Picking a research lab is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a graduate student. Not all research environments are created equal, and choosing well can mean the difference between a fulfilling frustration-fraught experience. One of the considerations you might face when making your choice? Whether or not to sign on with an established lab or to take a chance on a new one.
Here’s a closer look at the pros and cons of going the untraveled route.
Pros of Working in a New Research Lab
Choosing to work in a new research lab feels like a risk. After all, you may have less information to go on. However, there’s a flip side to the uncertainty: Rare and unexpected opportunities may be waiting for you, including the following three pros:
1. You’ll be freer in your research.
Large established labs may efficiently churn out research, but they may also have rigorous processes in place which can ultimately be limiting to research.
German graduate student Can Sönmezer recently told Nature of his experiences working in a different kind of lab, “I decided I wanted to work in a relatively new lab. That was a big criterion for me...I have the chance to establish my own system. [The principal investigator (PI)] has things planned out, but he’s also giving me the space and freedom to find my own direction on the project.”
2. You’ll have better access to the lab leader.
New labs also tend to be smaller labs. So while researchers in a larger lab may have little sought-after contact with PIs, researchers in newer, smaller labs get more attention. And, insists molecular biologist Ann Miller, “That PI is going to have a more vested interest in your success.”
You may also find that your work - and your presence -- has greater inherent value. “In a small lab, each postdoc is chosen very carefully to fit with the science and the lab culture.” In other words, it’s not about amassing many people, but rather about finding the right person.
3. You’ll have more opportunities for collaboration.
There’s no denying that large established labs tend to be both robust and productive. But researchers may end up feeling like anonymous cogs in the wheel. “However, small labs can provide an intimate and collaborative setting,” counters the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB).
Cons of Working in a New Research Lab
While there are many good reasons to consider joining a new research lab, there are also some potential downsides, including the following:
1. New labs have neither a track record nor name recognition.
If you’re looking for a sure bet and/or the prestige of working for a respected lab or PI, you’re unlikely to find that at a new lab -- at least not yet. New labs have to earn respect within the community and this may involve a learning curve.
When Timothy Fessenden stumbled into working for a brand-new lab, he was initially met with resistance from his advisor. “It was the reaction you might expect,” he told Nature. “New PIs don’t have any track record. It’s like someone who wants to take out a loan for a house bust doesn’t have any credit.”
This doesn’t mean naysayers won’t come around with a bit of convincing. “[The] lab and [the PI’s] focus were such a perfect fit for me that it seemed inevitable that it was worth it, whatever the risk.”
2. It can be isolating.
While new labs can give you up close and personal access to many people, they can also be surprisingly isolating at times. In established labs, there are always people around.
Of working in a larger lab, graduate student Michael Mitchell told Nature, “If I read about an exciting technique and want to do it but don’t know how, I can knock on a door down the hall and find someone who does. We can have coffee, talk about an idea -- and we’re doing an experiment that night in the lab.”
It’s also critical to acknowledge, however, that more opportunities for contact don’t necessarily equate to more opportunities for collaboration. “In a large lab, you want to be very focused on your own research project. It's more important to get first-author publications that you can take ownership for. Ultimately you're going to be judged on your independent work,” said Mitchell.
3. There are financial risks.
Established labs aren’t going anywhere. New labs, however, may be more vulnerable to financial issues.
Jim Gould, who heads up the Office for Postdoctoral Fellows at a major medical school, told Nature, “Postdocs should consider the security of the funding and how long the PI can provide financial support.”
Furthermore, it’s essential to understand the degree to which you may be responsibility for providing your own funding. “[Prospective graduate students] should also ask if they are required, expected, or simply encouraged to seek their own funding," Gould advised.
Choosing the right lab can define your career, and factoring in the size and status of the lab is a major part of the equation. One last thing to keep in mind? There’s no right or wrong when it comes to your decision. As with many personal and professional aspects of life, it all comes down to doing your due diligence in order to determine what best suits your unique needs and wants.
If you're starting a PhD or postdoc, you may opt to join a lab abroad. Here are a few tips on how to fit in. Let's take a closer look.
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