How to Cordially Interrogate Graduate Students

The art of finding a lab
MAR 2020
Olivia
Y.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

This semester, I have had a ton of practice interrogating graduate students.

During orientation, I was immediately given the task of rotating in various labs to find my lab home. Our advisors instructed us to reach out to professors who caught our interest, find out if they are looking for PhD students this semester, and then spend a few weeks or a few months learning the ropes of that lab. Rotating is like interning for graduate school. Just like my friends who spent summers interning at a company in the hopes of a full time job offer, I planned to spend most of my first two semesters “interning” in different research groups in the hopes of a full-time position in the lab.

Unlike some of my peers, who came to graduate school with a very specific research interest and a very short curated list of professors, I entered my program at MIT with a broad range of interests and a long list of potential research advisors. These rotations would be crucial to my ultimate decision.

What was my strategy to narrow down the list? I found people who were in my shoes just a few years ago and sought to learn from their successes and failures. Following this strategy, I have spent just as much time talking to other graduate students as I have spent studying. This approach may not work for everyone, but I hope that readers will be able to learn something from my experiences.

Step One. Reach out to graduate students at your school.
This initial step can be scary at first, but I have learned that almost every graduate student is willing to take 30 minutes to share their experiences. Do not make the mistake of thinking that they are “too busy” for a lowly first-year. People love talking about their research and their lab. The easiest way to reach out is via email; you can find the emails of most students on their respective lab websites. Another option is to reach out to your advisor. Often times, they have a database of both past and present graduate students and can provide an introduction.

Further, I have discovered that it is best to talk to both past and present students for every lab that you are interested in. Graduate students who are a few years out of the lab will often share a much different perspective than more recent graduate students who are still entranced by the amazing accomplishments of their PI (Principal Investigator). For example, older students can offer more insights into how their advisor managed the graduation and job-search process, while younger students can offer insights about the current lab culture. I also recommend reaching out to several current and former students, as every student has a different experience in the lab. An isolated negative comment might not raise a red flag, but several similar comments from different students should give you pause.

Step Two. Set up a meeting time.
I prefer to meet face-to-face, but a phone or Skype call is often just as effective. I always try to be respectful of the students’ time and schedules and let them pick a location that is most convenient. Before the meeting, I always research the lab and the individual graduate student. Lab websites are usually a good place to start. Try to understand what the main focus of the lab is, and what the student is specifically working on. Before the meeting, I also make a list of topics and questions that I want to discuss. Having this list ensures that there are no awkward lulls in the conversation and that all of your questions are answered. 

During the meeting, listen carefully! I have learned that students will rarely badmouth their lab, but sometimes they will subtly raise red flags. Even if the lab is the perfect fit for them, it may not be the perfect fit for you. Some of my favorite questions are listed below, as I think these elicit the most illuminating answers:

  • “What do you think defines a student who is successful in this lab?” 
  • “If you could change one thing about the lab, what would you change?”
  • “How would you describe the lab culture?”
  • “What other labs were you considering and what made this lab stand out?”

Most importantly, do not shy away from tough questions. The goal of these meetings is to gain deep insight into the lab and group culture, not just the surface-level facts.

Step Three. Reflect. 

It may sound cliché, but during these “informational” meetings, I end up learning more about myself than I learn about the lab group. These conversations have forced me to articulate exactly what I want in a lab and where my research interests lie. The other graduate students ask probing questions that force me to further curate my definition of the perfect lab.

I was initially jealous of my peers who entered graduate school with a research advisor and seemed to have it all figured out while I was floundering from lab to lab. Do not be alarmed if you are in a similar place as me – almost every student in my department rotated with at least two different labs.

However, I would challenge these peers who seem to know exactly what they want to spend a few months in my shoes. I would encourage them to actively search for a lab and reflect on what constitutes the ideal graduate school experience. I would encourage them to use the freedom of the first year of graduate school to its full extent and explore their interests. This time of forced introspection may serve them well for the next five to seven years, just as it served me.

In just a few months, many of my expectations about graduate school have been completely reversed. I expected to spend hours in the lab or the library in my first months of graduate school, but instead, I have spent hours talking to older graduate students, so much so that it often feels like these informational interviews are a full-time job. I expected to walk into the offices of a few research advisors, and know which lab was right for me. I expected an Aha moment, just like you see in a rom-com movie when the two main characters fall in love.

Now, I know that no lab is perfect and every lab will have tradeoffs – and I have come to terms with this fact. I may not have picked a research advisor yet, but slowly but surely, I am figuring out what I want in a lab and I am finding my place in graduate school. Soon, I hope to have a lab to call home.