How to Choose the Right Lab

By David Umbaugh posted 11-11-2021 14:52


This blog was crafted by the Communications Subcommittee of the Graduate Student Leadership Committee.

It has become increasingly common in toxicology PhD programs, and in life science programs more broadly, to have an initial year curriculum accompanied by lab rotations. These lab rotations are generally 12 to 16 weeks and offer the opportunity to see how one fits into the lab dynamic. Choosing the right lab is an easy task if you have a dead-set career path and research area in mind. Unfortunately, for most of us there is a lot of uncertainty regarding our futures, making this a daunting decision. This blog will therefore outline pertinent factors and strategies for maximizing the lab rotation experience.


It is critical that the lab you join has sufficient funding for your research projects during your entire tenure in the lab. Funding is central to your research progress and ability to carry out meaningful work. You can check the National Institutes of Health funding to a specific PI or (NIH) funding to an entire department using the NIH RePORTER tool.

Publication Record

Ensuring multiple high-quality publications during your graduate career will set you up for success in an academic career. Publications are the currency of academia, and others will use them to assess your productivity. If the lab has a sub-par publication record, do not expect it to change when you join.

Lab Composition

Some individuals flourish in a large, bustling lab full of research techs, graduate students, and postdocs, and others do well in a small, tight-knit group. This is where it is important to know yourself. In large labs, that centrifuge you were planning on using for your experiment could be in use right at the critical time when you need it. Conversely, in a larger lab, someone with the perfect expertise you need for your project may be sitting right behind you. Just remember, your fellow lab members will become your colleagues, the basis of your professional network, and potential lifelong collaborators if you all stay in academia.

Mentor Style

In general, new PIs are going to be more hands-on with your project, perhaps training you directly on lab techniques and reminding you of important deadlines. Established PIs may have a more laissez-faire approach to mentorship. If you are new to research, writing academic papers, and giving talks in an academic setting, it could be very beneficial to have additional guidance. However, if you have a clear goal and outcome for what success in graduate school means to you, then having more freedom will be in your interest.

Research Area

It is very intentional that this is the last consideration when choosing a lab. If you know exactly what you want out of your graduate school training and the research area, then this is the number 1 consideration. However, if you are one of the vast majority of graduate students that lack such clarity, then research area is nominal (i.e., in name only). If the lab has sufficient funding and an adequate publication record, then the research area is viable and one worth investing in.

Perhaps more useful than a list of things to consider are simply these questions to ask yourself when choosing a lab: “Would I be proud to be the first author on this lab’s most recent publication?” Or “If I were an average graduate student in this lab, would that be acceptable for me?” Additionally, consider what career paths former graduate students in the lab of interest have taken upon graduation. Would those jobs/careers be what you would want? Finally, remember that graduate school is more akin to an apprenticeship than school—use it as an opportunity to acquire skills that are meaningful and useful to you and your future career.