Prospective Students and Lab Culture

‘Tis the season for would-be faculty to field campus interviews. It’s also the time of year when accepted prospective graduate students come for campus visits. Usually a two or three day blitz of events, on our campus it always includes a day’s worth of interview time with each lab group that a student is considering joining.* Some of that time is a formal interview with faculty PIs, but much of that time is spent chatting with current graduate students and post-docs over coffee (or adult beverages).

Every year that I’ve been here, we’ve had at least one prospective student interviewing with my lab group. And each time, I’ve been struck by how these students did not ask a single question about the culture of our lab group, even when having private one-on-one conversations with current graduate students. Now that I’ve been in graduate school for several years, I’ve realized the extent to which lab culture and communication norms can make or break one’s sanity. Students in unsupportive or toxic lab cultures can finish, but it won’t be fun and will make the challenge of graduate education much more so. Not that I blame the prospective students – after all, hindsight is 20/20. But more importantly, when I was applying for graduate programs, I had the invaluable support and insight of friends who were currently in similar programs. Their adventures – and misadventures – helped me develop a list of questions to ask graduate students when I had campus interviews. So below are some of the questions I’ve asked, as well as ones I’ve added over the years when helping the undergraduates that I mentor prepare for interviews. What other questions would you add?

How would you describe the lab group?  Red flags can be obvious if you ask the right question. If the first word out of a current students’ mouth is “dysfunctional,” that should tell you something.

How are students in this lab funded? The time to pretend that talking about money isn’t classy is over. It’s critical to understand how you’d be funded if you attend graduate school with a particular program or advisor. You want to know that an advisor is committed to helping their students succeed and graduate. Part of that success is finding ways to finance that education – whether that’s teaching, research, project assistance-ships, external grants, etc. Don’t believe that it will just ‘fall into place!’

What kind of schedules do you all work? There’s that joke that academia lets you pick the 80 hours a week that you work. Whether or not that’s the case, you want to know if a lab has a reputation for say, holding mandatory lab meetings on Saturday mornings (true story). Another friend works in a lab that expects graduate students to work 9-5 on weekdays, and then to come back after dinner from 8 until at least 10pm. (This ridiculous policy reinforced dated gender stereotypes and norms – hurting men who wanted to be involved partners/dads and forcing women in the group to feel like they had to pick between graduate school and having families.) Understandably, that might not work for the work-life balance you want to have. You might decide that it’s a worthwhile sacrifice, but you should know what you’re getting into.

Is there a lab group meeting? What do you all talk about? Some groups only read papers, others only present research in progress. This could give you a good idea of the type of group interaction and support that you’ll get.

How would you describe the PI’s advising style with graduate students? Again, this is a feeler for red flags. If an answer starts with “what advising?” you might be in trouble. If this faculty member travels 40 weeks out of the year, fine – but again, you should know what you’re getting into. Especially if the PI is hands off, you’ll be rely even more on your fellow students and post-docs for support and feedback!

Do the students from this lab graduate (and on time)? You want to know the answer to this. A friend found out, much too late, that the group she joined as a PhD had never graduated a doctoral student – they had all quit or been fired by the PI.   She only discovered this information as she was in the midst of a conflict with her adviser that eventually resulted in her switching PIs and programs.   This question can also be posed to graduate students of labs you’re not interviewing with – they might be more candid with stories (or rumors).

Are you happy in this group/program/lab? Why not ask? You might get an honest reply. And if someone is hesitating or doesn’t want to share, you’ll be able to pick up on that.

What do students from this lab do after graduation? Some labs have a culture that values aiming for tenure-track professorships above all else. If that’s not your goal in getting a graduate degree, it’s important to be in a lab group and program that values your career ambitions. I remember having a conversation with the department chair at one of the top ranked programs in my field in a campus interview. He told me in no uncertain terms that he and his program were not interested in training people who didn’t want to be faculty. Whether or not that was my goal, it’s better to understand the culture ahead of time.

