Columns Opinion

How to choose which research institution or which lab to join?

Shubha Tole

A fortunate student who had been offered admission to 3 excellent graduate programs wrote to me to ask how to choose among them. My answer may help others in this situation:

If you are choosing between reputed programs in excellent Institutions, then this is one decision in which it doesn’t help to make a list of pros and cons. Students often ask me if there is an exit option” for getting an MSc degree mid-way in the IntPhD course, for example, or what the hostel charges are, whether students get leave for festivals, whether they can change labs mid-way…while all these are certainly good to know, I do believe this is one decision you make on gut instincts,” going with what excites you, taking a deep breath and jumping in. The keep-your-options-open approach makes for a very superficial assessment, and in fact prevents you from seeing what is truly important. If all the programs you are choosing amongst are in top-notch places, then the overriding decision factor for a research degree is what kind ofresearch question *you* want to work on. If you have made a thoughtful and *informed* decision about this, then you should join whichever place has openings in research labs working in those areas.

However, it is an unfortunate fact that students in India rarely have the opportunity to explore their interests effectively, particularly at the undergraduate level, and often even at the postgraduate level. It is because of this that students appear to try to seek some sort of security measure rather than putting themselves through the unsettling process of finding out what their own interests are! So, my primary advice is to join a program that has a diversity of research labs, and one that offers some element of rotations or student choice. When you rotate in a lab, you have the best possible chance of making an *informed* decision about whether to join it. To make the best of your rotations, you should join with an open mind….a preconceived idea of what you want to do will actually LIMIT your options for no good reason. What if there is something out there that you had never encountered before, that could be the question that truly excites you, but you never knew that area existed?

This said, the MOST important thing is to try to evaluate the performance of each faculty member as best as you can before just jumping in because the work excites you. Again this sounds like a heretical thingfor an Indian student to do, brought up as we are to respect seniority. But the truth is all faculty are *not* equal. Things to evaluate, to the extent you can, are the following:

a) How well have they published? This is a usually ballpark indicator of the quality of what your publications will be, too. If several students of the faculty member you are considering joining haven’t managed to publish, or need to wait till the last year and then submit a paper with difficulty, then you will probably have such problems too. If students usually get lots of papers in average journals, then that’s the level your publications might have too. If students in that lab typically work in pairs or collectively on huge projects, then you should find out how authorship conflicts if any are resolved. Otherwise you risk finding yourself in the middle of one.

b) how well students do when they leave the lab in question ie how well can the faculty member place his/​her students in postdoc positions? This is something that will matter hugely when you are ready to graduate, so worth spending time on, even though graduation seems far away when you are a new student. 

c) Is the advisor you are considering joining enthusiastic about his/​her science, about training students, are they motivated to explore new questions, or do they risk stagnation in their field? The energy they bring to their science will influence your science in a big way. 

d) How do they run the lab- is a diversity of views encouraged and aired, are they fair in their criticisms, can they take criticism themselves, are they professional in their dealings? This approach will rub off on you, too. Often it seems as if the priorities of new students are to find a lab in which they’ll be comfortable (this is code for a lab in an area they know,” because fear that they won’t perform well in something new and make a bad impression). And of course, a lab where the advisor is not strict!” Again, a security-seeking approach. PLEASE, pause and consider whether you can communicate with the advisor you are thinking of joining? Do you see yourself growing into a situation in which you can argue scientific matters with him/​her on equal footing? This is a necessary and invaluable component of every student’s scientific training.

e) how engaged are they as mentors? This crucial, because your scientific training- not only the techniques, but the planning, the organization, the communication and the ETHICS of your research activities will be hugely influenced by your advisor’s engagement and mentorship. You will reflect a good deal of your advisors’ values and traits by the time you emerge a trained scientist from his/​her lab. So, ask yourself whether this scientist you would like to have as your primary role model?

The brand-name of the institution you join is something that carries a lot of weight for undergraduate programs, but it carries only so far in graduate school. A program that has a diversity of research labs covering several areas that you find interesting, or are willing to explore, one that allows some element of student choice, and one in which there are several faculty who would be potential good advisors” would be the one to join. So, deciding which research institution to join actually involves exploring what types of labs or advisors that institution has, assessing them to the extent possible. Make a visit, talk to the faculty and to the students discuss these issues as thoroughly as possible. Then, go ahead and take the plunge. Making a well-considered decision is really all you can do- the important thing once you’ve decided is don’t hold back- give your very best so that it has the best possible chance of working out very well for you. 

Good luck!

Written By

Shubha Tole is a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. Her seminal contributions to understanding how the brain develops in the early embryo have been recognised by prestigious awards such as the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award and the Infosys Prize. Prof. Tole leverages her experience as a mentor, policy-maker and senior scientist to actively engage in science outreach that inspires younger scientists and is a vocal advocate for women in science and of mental health awareness in academia.