From The NIH Catalyst, Volume 3, page 23.
Perhaps you’ve read our blog about the many benefits of doing research work as an undergraduate, and perhaps you’ve even read our blog concerning how to determine what research area/lab is right for you. But there’s still one major factor that can make or break a research experience: the PI. The PI is the principal investigator for the lab. They are the lead scientist on a lab’s general, broad goal. They are a head of labs of sorts, and they can set the entire tone for the lab and how all the members of that lab interact with each other and handle experiments and designs. So needless to say, when choosing a lab it’s very important to take special interest in the PI. Here are some tips for evaluating a PI to see if you’d be a good fit with them and their lab.
First things first, the most basic area to check for a PI is their research area. Most labs have a website through the faculty page on the institution’s website. This page should give a general overview of the areas the research explores. If you have trouble with this, it’s also usually the case that faculties are fairly familiar with other labs’ research within that institution, so you could start with talking to someone in the lab about your interests and if they know of anyone who does research in that area.
It may be the case that there’s nobody directly related to the field you specifically want to study. Still no need to fret, try to this of your interest area in more general terms and by reducing your idea down, there will most likely be overlap with that and another researcher’s interests. By thinking of your interest area from a different light, you may gain more insight into what truly interests you than if you stick with somebody directly studying exactly what you’re interested in.
Once you think you have one or a few researchers in mind that you may like to work with, start by reading their publications. This has a couple benefits to it. First, reading these publications will give you a good idea of where the lab stands with its experimental path, and where it looks to be tending toward. Second, if you do join the lab, having read these papers will make you up to speed and lessen the inevitable learning curve of entering a new job. Third, reading past research of a PI gives you more to talk about in an interview and can set you apart from others by highlighting your genuine interest in the area.
The second major consideration to take into account is the lab environment the PI creates. This also requires you to be in tune with your own needs and desires from a lab. For example, some labs focus more on independent work than collaborative studies. If you are a type that prefers independent projects, then it is important to take into consideration whether PI’s prefer collaborative work on experiments or if they’re more hands-off in allowing each researcher more independence. However, some may prefer labs in which the PI holds regular lab meetings and likes each researcher to present their ideas and talk through the processes with the entire lab to work together on projects. Both have their own benefits and hindrances, but mostly it’s a personal preference and requires self-knowledge of which environment is more productive for you. In some labs the PI’s are much more hands on for each project, and in other labs the PI is more like a general over-seer. That distinction of independence and collaborative is all well and fine, but that still leaves the question of how to determine such a thing before having worked in the lab yourself.
The simplest, more straightforward thing to do is ask! Most PI’s will be honest about their lab environment, because they want researchers in their lab that will fit well and work well with the set-up as it is. Another good way to gauge the lab environment is talking to other people in the lab. Some questions which are good to ask about are the general day-to-day life in the lab. For example, “Does the PI assign people to projects he wants or do lab members make up the experiments?”, “What sort of time commitment does the lab require?”, “Is the lab’s emphasis in teaching or in the work produced?” or “What sort of responsibilities do research assistants have in this lab?” These questions are good because it’s easy for people to talk about because they aren’t left too open to personal opinions. There are actual answers and you can take in this information and see if the PI’s expectations can realistically fit into your schedule and skill set. These questions may seem hard to ask, but most PI’s or researchers would prefer you ask before you agree to join a lab, rather than joining under a false impression and quitting or being unhappy later.
But once you’ve done all the work of weeding through all the different PI’s, there still comes the question of what next? How do I approach and actually get into the lab? Well, once you’ve picked, you can find an email and set up a meeting to talk! In the email, bring up the research you’ve read from the lab, and if you’ve talked to any of the lab members about their job and ask about if the lab has any opportunities for a research assistant (or any other position). Sometimes you’ll have to take a position that isn’t paid or isn’t the exact position you wanted, but remember that labs are more likely to hire from within or choose to pay someone they know once funding comes through or a position opens up. You can also ask to meet up and talk more about any opportunities the lab has. The most important thing to remember in evaluating a PI is to be yourself and honest with your intents and commitments to ensure that the fit is a good one and that you’ll be happy with your lab. A happy research assistant is a more productive research assistant (and you know that makes for a happy PI)!