But there are other important questions that I haven’t figured out how to ask.

How is harassment handled (in reality, as opposed to on paper)? Have there been incidents in the past?  As my own lab has had incidents – such as a postdoc sexually harassing an undergraduate – I know that unfortunately this question is relevant. Whether or not the person you’re asking knows the answer or would be honest is another question.

Is it an inclusive environment? After a friend transitioned in graduate school, she reflected on what she wished she’d been able to know about whether or not her adviser, other PIs and labmates would be supportive of her choices, especially as letter writers and peers.  But what to ask to get a feel for that?

What other questions would you ask? Let’s help future prospective students develop a list that will help them make informed choices that support their career goals and broader lives as people. Feel free to add your suggestions and reflections on campus interviews as a prospective graduate student in the comments.

*On our campus, if you’re accepted to the graduate school, you must be accepted by a lab group to actually attend graduate school in this field.


29 thoughts on “Prospective Students and Lab Culture

  1. (1) Ask about the amount of competition between grad students, postdocs, and the PI. There shouldn’t be any. If trainees sound arrogant when discussing their work, that’s a problem.

    (2) Ask about the goals of other lab members. As PIs become more established, they can attract more intellectually and professionally conservative trainees. It’s not enough that super famous people graduated from the lab several years ago. You need to know whether the current environment is still focused, hungry, and creative, or if people are hoping that their PI’s reputation will do the work… or that somehow by osmosis they’ll pick up whatever it takes to do good science.

    I chose my PhD lab in large part because of a senior grad student with whom I really clicked. We published some very high-impact papers together.

    • That was my question, too, but the flip of (1) – how much do graduate students and postdocs collaborate in the lab? How many papers and projects have you worked on with the other grads and postdocs in the lab?

  2. All good advice. I would also consider it a red flag if in discussing the research in the lab, the PI appears to be heavily focused on some specific grand theory that they have developed and sees the purpose of all of the research in the lab as “proving” that theory.

  3. Great advice!

    I would ask if the faculty in the department get along, and whether teaching assistantships were encouraged or discouraged. I know of one program where science grad students are discouraged from teaching. My own career would have been seriously hampered if I had been in such a program. That may be dating me, though, as teaching positions disappear … perhaps nowadays the question of how helpful the PI and the school’s career services are in finding a position is more important.

    • Not a dated question, in my opinion – I’m a recent PhD graduate and despite the contracting field and the shriveling of tt jobs, a lot of professors are still in la la land – still shelling out the advice that there are good jobs for good people, and still telling students that they don’t need to teach (or teach much) in order to get a good job. Things I have been told by well-meaning and otherwise excellent mentors.

  4. Really great post!

    I would ask if current grad students and members in the lab feel academically, psychologically, and financially empowered. For instance do the PI and others in the lab facilitate student progress or throw down every possible roadblock along the way. I would also ask how the PI handles failures and setbacks as there are often many on the road to a Phd!

    The last thing I would add is that in my experience everyone works best in a different type of advising environment. One person’s ideal advisor could not be a good fit for someone else. I always advise people to take each person they talk to as a sample size of one and to try to glean from the conversation not just whether or not an individual is happy and successful but what exactly about the advising style of the PI makes them be happy or successful (or not). Once they know the underlying style, then the prospective student can decide for themselves whether that is an style they can work with or not.

  5. The question about asking what students from a given lab do after graduation I find to be an especially important one, but I think it can be asked in several ways that illicit slightly different types of information. When going through the student interview process, I asked where former graduate students now, and the PI very much cherry-picked which former graduate students to talk about that were no exactly representative of students from the lab. I prefer to ask where are your five (ten or fifteen, depending on the size of the lab) most recent graduate students now? If I had asked this question of either the PI or the graduate students (both in the lab and in the department more broadly), I would have found out that four of the lab’s last five graduate students had quit which would have been a giant red flag. I ended up finding this out much later while in the program when encountering difficulties in the lab. Be aware that how you phrase questions can cause answers to change wildly.

