Navigating the Decisive Minefield of Grad School Applications, Interviews, and Rotations (Part 2)

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

When choosing a mentor, there are a lot of things to consider. After reading this article, you will know how to start the decision-making process.

In my last post, I discussed the graduate school application, which is a quite a process in itself. Now, I’ll presume that everything with your application went splendidly and that you have been offered an interview to your dream institution. So, what’s next? Well, you get to jump back into the magical world of decisions! I’m going to get into a bit more detail about the actual interview process in the next post. In this article, we are going to look at setting up your interviews and choosing a mentor. So, after you have been invited to interview, you will have to request a few people to interview with. The ones you select should be labs that you are interested in working in. You should look at this almost as if you are setting up your rotations.

Choosing a mentor can be a difficult process and one that you need to start thinking about much earlier than you might think. Interviews will allow you to show your best side to the school and the people you interview with. But it will also give you a chance to feel them out, talk with their students, and see if you are interested in rotating with these professors…as well as deciding if you want to go to that school, of course. Since deciding who to interview with also applies to selecting people for your rotations, I’ll just cover all of it here.

Alright, here we go! When deciding which mentors to choose there are a number of factors that are important;

(Most important to less important…notice I didn’t say least, they all are still important)

  1. Research
  2. Funding
  3. Publications
  4. Program
  5. The time it takes their students to graduate
  6. Where do their former students end up?

 

Research – This one is simple. What do they study? Do you like it? Does it look interesting and appealing to you? If not, then don’t bother. You don’t need to have a background in the type of research they do. Just read their website and a few publications. If it sounds cool, go for it. What if you end up not liking the research? Well just because you work on something in grad school does not mean you are stuck working on that type of research forever! This is a common misconception and folks often use post-doc opportunities as a chance to branch out.

Funding – This is very important! Any funding they receive from NIH or any federally funded grant is publicly available. (NIH is here: https://projectreporter.nih.gov/reporter.cfm). It is important to look at what type of funding they have, the amount per year, and when those grants end. It’s also good to look at how often they are awarded grants. Ideally, they should have staggered grants in their name, preferably R01’s or higher. R35 grants are awesome (These are usually very well-funded with a guaranteed 5-7 years, which means pretty much your entire time in school). It should be noted, however, that just because a mentor doesn’t have an NIH grant, it doesn’t mean they aren’t well funded. There are many private grants and funding institutions that don’t report publicly. You can often find out a little bit about a labs funding by talking to students in the lab or asking around. To reiterate, funding is really important. It can pay your stipend and more importantly provides the tools and reagents you need to do your research. You do not want to get stuck in a situation where your lab runs out of money three years into your Ph.D. and you have to switch labs. That will pretty much guarantee a 7-year plus Ph.D.

 

Publications – I should note before I say this, that journal specifics should be applied to your field of interest. I am in the biomedical field, so this might be slightly different for you, but the idea is the same. Ideally, you want a mentor with some high-level publications (for whatever discipline your mentor is in) and frequent publications. Be aware that mentors that only publish in high-level journals (in my field that would be the big three, Cell, Nature, Science [CNS]) are often not ideal, as that is the ultimate publish or perish type lab. They may have great success, but it often comes with large crashes in between. It also reduces the number of pubs possible during your tenure as a grad student, which could be a huge problem if your school has publication requirements for graduation. On the other hand, a lab that publishes in a low-tier all the time is not great either. Labs that publish in solid mid-tier journals and occasionally (or often) have a high-profile publication are ideal here. It’s also good that they have a solid history of publishing since that will ultimately help you get the publications you need. Writing and publishing quality research is an invaluable skill.

Program – This is in reference to the type of program/system/mentorship they have. This can be really important if you have a particular way you like to work or level of mentorship that you need. i.e. I hate being micromanaged and can work independently but can get distracted by things that may take me waaaay off course (squirrel!). Therefore, I need someone who is not looking over my shoulder and that I may not meet with frequently, but when we do meet they give concise, clear direction and help keep me on track. If you don’t have a lot of experience, then you may need someone a bit more hands on. The mentor’s style of leadership and program can be found out by simply talking to their students. You should definitely talk to at least one of their students prior to setting up a rotation anyways!

