who has been a part of five entirely different research projects in various labs over the years, I have had my fair share of different experiences when it comes to research projects. Having now settled in to a wonderful project at my current lab I thought I would share some of the things I think students should take in to consideration when looking for a suitable research, honours or PhD project.

  • What are you interested in studying? The topic you pick is going to take up a lot of your time from now on, so find something you are passionate or at least somewhat interested in. If you aren’t invested in your project, staying motivated will be a struggle and you will be less likely to want to spend time doing it.
  • What is the group like? Have a look at the research the group is putting out, their publication record etc. This may be hard to assess if you are not familiar with the area, so perhaps you could ask the opinions of lecturers or students at your university. It is important that you don’t end up in a group where nothing is getting done, otherwise you won’t have data for your project (less important for hons than PhD).
  • What is the laboratory head like? / What is your potential supervisor like? I seriously cannot stress how important it is to get along with your supervisor/boss or at least have some form of a good relationship with them. Your supervisor(s) will play a large role in your project so you need to be able to communicate openly with them and they need to be there to help you. Many students have absent or not-so-good supervision and really struggle to get through their project. A good supervisor-student relationship is key to a good project.
  • What is the rest of the group like? Having a good group is important for many reasons. First, because you will be seeing a lot of them, it’s generally nice if you get along with them. Also, these people can help you! The better they are, the more you can learn from them. Many will become your friends and/or mentors and the last thing you want is to be stuck with a group of people you don’t get along with.
  • If the lab is at a research institute, what is that place like? Does the institute offer support academically and otherwise to their students? Will you be made to feel welcome and part of the team etc. I have experiences with labs at universities and with labs at institutes – both have their advantages and disadvantages, so asking the right questions about either can help you make your decision.
  • 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 elsewhere. Most places will encourage you to attend these luckily so shouldn’t be an issue. If you don’t get the opportunity to do this, I probably would look elsewhere.
  • Are scholarships available? Not always possible, but scholarships are helpful in honours and for a PhD it is pretty much impossible to get by without one. Find out from the potential supervisor what the go is with scholarships and do your best to get one! Ideally you shouldn’t be working in a lab where you are not getting paid in some capacity.

Feel free to leave a comment with more suggestions and I can add them in. Share away and enjoy your project, whatever you pick!

I want to stress, it is OK to not want to pursue a PhD, and it is OK if you begin one and aren’t enjoying it to then leave! If you ever want to talk to somebody about this I am happy to pass on your details to friends of mine who left their PhDs and are incredibly happy with their decision and in their life! Many of them still work in labs as a research assistant and love their jobs!

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