GradPI: A Resource for Choosing the Right Advisor

by Gadareth Higgs (Founder of GradPI)

One of the most important decisions a student makes in graduate school is choosing an advisor or Principal Investigator (PI). This decision can make or break the student. However, there are few resources to reliably assess potential matches.

At this point, I’ve worked with over six PIs, so I feel uniquely equipped to tell you how to assess a good match. I’ve experienced everything from the nightmarish to the surreal.

I entered graduate school in one department, did four rotations and chose to enter the last lab I rotated in. However, the PI complained that he didn’t have funding, so I needed to find another PI to fully sponsor me. Then, the PI that I found to sponsor me left for another institution! So I did another quick rotation and joined a small lab. Everything seemed fine for months until it came time to qualify for my Ph.D. candidacy. All of a sudden, my PI loaded me with irrelevant lab work, paper-writing, and requests to help other students in the lab. Meanwhile, he refused to meet with me to ensure I was on track to qualify. Out of all my committee members, he was the only one I didn’t meet with. If that wasn’t bad enough, he purposefully derailed me in the qualifying exam.

After I was told that I failed the exam, I was forthright in my desire to retake it, as is customarily extended to students otherwise in good standing. Despite the support of the rest of the committee, my PI refused to allow me to retake it and essentially forced me to withdraw from the department.

I then did some soul-searching, applied to other schools, and got involved in a software development program. While interviewing at another school, I conceived of GradPI. If there was an easily accessible resource with information on PIs, it would have saved me years of toil and pain. A past graduate student friend likened choosing a PI to deciding who to marry. While I laughed at the analogy then, the consequences of a poor decision can certainly haunt you in a similar way.

I was fortunate enough to eventually get back into a graduate program and find a lab with an awesome PI. But most people aren’t as fortunate; they either endure the misery of an unsupportive PI, take a much longer time than expected in grad school, and/or drop out.

While developing the site, I came up with 5 metrics to help you avoid the agony I had, and get straight to the great match. The emphasis you place on each category will depend on your personal preference.

SMART Evaluation Metrics for PIs

Standing: How well known is this PI in her/his field? How impactful is his/her research?

This metric is important because your PI will serve as the springboard for whatever you do next. Therefore, name recognition will be helpful to you after life in the lab. Sir Isaac Newton said it best: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Mentorship: How well does this PI coach her/his students in the lab? How well does he/she prepare students for life after lab? The importance of this metric cannot be overstated. In fact, if I personally were forced to choose only one metric by which to rate a PI, this would be it. While this may not be your preference, it is important to have an advisor who can serve as a scientific mentor, even if not as a career or life mentor.

Autonomy: How well does this PI delegate tasks and trust her/his students to get them done? The degree of autonomy desired by students is highly variable; some people prefer clear-cut instructions and daily guidance, while others prefer to be left alone for months on end. Only you can decide what is best for you here.

Resources: How well is this PI funded? No matter what your acceptance letter implied, money is not free-flowing and inconsequential in choosing who to do research with. Many PIs stress out over it and are all too eager to make that your concern. Other PIs may use it as an excuse not to accept you into their lab, or to stop funding you entirely. Perhaps former President Barack Obama said it best: “Money is not the only answer, but it makes a difference.”

Tact: How well does this PI convey feedback? How well does this PI foster a welcoming environment for students of different cultures, genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations? While some may overlook the importance of this, you shouldn’t. If you get the urge to run in the other direction whenever you hear, see, or think about a PI, do so. Remember that grad school is a 4+ year process. You want to limit negativity during this time in order to maximize productivity.

There are many ways to analyze PIs.

You can:

  • Do a Google search for things such as:

    • Impact of most recent papers

    • H-index: a metric that measures the productivity and citation impact of the publications of a scholar. It is based on the number of citations a scientist's most cited papers have received in other publications. For example: an h-index of 15 means that an author’s 15th most cited paper has at least 15 citations.

  • Talk with students, postdocs, and researchers in the lab – this can allow one to get a good taste for interpersonal skills matching the mentorship, autonomy, and tact metrics.

  • Search for affiliations with external funding

  • Do a rotation in the PI’s lab-while speaking with others is good, there’s nothing like face-to-face contact to determine how you get along with a PI.

These are all good options and you should exhaust what you can before you make such a big decision. Grad PI compiles ratings in these metrics on PIs to make it easier to choose a PI!

This website will share the wisdom of graduate students, and help new students make informed decisions about who to rotate, collaborate, work, and have on their committee. Ultimately, we hope this resource will help to improve student retention, productivity, and career prospects.


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STEM BLOG CONTRIBUTOR

GADARETH HIGGS

Gadareth was born and raised in the Bahamas. He got his BS at Ramapo College in Biochemistry and Bioinformatics, and his MS at Rutgers in Biomedical Informatics, while working as a Business Analyst. He is currently a PhD student in the Breaker lab of the Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology department at Yale University. Here, he is discovering and validating bacterial riboswitches and other ncRNAs.

Gadareth is passionate about improving the graduate school experience for all PhD students, and is constantly seeking to expand and optimize GradPI to do this. In his spare time, Gadareth enjoys blackjack, parkour, and tutoring. You can contact him at gadareth@gradpi.com