Size vs. style: What to consider when choosing a lab

One of the first things people tell you to figure out when choosing a lab to complete your thesis work is what size lab will best fit you. This is generally good advice, but it’s trumped in importance by finding a mentor and lab that fit your style, regardless of size. Here’s why.

1c2bca1 Amy Palubinsky

As one of only six biochemistry majors, my undergraduate research was comprised of soil samples, a ton of bugs, a bunch of machines, and me in a room. I basically worked in solitude (excluding the bugs) until I collected enough data to meet with my advisor and devise next steps. I didn’t attend a heavy science school or one affiliated with a hospital or other higher-learning institution, so there were no graduate students or postdocs milling around. In fact, I didn’t even know what a postdoc was at this point. I got a lot done, often at weird hours, because I only had to contend with my own schedule. While hands off, my advisor was always there for me when I had questions, hit a wall or just needed someone else’s perspective. And I meshed well with this style—or at least I thought I did since it was all I’d known at this point.

Fast forward to my first job out of undergrad—tech-ing in the Neurology department at Johns Hopkins—and you would have found me in a very different place. Our lab consisted of about 20 people—mostly postdocs with a few graduate, medical, and undergraduate students thrown in. The environment could not have been more different from my undergraduate lab. No longer in isolation, I got to work with some amazing people who taught me more than I ever expected about work/life balance, different cultures, mentorship, and, oh yeah, science—lots of science! I’m forever grateful to them because the other big change for me was that I didn’t have just one project to work on, but rather was partially immersed into almost everyone’s projects in the lab. Without those folks letting me follow and learn from them, I would have been up a creek without a paddle right from the start. While I constantly followed them, my PI and the postdocs with whom I most closely worked were again fairly hands off (i.e. super busy). I did my work, asked questions when I got lost or confused, and just enjoyed soaking up as much as I possibly could.

My present lab lies somewhat in the middle of my previous worlds, in terms of size and composition. While we don’t have any postdocs, we’ve got grad students, medical students, residents, and a slew of undergrads. We hypothesize together, write together (which is horrible and amazing all at once; a post on this to come), troubleshoot together, brainstorm together, collaborate a ton (internally and externally), and, of course, grab coffee together. But when it comes to experiments, we strike out individually and are left to our own devices unless we need support.

Seeing a pattern here? I’m not a shy person. I don’t mind saying, “I have no idea what I’m doing here,” and I love to overanalyze, over-plan, and ask a ton of questions. For me, experimenting alone until I need help just works. And that has never changed, whether there was one person in the lab or 30. For others, one-on-one training and a more hands-on approach will work better. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting or needing things to be that way—you just have to find mentors with the time and willingness to train you in this manner. But you can find this in a small lab—maybe one that’s just starting up, where the PI is still at the bench collecting their own preliminary data and can’t wait to get you on board and as excited about their work as they are. Or you can find it in a giant lab—maybe one where the PI constantly travels but there are postdocs and other students you can learn from. If one thing is true about scientists, it’s that they love to talk about their projects and pull in people who are as interested in said projects as they are.

Just remember: Lab sizes can change in a heartbeat. Students graduate, postdocs move on, PIs move up (or in sad times, out), but one thing can and should remain constant: You should always have strong mentors who understand not just what you want out of each experience, but what you need. What you need to learn, what you need to do, and what you need to be in order to have success. Like many things in life, when it comes to labs, size doesn’t always matter.

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Amy M Palubinsky

Amy M Palubinsky

Amy Palubinsky is a Neuroscience PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University and mom to two human children and one fur-kid. She hates mornings and therefore loves coffee.