Choosing Labs/Mentors

January 17, 2010

Mentors who make it clear that they care deeply about whether their trainees “like” them should be considered highly suspect. You are not looking for a drinking buddy. You are looking for a mentor with two key qualities: (1) the ability to create an intellectual and physical infrastructure that will be sufficient to support your research and (2) sufficient attention and scientific judgment to guide you away from fruitless efforts and towards fruitful ones.

I hear stories all the time about “fun” labs where everyone is always dancing around to rocking tunes with the PI, but where no one’s projects ever pan out and students flee for other labs after two, three, or even four years.

Another big red flag is if in discussing projects with the PI, you get some really inspiring story about how X molecule, mechanism, or pathway is like totally the key to everything and we are just on the cusp of proving this totally awesome hypothesis and we are gonna be famous!!!11!!!eleventy and revolutionize our field. 99% likelihood is that you are dealing with someone who is *way* too enamored of their own ideas to be sufficiently critical to effectively guide trainees away from fruitless and towards fruitful efforts. This PI phenotype is frequently coupled with the “fun” lab one.

Don’t be fooled by this kind of shit. You want a lab with a good set of established methodological approaches and an interesting system within which to deploy those approaches.

Yeah, it’s great to have hypotheses so long as they are used to guide exploration. When someone talks in terms of “proving” a hypothesis that they consider “theirs”, run away.

(h/t Isis the Scientist.)

3 Responses to “Choosing Labs/Mentors”


  1. Well said, I rotated in a lab with a “fun” PI, realized that they were on the way to flaming out and got the fuck out of there for a real lab with a proper PI. My PI takes an interest in my work and always has a door open to discuss scientific issues, not personal ones. And I appreciate that, I don’t need a fucking buddy to head down to the local with and get sloshed, I need a mentor.

  2. queenrandom Says:

    To be filed under “things I wish someone had told me when I began grad school and before I wasted 3 years in a lab run by a crazy person.”

    I would also advise students to look for behavioral inconsistencies. Had I picked up on those, I might have noticed that my first PhD mentor was a lying liar who lies. This phenotype is, in my experience, often found in close linkage disequilibrium with your second phenotype (those who cannot be honest with themselves are rarely honest with others).

  3. Katharine Says:

    Physioprof, I may have totally missed this on DrugMonkey, but is there a ‘Advice for Choosing a PI Who is a Competent Advisor’ post on DrugMonkey?


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