  6. Great advice! I would also add, “How does the PI feel about students teaching?” If it is something you want to get experience in but your PI sees it as a distraction from your research, that can alert you to potential challenges.

  7. So, one major issue here is that prospective grad students often have NO idea how important each of these things is. They may not even know to think about them. In my career I was just following “the path”, and didn’t realize at the point of choosing a lab that these things might be critical. Up until that point many of these “choices” were simply defaults that the smart kids chose. I also had no idea what format my visit to campus would take, and what would go on.

    If you’re a PI or undergrad adviser, and one of your undergrads is applying for grad school, show this to them. Don’t assume they’ll just google these questions.

    • yes! I didn’t appreciate how valuable my graduate student mentors were when I was a post-undergrad and thinking about applying to grad school/going through interviews.

    • Yes, that was my thought about reading this. Those prospective graduate students might not be asking the right questions because they genuinely do not know what questions to ask, or the central role of the lab/research group in the life of a grad student. I consider myself reasonably well-informed pre-grad school, and I didn’t think to ask all of these questions (perhaps one or two).

  8. Pingback: Prospective Student and Lab Culture, International Edition | Tea 'N' Mango Juice

  9. Great post. As a graduate student I witnessed many other students who were unwilling to talk openly about disagreements with their advisers, toxic student/PI interactions, etc with prospective students, especially in front of a group. They didn’t want to mislead the prospective students, but often felt guilty or uncomfortable griping about their problems with strangers. A question that seemed to help was something like “What strategies have worked well for you to maintain a successful relationship with your adviser/PI?” You can modify “successful relationship” to be more specific, if you’d like. Students of non-toxic PI’s will probably answer something like “what strategy? I just talk to him/her and it’s helpful” whereas students of toxic PI’s might answer something like “successful relationship? errrr….” or “I make sure to talk to him/her before 11am because he’s cranky all afternoon” or “I CC my committee on all emails” or “We both have aggressive personalities so it works out okay,” etc.

    • great points on the questions to ask about PI communication strategies. As someone who can unfortunately truthfully say “well, the PI is supportive or not depending on if they’re in a good mood,” you should want that info ahead of time from me! But it’s hard to offer that out there if prospective students don’t ask.

  10. How about asking about what the lab norms are regarding scholarly publishing and measuring impact? Do they deposit their work in the university digital archive? Where do they publish? Do they make their data available? How closely do they work with their data services librarian or subject librarian? Do they know that they have a data services librarian (they probably do) or that they have a subject librarian (they most certainly do). Have they heard about or (ideally) listened to presentations from OpenCon 2014? Are they excited about what they heard!!??

    In other words, is the lab connected to current library and research services designed to preserve and enhance impact? I’m a librarian…when I talk to new graduate students or new faculty about these matters I am surprised by how often the rejoinder is “Nobody told me that!” (That it is possible to retain copyright to their own work, which they own until they sign it away via the copyright transfer statement, for example).

    Related: prospective grad students might want to ask about general awareness and use of research support services and personnel: for example, we have an infographic of research services support personnel shows the people available to assist with different aspects of research, from statistics to scientific illustrations, photos and video, creating and printing posters, lit reviews, editing etc. I invite new people to make time to meet everyone on the map.

    • These are all great questions. I was thinking just of the “squishier” lab culture/personal interaction elements of interviewing for a prospective slot, but agree that these questions about data and library resources are critical. Thanks!

    • No offense, Ann, truly. But when it comes to picking a lab — I am in engineering — these questions are not at the top of my list. I worked for many years at a place with excellent library services, so I appreciate the value of that. But as a science grad student, publishing is largely if not exclusively dictated by your advisor. So these issues of library support are rather minor at this stage.

