Choosing a lab - ucbeast | UC Berkeley

Finding the Ideal Lab for You
Prof. Steve Conolly
UC Berkeley BioE & EECS
Berkeley/UCSF BioE Grad Group
Berkeley Head Graduate Advisor
Grad Choices are New
• Undergrad choices: brought you here!
• What do I enjoy studying (major)?
• Grad school vs. MD vs. real job
• Grad Choices: Set up career path
– Passion: Engineering vs. Basic
science, vs. Clinical science?
– Which research area excites you?
– Who will mentor me?
• Choices impact career & salary!
– Rotations allow experimentation
– Align choices with career goals
Finding Ideal Lab for You (1 slide)
3 classes plus one rotation
Hundreds of funded GSR positions
Rotate once with cool-research PI
Weigh PI funding and style, too!
No herding into few hot groups
Rotations are competitive!
Diving into the Deep
First, Some Convenient Truths
•How will I get paid?
•How will I be mentored?
Who pays me?
• 1st year paid by the Program
• After year 1, your PI pays you
• This works well for most students
• Worse in humanities
(permanent teaching, few grants)
• Fellowships buy you autonomy
Prof. L. von Drake
How you will pay your rent
•GSR costs PI $50,000+/yr
•Your PI must have grant
support to pay you
•Rotate with PI’s who have
history of grant support!
Why is Fit So Important?
• Students’ ideal goals:
– Harvard faculty job or $10M startup
• Profs’ ideal goals for you:
– Get fundable data today
• Minor conflict is inevitable
(but typically works out fine)
Prof. McGrumpy
What you already know you want in your PI
• Great research vision
• 100-200 CV’s for each faculty job
• All PI’s good (at research)
• Some grad students choose PI
based only on research reputation
• Bad plan! Most unhappy students!
Prof. Hotshot
• Reputation is trendy & subjective
(and extremely unreliable!)
• Necessary but not sufficient
Unreliable Metrics of Research Quality
Long CV
Regal Bearing (OMG!)
Lots of publications (50 vs. 200)
High-Impact factor journal pubs (not
a factor in engineering)
• Speaking ability (able to sell ice
cubes to someone in Arctic Circle)
• What impact will this work likely have
in areas that matter to you!
Prof. Hotshot
What you should also want in a PI
CTO: Great Research Vision
CEO: Stable 3-year funding
Chairman: Good networking: job leads
COO: Good management
No PI in the world can do all 4 roles well….and teach, too!
Startup Burnrate ~$5,000,000/yr
6 GSR’s ~ $500,000/yr
A Few Traps to Avoid
•Student (self)-inflicted traps
•Faculty-inflicted traps
Avoid Common Student Traps
• “I can take 4 classes/semester and still ace
my Rotations!” (Not!)
• “I will join Prof. Q’s lab, so my other
rotations are fake.” (So dumb…)
• “Prof Y. is kind … so s/he must be a
weaker researcher than Prof. Q.” (OMG!!)
• “I have firmly decided on Prof. Z, but s/he
has no money.” (Be flexible!)
• “Three buddies joined Prof. Q’s lab so I will
rotate too.” (No herding!)
• “I will do basic science PhD but get a job in
engineering later.” (No plan!)
• “I will pioneer a nanowidget for Prof. Z,
MD, who plans to use it clinically.” (Wrong
mentor background!)
Uncommon Trap
Multiple self-inflicted nail
gun head injury. S. Med.
J. 100: 608-10.
Avoid These (Rare) Faculty Traps!!
1. Permanent GSI: “Grant is certain to
come in soon … but GSI for now!”
2. Hidden Treasure: “I have hidden grant
funding but not for your project.”
3. Lose Your Rotations: “Rotate again and
we can send your paper to Nature!!”
• Do all 3 rotations with 3 distinct
PI’s who can fund your PhD
• Repeating a rotation is violation of
Grad Group Policy!
How do you find your Ideal PI?
• Discover Your Passion
– Engineering (better, faster, cheaper)
– Basic Science (discover the unknown!)
– Clinical Science (test new cures,
• Talk with PI’s about the “open
challenges” in their field
• Which challenge excites you?
• Check this with friends, family
• Be aware we all deceive ourselves!
How do you find your Ideal PI?
List faculty in your passion area
Ask senior students about style
Check on funding
Check with Rebecca or SarahJane
Narrow down to ~10
Ask PI’s about vision, rotation projects,
grants, former students’ jobs, duration
• Hundreds of GSR slots open
• Be flexible!
Management questions for senior students
"How often do you see your advisor?”
"What's PI’s management style?”
“Is your PI ever unreasonable?”
“Do students compete or collaborate?”
“Lab culture fun, fast, exciting?”
“Does PI help students get jobs?”
“What jobs do you get (industry,
academia, startup, Starbucks)?”
Money questions to ask senior students
• “Are any students forced to GSI
more than once?”
• “Is the grant budget enough for
travel, GSRs & for experiments?”
• “Are junior students asked to write
group research grant proposals?”
Quiz #1
• When is it OK to rotate twice with a
If the PI asks all students to do this
If the PI is really famous
If the PI really likes my research
The students are really cool & fun
None of the above
Diving into the Deep End
Read PhD Comics…funny
•PhD Comics Jorge Cham, PhD (ME, Stanford)
Same era as Dan Fletcher and Amy Herr
• 3 classes plus one rotation
• Put serious effort into the
rotation (competitive!)
• Find out about PI’s Funding and
Management Track Record
– Talk with senior grad students
– Talk with HGA’s
– Privately ask Rebecca & SJT
• Rotate only once with funded
PI’s… do all 3 rotations to see
all your options
Diving into the Deep End
Just A Few Slides on Wily Tricks
• “Prof. Hotshot’s lab has 5 candidates for
1 GSR spot!! That is really competitive!
Now you want me to risk angering the
PI with annoying questions about
management and funding!”
• But if you are passive now, you may
waste years in the wrong group
Quiz #1
• When is it OK to rotate with a PI
who has no grant support?
If the PI is really nice.
If the PI is really famous
If the PI has really exciting research
The students are really cool & fun
None of the above
Diving into the Deep End
Career path: Keep Your Options Open
• ~30,000 science and
engineering PhDs per year
• ~15% get tenure at a major
research university
• "The number of tenured and
tenure-track scientists in
biomedicine has not increased
in the past two decades even
as the number of doctorates
granted has nearly doubled.”
R. Monastersky 2007

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