Having a successful research experience is often as much about hard work on your end as it is about the fit of the lab with your personality and goals. Many labs have a great work environment, exciting research and lots of money. While this might seem to be a formula for success, it may not be the formula for success for you.
So, how can you make sure that you are picking the appropriate research situation? Here are some suggestions from a few of our tutors who are in the midst of their own research:
Don’t Just Say Yes
It is very exciting to be offered a research opportunity, but before you accept you should put a lot of thought in to what the opportunity entails and if it is the right situation for you. Will this opportunity help broaden your skillset? Will it help advance your career? Is the work something that you will be excited to perform? Different projects require different roles; for some, this will mean gathering data from medical records while for others, it will mean running mathematical simulations from a modeling software.
Whatever it is, make sure that it's something you are willing to spend your time doing and that you’d be happy doing it! Oftentimes, you will have the opportunity to openly discuss your project with your principal investigator (PI). Do it! You should take on projects that not only interest you, but will help you learn, nourish your curiosity, and be productive. If your project is just gathering patient records, you’re probably not getting much from doing that.
Focus on Ongoing Research
What is the focus of the lab? What does the PI like to work on? Whether this answer is cancer, cardiovascular disease, or public health, it should align closely with your own interests. It should also be in line with the interests of everyone else in the lab! This should be what drives you toward the lab of of your choosing. You should not be joining a lab you don’t have the utmost interest in.
Mentor, Mentor, Mentor
This is the most important part of your lab, and will completely change your experience. While this warrants an entire blog post of its own, you want to be sure this mentor is someone who you will get along with and be able to work with. Both are equally important. "Getting along with" means someone you can talk to about your problems should they not work out, and someone who can be open to understanding your own goals and ambitions. "Working with" means someone who can force you to thrive, whether it's in micromanaging your every move or letting you have free reign to figure things out yourself. Both of these criteria need to be met.
Many students can get their own funding, but a PIs funding can give you a sense of their own success and productivity. Sometimes, this money may even go to paying you, so make sure you are in a well funded lab. NIH RePORTER does a good job, but many PIs draw funding from other sources. Try to look into these. Often times, these may be available on lab websites or program websites. Poorly funded labs potentially can go bankrupt at any second, which can mean everything you did will amount to essentially nothing. Make sure the lab you are joining is well-funded!
How often is your PI publishing and where? Keep in mind your own career aspirations. Are you interested in proving you can do research and getting a couple of publications, or are you interested in proving you can not only do research but you are one of the best at it by publishing in Nature? This is an important distinction. If your ultimate goal is to be a PI yourself, your publication record is going to matter, and in this situation quality is better than quantity. If your ultimate goal is to only do research to supplement your medical practice, often times (as is the case in medicine), quantity may be what you are hoping to achieve. A PI with a million publications in random journals is going to help you achieve a different sort of career than one with fewer publications consolidated in Nature, Science, JAMA or NEJM.
These are the most important factors and they should weigh heavily as you make a decision about picking a research project and mentor. However, people tend to put different weights on each of them, so there is no cookie-cutter perfect research project for everyone. Keep this in mind, as many students need months to figure out if the research is really for them. And whether you feel like it’s going nowhere or you’re up for the next Nobel prize, remember how ubiquitous research is and that you’re not alone!
And with that said... Coffee break.