The time it takes their students to graduate – This may be one of the most important questions to you as a student. You don’t want to have a 7+ year Ph.D. if you don’t have to. You will be really burnt out at that point. Six years or less is what you are shooting for here and the average for many programs is often less, around 5 years. This information is often on the lab website as well, if not then you can often deduce it from the inter-webs again or email a few students from the lab.

Where do their former students end up? – This is maybe not as important, but is still good to consider. This is dependent on what you think you want to do as well. The general idea is that the students are successful and end up in good positions, be that as an academic professor, or in industry as a mentor, or anywhere else that is a Ph.D. level job. This can be found out by checking the lab’s website first, which will often tell you where their students/post-docs ended up. If that’s not listed on the website, then you can use the inter-webs, Linkedin, Facebook, Google etc.

Great, you’ve narrowed that list down, right? Well, don’t put it down yet! There’s more to think about!

Another thing to consider is the level the professor that will be your mentor is at;

  1. Full professors
  2. Associate professors
  3. Assistant professors.

Full professors – They have been around and seen many things. They are often well established, have great funding, a good publication record and have trained a lot of students and post-docs. They will likely be able to handle grad students well and know what you need to get your degree in a timely manner. Something that is very important to note, is full professors that are nearing retirement. These guys can come with a whole lot of potential issues. They are sometimes not as engaged or as enthusiastic, which can lead to less publications for you and a potentially frustrating experience having to figure out your project completely on your own. This can also lead to serious issues for you if they decide to retire in the middle of your graduate tenure, which will result in having to find another lab to finish your work in. In addition, there is also the possibility that they might not be applying for as many grants and funding may become tight. These are all important aspects to figure out prior to joining their lab. Full professors can be a great situation, but you need to do your homework here.

Associate professors – In the middle of their career. Usually enthusiastic, often have good funding and publication records. They may be in the lab more frequently. It is important to speak with their students about mentorship style, etc. There is likely a wide variability in these different parameters and the type and amount of funding they have, but there is a lot of upside. The biggest issue you will find here is the associate professor’s management style and personality. Red Flags to look for are high personnel turnover, poor publication records, and long graduation times. You will often hear about poor mentors through the grad school grapevine as well.

Assistant Professors – They are often young and innovative. Many of them are new (or within a few years) and are beginning their labs. Most of them are still actively doing experiments, and you will likely be one of the very few people in the lab (and often the only person) besides the mentor. This can be good if you need a lot of mentoring or want a hands-on mentor since you will likely work beside them every day. This can also give you the opportunity to be an author on a very good publication, fairly quickly, since the mentor will often be finishing their work as a post-doc. At many institutions, new mentor’s are given pretty good start-up packages and are kind of “guaranteed” funding until they can apply for tenure. This essentially means that the department will help them out until they can stand on their own. For you, this means that a brand new mentor will be funded through your graduate career. As such, if the mentor getting tenure looks a bit shaky at 5 or so years, you might be able to finish before it hits the fan. (It’s best for the department if a mentor gets tenure…and they usually will.)

The flipside to all of this is that the assistant professor may not have established funding and may be on someone else’s grant. You are in a trial-and-error situation in many ways, they haven’t established their lab or a dynamic in (and with) the lab yet and may not be successful. That being the case, you could end up in a scenario where you may not like where you are, or worse, the lab fails and you have to start over. However, it can also give you a chance to help build that lab dynamic. As you can see, this can be a little bit of a gamble. There’s a lot of positives and negatives here. The chance to help build a lab, good publications, often an enthusiastic boss and lots of available mentoring, but there’s also the potential for greater stress.

Wow! This seems like a bit of overkill, random blog guy! It’s not. Trust me. Grad school will dictate a huge portion of the rest of your life. It is one of the biggest decisions you will ever make. So take it seriously. You wouldn’t buy a car or a house all willy-nilly (yes, I used that phrase. It’s awesome.) And both of those will impact your life less than grad school. Shall we continue?…Well, not right now. I think that’s enough for one post. I feel overwhelmed just writing it! No worries though. Grad school is awesome, and you won’t regret it!

Next up: Interviews!

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