Looking for the Right Lab


Dear MentorDoctor,

I am a second-year minority graduate student on a majority campus. Although I enjoy my current research focus, I tend to exclude myself from many of the nonacademic lab activities. Everyone in my lab has been kind, respectful, and very helpful, but I am most often drawn to my friend's lab, who works with a Latino professor. That lab is much more ethnically diverse and I find myself more comfortable with them than my lab mates.

In addition, my friend's advisor is very easy to talk to. Although his research interest is not my top choice, I am thinking of switching labs to enjoy lab comradeship. Other people I've spoken to say that's not the proper way to choose a lab, but I don't want to be miserable the rest of my time in graduate school. What do you suggest?

--Searching for Happiness in Science

Isabella Finkelstein: It seems that you have the best of both worlds. You have a research focus that you enjoy and colleagues in your laboratory that are "kind, respectful, and very helpful." You also have friends in another laboratory that you enjoy. I think that the advice you have been given is correct. You should stay where you are. However, you should make an effort to join your laboratory colleagues in some of the nonacademic activities. Perhaps if you give them a chance, you would find that you enjoy their company. You are lucky that there is a laboratory nearby that is more ethnically diverse. Many of my students find that they are very much alone in their graduate programs.

You should remember why you are in graduate school: to get the best training that you can get. Your research area is very important; it must interest you. As you are well aware, you will be spending many hours in the laboratory. In some instances, you may have periods when your experiments do not work. Unless you are interested in your research, it will be much more difficult to complete your degree.

Your statement that "you do not want to be miserable the rest of the time you are in graduate school" concerns me. You must change your attitude. Look at the positives in your situation and do not dwell on the negatives. Good luck!

Judy Jackson: You've probably heard many times that happiness is an elusive state. Let me add that you also never know just where you might find it. It seems short-sighted and unwise for you to choose your lab solely on the basis of camaraderie with your friend and his lab mates. This research will endure for just a short while compared to how long you'll be working in the profession. Moreover, there's no telling what serendipitous fortune will accrue to you by pursuing your real research desire in your current lab.

If you were to make overtures to some of your own lab mates and let someone know how you feel, you might find that some of them want to be friends with you, not to mention the possibility of enriching your research. Opting out of a situation whenever you feel uncomfortable may not always be an option. You should give it your best before you decide to exit. Such tenacity will benefit you later on in your professional and personal endeavors.

Talk to your advisor and a couple of your lab mates and see what might follow by your simply letting them know what you desire. You might find like-mindedness where you least expect it, and thereby catalyze benefits to your entire lab. Best wishes.

James Stith: You indicate that you enjoy your current research focus and that everyone in your lab has been kind, helpful, and respectful. This is good! You further indicate that you are drawn to your friend's lab because your feel more comfortable and suggest that a reason for this heightened comfort level is that the lab is more ethnically diverse. This is also good and your association with this group will play a significant role in "rounding out" your graduate experience. Given that you enjoy the work in your lab (and I assume you find it professionally rewarding) I agree with those who argue that your reason for considering changing labs is flawed. (I am somewhat concerned by your statement that you "don't want to be miserable the rest of my time in graduate school" for it doesn't seem to fit with your statement that you enjoy your current focus.)

Given that you "enjoy" your current research focus, I strongly advise you to stay with your current advisor. I am assuming that in addition to being "kind, helpful, and respective," he or she is also supportive. I believe that the most important reasons for choosing a field are that one enjoys it and excels at it. There is no reason that you cannot continue to enjoy the social support from your friend's lab as well as the mentorship that you get from your friend's advisor. You will find that as your career progresses, there are many segments to your social and professional life. As you strive for the "balance" which results in a rewarding and satisfying career, you will most likely need to look in different quarters. Good luck as you make this very important decision.

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