Transitioning from undergraduate school into graduate school brings along many new challenges and opportunities. Obviously, there are things like moving into a new city, finding where to live, and meeting new people. Then you also have new classes, new professors, and other new life decisions, like choosing a lab, designing a dissertation, and planning for a future career. As someone who absolutely hates making decisions, choosing what lab to join was so difficult. Over those last weeks before I had to choose, I was going back and forth weighing the different projects, trying to decide which helps me become the scientist I want to be, which lab I could complete my PhD faster, which project was more exciting, which project would give me more fun field work, which professor I would get along better with, if having a small or large lab is better, and countless other factors. It got me nowhere. Welcome to my life as an over-thinker.
As many have said before me, there unfortunately is no step-by-step guide on how to easily find the best lab for completing a PhD. Not to mention the fact that this process is so different for each program and every individual. Some students have what I viewed as the luxury of knowing exactly what they want to do for research and found the perfect professor to help them accomplish it. Others, such as myself, are faced with the prospect of having to figure out both of those things. This is a task that offers some (sometimes overwhelming) freedom, exploration, and opportunities. It is usually a very tough and daunting decision to fully commit to a lab and project for several years. However, be comforted by the fact that doing a PhD does not lock you into that type of research for the rest of your life; the best dissertation is a done dissertation. Also, there are so many wonderful professors who want to see you succeed and help you find the right fit in a lab to enjoy your PhD (at least as much as you can enjoy 4-5 years of intense research and paper writing). So, for those who must make these choices, take time to think things through before making a decision.
As for me, after trying many different labs, I decided to pave my own road through a co-advisorship with Roland Kays and Martha Burford Reiskind and develop my own project looking at the spread of salmonella and antimicrobial resistance in songbirds. I believe this collaboration with these labs will immensely help my growth as a scientist and allow me to learn many great skills and scientific techniques. Navigating working with two different advisors in two different departments can be difficult at times, but it is excellent practice for the real world, where scientists often collaborate with people at different institutions. So, if you don’t find a lab that fits your interests perfectly, designing your own project with co-advisors is another path forward. Ultimately, choosing a project and lab is difficult, and you may find the perfect fit for your interests and the perfect professor to be your advisor. Or you may decide that a co-advisorship and designing your own project is the right path for you. Allow yourself time to think through this decision and give yourself grace if it takes more time than you think. I promise you, eventually, you’ll figure it out, just like I did.