Thursday, July 30, 2009

A few ideas for grad students in the life sciences to keep in mind

After 4 years of undergraduate education and a year in the US and here in Chile working as a tech, I finally applied and successfully made it into grad school, some time ago. I remember how anxious we all were (me and my new classmates) back then about entering a PhD program in molecular genetics and start doing research at this fascinating time in molecular biology.

I remember talking to a lot of professors about grad school and reading a whole lot of papers about life as a grad student before I started. Everyone has an opinion regarding the do’s and don’ts of grad school and a recent blog post over at BiteSize Bio [Pointers for New Graduate Students] prompted me to write down a few ideas and concepts I think should be considered by grad students in the life sciences.

So, let’s get down to business.

In my opinion, the most important decision in grad school is to choose the right lab, and more importantly, the right PI. Not only will it be important during your time in grad school, but for your life as a scientist after you graduate.
Of course the lab’s research topic should be appealing to you (you’ll be working for 4-5 years on that) but if your PI has no interest in you or your work, you’ll never get anywhere and you’ll surely be miserable.
So, what makes a PI the right one? You want an interested supervisor, who cares and genuinely gets excited with your research, who gets involved (although not too much, however this depends on your own needs), who is in the country more than he is abroad during the year, or that when away, can easily be contacted (through Skype for example) and is respected (and you should not confuse this with being an “old”, well-established professor; newly appointed assistant professors can also be well-respected, particularly in a small field in which their postdoc work has had some major impact).
Moreover, you should be able to talk to your supervisor without fear! If you are sweating bullets before entering a one on one meeting with your PI, maybe he’s not the right PI for you (See “Psycho” in the figure). You should be able to discuss your results (and science in general) comfortably with your supervisor, the person controlling an important part of your near future. I’m not saying you should be pals (in fact, you shouldn’t), but having a nice, open relationship with your PI is a very important aspect of your formation.
Nine types of principal investigator. Created by Alexander Dent (
I remember Bruce Alberts once told me over coffee that you should run away from labs where your supervisor’s door is always closed or if there is a secretary between you and him/her. He said this not to be taken literally, but to emphasize that you should be able to talk to your PI whenever you need to.
Also, Jonathan W. Yewdell wrote
“(…) generally, you should run from laboratories where a PI is referred to as Doctor X and not by his or her first name” 1.
I’ve found this to be a more US-oriented recommendation, as in Chile, we generally don’t refer to our supervisors by their first names, but also, not as Dr X. “Prof” is something we usually use. Nevertheless, the point remains: if everyone is your lab must refer to their supervisor as Doctor X, you should be cautious.
Also important when choosing a lab is its environment. Are the people happy and enthusiastic about their research topic? Do they help each other out or is just an “every man for itself”-kind of environment? Is there a good “vibe”?
It’s a good idea to visit potential labs, talk to grad students and postdocs and ask them not only about their relationship with their supervisor but also with their peers. I can’t emphasize enough how important is to work in a “nice” lab.
Of course this is mostly wishful thinking, and maybe you won’t find a PI or lab with all the things you would want them to have, but my objective here is to let you know what things to look for so you’re clear in what you don’t want. 

