Choosing the Research Group for Your PhD

Finding what works for you.

Text, graphics, editing by Ksenia Kuznetsova

Illustrations by George Mathew

- The choice of the lab extends beyond the specific research project and delves into the significance of the research group itself

- Consider both personal interactions and the organizational environment when selecting a research group for your PhD

- Ensure that your chosen research group supports your academic and career aspirations, taking into account your stage of research career and future ambitions

When embarking on your academic journey, one of the most crucial decisions you'll make is choosing the right research group to work on your PhD. This choice can significantly impact your professional and personal growth as well as overall success. To help you navigate this decision, let's look into different aspects that might be worth considering.

There are both (inter)personal, as well as organizational aspects to keep in mind when selecting the lab to do your graduate studies.

(Inter)personal considerations

One thing to look at is if the lab you are applying to sends early career researchers to conferences. If a lab supervisor  discourages attendance at conferences for the PhD students and trainees, it might indicate they are overly protective of their unpublished data, or that their financial situation is poorly managed. Even though being protective of their results might have the best intentions in mind, sharing knowledge is essential for academic growth. Attending meetings is helpful for the early stage researchers in networking and widening the view of the field.

Another thing to keep in mind is if a research group  promotes interaction among lab mates or maintains indirect communication channels. This may signal a lack of proper supervision or teamwork. Try to talk to current lab members informally, and look out if the supervisor actively prevents you from talking to anyone (or doesn’t actively suggest contacting them). This may be a worrisome sign. In the end, you will spend most of the time with your colleagues working side by side. Additionally, you could reach out to the alumni. Their experiences can provide valuable insights. Did the principal investigator offer the support and mentorship when needed? Did they support their PhD students in the pursuit of academic as well as alternative career paths? Remember, it's not just about the specific research topic; a nurturing and collaborative environment is vital for your growth and success.

Organizational considerations

Consider your accommodation needs and flexibility when you are choosing a lab and research topic as an aspiring PhD candidate. If experiments require irregular hours, inquire whether the lab provides flexibility and supportive facilities, as well as if there are basic safety measures on campuses. 

When looking for a PhD, depending on your circumstances, evaluate whether joining a structured PhD program or applying as a single candidate better aligns with your goals and offers protection from unexpected challenges. 

Explore various research institutes and their international offices; they offer valuable support and resources which might be essential when you are moving to a new country. Seek out mentors and connect through networking with professionals in your academic and professional field through platforms like Twitter and mentorship programs.

Align with Your Goals

Depending on your career aspirations after the PhD, there are different things to consider when choosing the research group. For instance if your primary aim is an academic career, you might see the perspective better by delving into alumni records. You can reach out to them and seek feedback from those who have successfully pursued academia. Was the superviser supportive of their choice and provided valuable guidance?

If you are more keen on the career in industry or not even sure what you would like to do after the PhD, research whether the lab, the head of the lab, or the institution support alternative career paths, as some may exclusively promote academic trajectories or even stigmatize work in industry. 

Depending on the career stage, you might seek different types of guidance and professional interactions. If you are in the earlier stages of your research career (such as PhD), you may require more guidance and mentoring to develop your skills and gain knowledge. In such cases, look for research groups that offer strong mentorship and a nurturing learning environment. On the other hand, if you are a postdoctoral researcher on the path to become an independent researcher, you may value the freedom to explore your research interests more independently. In this phase, seek out research groups that provide the autonomy and resources you need to pursue your research agenda. 

All in all

In summary, choosing the right research group for your PhD or other career step goes beyond the project itself. It's about finding an environment that supports your goals, whether they're academic or personal. Take the time to research, connect with the right people and network in advance, and make an informed choice for your academic journey.

About Sci.STEPS

Sc.STEPS scientific mentoring program is designed to empower aspiring doctoral candidates in making informed decisions when it comes to selecting the right laboratory for their PhD journey. We understand that choosing the right lab is a critical step in one's academic and research career, and our program is tailored to provide guidance. Our experienced mentors will work closely with participants in a systematic long-term program or during short targeted consultations, helping them assess their research interests, strengths, and goals.