Written by Gadareth Higgs, MS, Founder of GradPI
One of the most important decisions a student makes in graduate school is choosing an advisor or Principal Investigator (PI). This decision can make or break the student. However, there are few resources to reliably assess potential matches.
I began graduate school in one department, did four rotations, and entered the last lab I rotated in. However, the PI complained that he didn’t have funding, so I found another PI to fully sponsor me. Then, the PI that I found to sponsor me left for another institution. So I did another quick rotation and joined another lab. Everything seemed fine until it came time to qualify for my Ph.D. candidacy. Then my PI loaded me with irrelevant lab work, paper-writing, and requests to help other students in the lab. Out of all my committee members, he was the only one I didn’t meet with. Then, in the exam, he shot down my answer to another committee member’s question.
After failing the exam, I wanted to retake it, as is customary for students in good standing. But despite the support of my committee, my PI refused to allow me to retake it, forcing me to withdraw from my department.
I then applied to other schools and enrolled in a software development program. While interviewing, I conceived of GradPI.
I was fortunate enough to find a lab with an awesome PI, and get back into a graduate program. But many people aren’t as fortunate; they either endure the misery of an unsupportive PI, take much longer than expected in grad school, or drop out.
While developing the site, I came up with five metrics to help you avoid undue agony, and match optimally. The emphasis you place on each category will depend on your personal preference.
SMART Evaluation Metrics
Standing: How well known is this PI in her/his field? How impactful is his/her research?
This is important because your PI will serve as the springboard for whatever you do next. Therefore, name recognition will propel your career. Sir Isaac Newton said it best: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Mentorship: How well does this PI coach her/his students in the lab? How well does he/she prepare students for life after lab?
If I personally were forced to choose only one metric by which to rate a PI, this would be it. While this may not be your preference, it is important to have an advisor who can serve as a scientific mentor, even if not as a career or life mentor.
Autonomy: How well does this PI delegate tasks and trust her/his students to get them done? The degree of autonomy desired by students is highly variable; some people prefer clear-cut instructions and daily guidance, while others prefer to be left alone for months on end. Only you can decide what is best for you here.
Resources: How well is this PI funded? No matter what your acceptance letter implied, money is not free-flowing and inconsequential in choosing who to do research with. Many PIs stress out over it and are all too eager to make that your concern. Other PIs may use it as an excuse not to accept you into their lab, or to stop funding you entirely. Perhaps former President Barack Obama said it best: “Money is not the only answer, but it makes a difference.”
Tact: How well does this PI convey feedback? How well does this PI foster a welcoming environment for students of different cultures, genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations? While some may overlook the importance of this, you shouldn’t. If you get the urge to run in the other direction whenever you hear, see, or think about a PI, do so. Remember that grad school is a 4+ year process.
You can analyze PIs by doing Google searches, talking with current students, and doing rotations. However, GradPI makes it easier to assess a PI before you enter her/his lab. It shares the wisdom of graduate students to help students make informed decisions about who to rotate, collaborate, work, and have on their committee. Check out our current promotion, join, and share today!
Higgs, Gadareth. GradPI: A Resource for Choosing the Right Advisor, Científico Latino, 10 Oct. 2017.