Also, do rotations (if possible). Make use of this opportunity to get to know the inner workings of some of the labs you are considering. You won’t get a sense of how it is to work in a particular lab, until you do.
After covering (albeit briefly, I agree) on the most important aspect of grad school, namely, choosing your advisor and lab, I have a few more tips for grad students.
Sometimes you’ll read a paper that describes the technique you were looking for to solve all your problems. Neither you nor anyone in your lab or department has any expertise with it, so you consider that visiting the lab where the technique was developed could be a good idea. Be proactive regarding collaborations. Don’t expect your PI to do it for you; he/she has enough on his/her mind. Present the idea to your PI, make all the arrangements, contact the other lab, look for travelling fellowships, etc. This is something that you should do.
Attend the seminars in your school. This IS important. You can’t become a good scientist if you are completely isolated from other advances in biology. You never know… a major breakthrough in another field can have important, yet unobvious implications to your research, which could go unnoticed. Also, seminars in other areas can help you broaden your mind and make you reanalyze some results that have been in your mind for a while, with a different and fresh perspective. I’m including not only seminars given by people from other schools, but also departmental seminars. Maybe a technique you need has recently been standardized by a lab in other department.
Maybe there was something that you didn’t quite get at the seminar you just attended. Then, ASK. If you’re shy (or more typically, you don’t want to ask what you consider could be a “silly question” in front of faculty members), then approach the speaker afterwards, but don’t leave with the doubt.
The same applies when at conferences. Talk to people. Talk to other professors with whom you share research interests. Many of them will be excited to be approached by a young student. Lots of scientists (including myself) LOVE to talk about our own research, so use that. I generally approach PIs at meetings and this almost always leads to very interesting and provocative discussions.
Along the same lines, network: meet people and make connections. Sometimes, PIs have poster presentations, and poster sessions are great for talking to people in a relaxed environment, so this is a good chance to talk to them.
Another thing I consider important is to participate in scholar activities at your school. Are there graduate student seminars (GSSs)? Then attend, and more importantly, give a seminar yourself. GSSs provide a nice environment to discuss science in a friendly, relaxed way. You’ll also get to meet fellow students and learn about their research topics.
As a scientist, you’ll have to present your results to the scientific community, both as oral presentations or actual research articles. This tip is particularly direct to grad students whose primary language is not English: learn how to write and speak perfectly in English early in your career. There’s nothing worse than attending a seminar where you can’t make sense of what the speaker is saying. Further, you can’t ask him afterwards either. Everyone (including you) will benefit from a clear presentation: you’ll be able to present your work, answer questions and, as I’ve stated before, talk to people at conferences.
Also, if you can’t speak English, you won’t understand the seminar!
Having an English level that allows you to “understand papers” is not enough. If you can’t understand a seminar or talk to people, you’re doomed. This is a major aspect of a scientist’s life in the English-dominated life sciences. The same happens with writing. Train yourself in writing. Write a blog, for example. Talk to other members in the lab and ask them to review your writing. If you can afford taking an English course, do that: consider it as an investment.
Writing and speaking fluently in English is one of the most important things for a non-native English speaker scientist to develop.
I hope this short list can give some guidance or be of some help to grad students in the life sciences. I know I’ve left a lot out of this brief list, but it should be taken as a starting point. I particularly welcome any input on this topic as I’m far from being the most appropriate person to give tips (as I’m still in grad school). Nevertheless, I wanted to share my opinion with you and importantly, hear from you!
So, what do you think? What would you consider as important and useful tips for grad students in the life sciences?

1 Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. 2008 May;9(5):413-6

ScienceBlips: vote it up!



Anonymous said...

very well said. i cant agree more.

"Jonathan W. Yewdell wrote “(…) generally, you should run from laboratories where a PI is referred to as Doctor X and not by his or her first name”

-- This is a problem mostly in Asia, especially East Asia where Confucianism is deeply imbued in the society. So many norms, and standards to follow. How i wish i can call my Professor on a first name basis, but here its a no-no.

Alejandro Montenegro-Montero said...

Hi arvinsign. Thanks for your comments.

So, what do you call your PI? Dr X?

Anonymous said...

Hi Alejandro..

Yeah i call him on a Dr./Prof basis, plus a thousand bows and other gestures of respect :) Its very formal and quite uncomfortable actually.


Menelaos Symeonides said...

Great timing with this post as I am about to begin my PhD. Very good advice, makes a lot of sense and I have heard similar things from my academic advisors. BTW, I follow this blog religiously, please keep it up!

Alejandro Montenegro-Montero said...

Hi Menelaos,

Thank you very much for your kind words.
Keep an eye on our blog.. there are lots of interesting things to come.

Zen Faulkes said...

Prospective grad students should know, though, that not every program has rotations.

For that matter, I'll bet a lot of prospective grad students have no idea what a rotation is.

Alejandro Montenegro-Montero said...

Simply put,

The purpose of the Lab Rotation is to provide the student with the opportunity to experience different laboratory environments and different experimental approaches and in so doing, assist him or her in choosing a laboratory for thesis work

You get to choose a lab where you'll work for a few weeks and then move onto another. This is during your first year.

(text from

Lab Rat said...

I'm from England here, and I must say I've *never* called a PI just "Prof X", but always used the first name.

There was one older Professor who I always used to call firstname-lastname though, just because only firstname seemed weird to me (that was in my first project). Everyone else just used his first name.