  11. In my experience, current grad students are almost always reluctant to “dish,” so I would advise prospective students that they really need to listen and read between the lines. More honest answers can often be had from recent grads. They are not directly under the thumb of the PI anymore and also have more perspective. Certain things can loom large (or small) in grad school depending on a student’s own emotional state.

    • In that spirit, I would recommend asking grad students in the same dept who aren’t current OR former grads of the PI in question. Recent grads of a specific lab are likely still using their PI as a letter writer or recommender, so they might not disclose their own horror stories. When I interviewed at my current institution (but with a different PI I didn’t pick), a former student of his indicated he knew of red flags. I asked to follow up on email and he refused to have a paper trail to discuss, so he gave me his phone number and we chatted. I appreciated his time and candor — and completely understood his desire to be discreet, given that his former PI was still a reference (and oblivious enough not to realize his former student had a negative experience).

      • Hell, no, you never conduct a conversation like that through email! Great that the former student was honest. I guess the one thing I would say about asking grad students who don’t have 1st hand knowledge of the situation is just that — now you are veering into the realm of speculation and rumor.

        • maybe but could also be beneficial — folks in a lab may not be entirely up front about drama if the pi is still a reference/their boss. that doesn’t make it more speculative necessarily.

  12. Pingback: Lab Culture – How to ask the right questions? | Read, Write & Execute

  13. Great post. As a former student in a lab with a somewhat difficult PI, I often found myself volunteering much of the information you suggest because it usually wasn’t brought up by the potential student themselves.

    For students in the somewhat awkward position of wanting to bring more students into the lab group while also being forthright about a potentially difficult advisor, I found it helpful to have the conversation in terms of what I had seen work well for those students who had good relationships and experiences in the lab, and what did not seem to work well for students who were unhappy. This allows prospective students to make an informed decision based on their own work-ethic, personality-type, skin-thickness, etc. An advisor’s style may be problematic for some but fine for others.

    Also, be aware that you may be only meeting with the happy students. I was also in a lab where my advisor clearly cherry-picked which students he would send potential advisees to (me being one) and avoided connecting them with students he had more difficult relationships with.

  14. This is good advice and good questions, however…

    Maybe the students are not asking in the fear of stepping over the line and having their questions repeated to the PIs, which in turn could affect their chances of getting the position? You pretty much state that the questions are passed on “even when having private one-on-one conversations with current graduate students” – even those weren’t really private, were they? Since you know what students asked or didn’t ask. Competition for funding and places is ridiculously high and getting worse. I can imagine that the prospective students don’t want to jeopardise their chances in any way, they might not want to give an impression that they are needy, unhappy from the outset, hard to please, problematic and so on.

    Also, in my experience, the lab group members being asked the questions are not always happy to answer or if they do their answers are vague, they change or drop the topic. I have also heard conversations between lab members after talking to prospective candidates – and they were horrible and judgmental, with people joking about how they lied to prospective students about PIs or the lab culture/work etc. Made me very cautious when I went onto visits and interviews.

  15. I find the above questions extremely pertinent! I think it’s important to evaluate not just an individual group, but also an entire department. This year at my university my fellow graduate students that hosted the visiting/prospective students were lectured beforehand about how they are to behave themselves. Last year few visiting students accepted their offers and in a survey commented about two things (that we know about). The first one was that some graduate students got to drunk and rowdy (understandable problem, but also an indicator of deeper issues). The other, was that some unhappy students were candid about their situations and “scared” prospective students away (posed as unhappy students complaining). The “hosting orientation” that the graduate students received was just that, a lecture about behaving yourself and not saying anything that could hurt the department. This orientation worked, combined with keeping any graduate students not chosen to host away from prospective students. This year the department was very happy with the hosting events, student behavior, and I presume how many people have excepted offers so far. My interpretation of all of this, is that I am in not just a toxic group but a toxic department, were students are encouraged and even lectured about keeping their unhappiness to themselves.

  16. Pingback: Tweeting from a toxic lab | Tenure, She Wrote

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