How I decided to be the first graduate student in a lab

By Erin Duffy

When I started graduate school, I thought I knew exactly who I was going to work for. I loved my undergraduate research studying membrane proteins, and was intent on continuing that type of research at Yale University. I rotated in a membrane protein lab for my first rotation and figured that the second and third rotations would be merely a formality, so I wanted to explore an area of science that was completely unknown to me.

            At our yearly departmental retreat, I wanted to choose my second rotation based on the talk that I found most interesting, even if it was outside of my field. Halfway through the first day, a brand new professor jumped onstage and started talking about long non-coding RNAs involved in this cool process called X-inactivation. I knew very little about RNA and had never heard of X-inactivation, but his explanation of his research was so clear and the talk was so passionate that I knew I had to rotate in his lab. I was completely honest with him that I had no background in his research, but was willing and excited to learn everything that I could.

            One of the best aspects of the rotation was that because there was no one else in the lab yet, I was trained directly by my advisor who was fresh from a postdoc and knew all the tricks to get the experiments working. And boy, were there a lot of tricks to learn! I really enjoyed being able to discuss both the big picture scope of the project and the small details of each experiment with my advisor. It was some of the best training I have gotten in graduate school.

            For my third rotation, I decided to try out a more established lab with a lot of graduate students. I had a great project, a wonderful graduate student advisor, and good interactions with the PI. When it came time to decide which lab to join, I was surprised to find myself torn between the three labs. Here’s how I made my decision:

Things to ask yourself about what you want in a mentor:

  • Do you want a mentor who is very hands on (talking through the details of your data, helping you plan experiments, etc.) or do you want more freedom to do experiments without interruption?
  •  Do you want to design your own project based on the lab’s interests or join an established project in the lab?
    • Some PIs want their students to work on already outlined projects with little flexibility, while others want the graduate student to drive the research direction of the lab.
    • Some PIs offer a combination of both, giving the student a safe, tractable project to get an early publication while leaving the student with the creative space to design his or her own project on the side.

Things to ask lab members about the work environment:

  • Do you need/want flexible hours or a set schedule?
    • If you do not want to ask directly, ask if everyone shows up to lab at the same time or if people leave in the middle of the day.
  •  Do your labmates have outside hobbies, families, or religious/spiritual communities to which they devote a lot of time?
    •  This is a good way to gauge the work/life balance of lab members.

I decided to join the brand new lab with unknowns. What will the lab environment be like in a few years? How will my interactions with my mentor change over time? It was a thrilling, sometimes hectic, mostly amazing journey, and I am very glad that I chose a new lab for my graduate school career. There are many benefits of joining a lab as the first student! As I mentioned, you are trained directly by the professor, but also get exposure to starting a research lab. Imagining how the great scientists in your field got to where they are can be difficult. This way, you see the process in action from the start! In addition, you will get a lot of leadership and mentorship experience throughout graduate school. Your PI will need help recruiting new students and postdocs to the lab, and even as a second year student, you will be the most senior person in the lab. You will have the chance to mentor everyone who is new, which is a great experience, especially if you are interested in mentorship roles later in your career. Finally, your work will set the foundation for the rest of your PI’s career, so the two of you will form a very special bond over the work that you do. The methods that you develop will most likely be cited by everyone in the lab long after you leave, immortalizing your work!

If you are interested in joining a new PI’s lab, I compiled a list of tips:

  • Getting hands-on training
    • Typically, new PIs don’t have as many responsibilities, so you will get a lot of personalized training at the start of your graduate career. For a lot of graduate students this can be a really great opportunity. However, if you like working with little interruption, it may be tough discussing experiments with your advisor often. This dynamic will probably change as your PI (and you as a graduate student!) gets more senior. S/he will have more responsibilities, more students, and you will be expected to become more independent as your training progresses.
  • Find graduate student mentors in other labs who are more senior
    • You won’t be able to get advice about the qualifying exam or dissertation guidelines from your labmates, so it is important to seek out those mentors in other labs. Your PI won’t know the requirements so they will rely on you to tell them what’s necessary.
  • Communicate with your PI early and often about expectations
    • Established labs have clear expectations, like how many hours per week you will work, whether everyone comes in on weekends, even how you celebrate birthdays. New labs need all of those things established, so do yourself a favor by having conversations with your PI early and often about these expectations. I expected that my PI would require a certain number of hours per week in lab, but he made it very clear from the start that he wants people to have a healthy work-life balance. Any time we need to leave the lab for a doctor’s appointment or an exercise class, we should do so. He believes that happy graduate students are more productive.
    •  Conversely, it is important for you as the first student to speak up about your expectations for your PI. How often would you like to meet to discuss your data? How much autonomy would you like over your project? It can be intimidating to ask these things of your PI, but remember that they have never done this before and are learning from you. Part of the joy of being the first pancake is that you can test out the settings on the griddle.
  • You are teaching your PI as much as they are teaching you
    • Your PI and you are both experiencing all the craziness of graduate school together. At some point, you will become frustrated with your project and will need to communicate with your PI about how to get through that period of frustration. Your PI may also be frustrated and stressed about the process of tenure, grant applications, and the pressures of publishing. If your PI directs some of that frustration at your project, try to be understanding, but advocate for yourself. Again, you are the first pancake here. Communicate to your advisor when things are not working.

There are definitely times when graduate school is frustrating, and no matter the advisor you will have challenges along the way. Now that I am reaching the end of my graduate school journey, I am pleased that I chose to join a new lab and would recommend this to anyone who is on the fence between a new and established lab: Take the plunge into the deep end. It is completely worth it.

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Erin was born and raised in Hebron, Connecticut. Previously, she received a combined Bachelor of Science in Molecular & Cell Biology and a Master of Science in Biochemistry through the University Scholar program at the University of Connecticut. She is currently a Ph.D. student in the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Program at Yale University and a 2013 National Science Foundation GRFP Fellow.