eLife Ambassadors’ take on the most important career questions facing young scientists

This is the first of a two-part series where a group of eLife Ambassadors share their take on the questions that will shape their careers as scientists and mentors.

Doing your PhD in a large/famous lab vs. a small lab with an ECR PI. 

Zach Hensel:

Working in a large lab that’s already had a lot of success  can work great, but can also come with a lot of pressure to be one of the best trainees in the lab.

On the other hand, showing you succeeded in a new(ish) lab is evidence that you might be able to do it again in your own lab.

I sometimes noted that I was my advisor’s first PhD student in cover letters for grant and job applications. Also, a new PI’s  early track record requires trainee success. In this case, PI and trainee interests can be more in alignment than in other situations.

A famous PI might not be the greatest mentor, and neither do all elite institutions have well-funded faculties. Nor are all young PIs or (those in smaller institutions) mediocre

Biswapriya Misra

Emmanuelle Vire:

There is no perfect lab. There is no single recipe for success when it comes to choosing a lab/PI/field of research. Big labs in famous institutes led by “rock-star” names AND small/newly established labs led by ECRs both have their pros and cons.

For me the answer has always been: the people. Knowing that your local peers and colleagues will be there, help you, celebrate good times with you and show empathy and understanding when nothing works, is essential. The best science (in terms of quality) will come from team efforts, interdisciplinary approaches and healthy environment.

PhD, Postodc and all the other career stages are stressful at times. It’s how the stress is dealt with that matters.

Adrian Teo:

To me, this choice depends on your ultimate career goal after your Ph.D./Postdoc. It also depends on the country/university that you want to move to to set up your lab in.

If you want to pursue an academic career, a prestigious university/lab/PI will somewhat help. The track record and productivity of the lab will give you an idea of your projected output assuming you fit well into the system.

If you want to pursue an industry career, maybe the relevant topic/spin-off climate of the lab will help.

Biswapriya Misra:

A saying that I believe in is “It’s better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion”- the reverse applies too.

One risks being ‘patronized’ by a famed PIs lab and one’s own image does not show up clearly; whereas in a smaller or lesser known lab or team one can rise to prominence with hard work and efforts.

Of course the big/ famed labs, have networks, collaborations, better trainings, glossy publications, and above all the large funds to do science. However, in smaller labs, one can learn how to be judicious in using resources, learn to be self-made in terms of training and writing skills, and so on.

Famous scientists are often indifferent to your success, so unless you’re incredibly self-motivated — a hot shot lab may not be the best place for grad school

Stephanie Shames

A famous PI might not be the greatest mentor, and neither do all elite institutions have well-funded faculties. Nor are all young PIs or (those in smaller institutions) mediocre- thus, no one size does fits all. The student and post-doc experience differs from PI to PI, institution to institution, person to person, and the individual interaction (your PI, your Project and the outcome!).

Stephanie Shames: 

Famous scientists are often (but not always) indifferent to your success, so unless you’re incredibly self-motivated, disciplined, and prepared to get mentorship elsewhere – a hot shot lab may not be the best place for grad school at least.  

It’s true (in my experience) that pedigree and prestige are looked on favorably, but so is an excellent publication record. Not to mention the fact that, as a new PI’s trainee, you gain experience building a brand new lab.

I had no idea what to expect setting up a lab since all of my supervisors had been around for decades.  It would have been great to have that training,  as well as the experience of helping my PI get tenure!

Erin Wissink:

I think it’s also worth mentioning that success means different things to different people. Advice needs to be specific to career path (e.g. the academic research path vs industry path vs the academic teaching path).

Sarvenaz Sarabipour:

A safer bet (i.e a larger lab/senior PI) does not necessarily mean the right fit for one’s particular research interests and future career path. If you are interested in a particular field, go for it. Find a supportive mentor! Apart from that it is mainly the junior/ECR researcher’s efforts that will lead to successful decisions and career. Most institutions offer a viable environment for ECRs to thrive in.

Bahtiyar Yilmaz: It think the best place to do PhD or PostDoc is where your supervisor has the time to guide you through difficult times, not only in science, but also in your personal problems.

Sergio Álvarez-Pérez: Indeed, the best lab is that where you feel that your supervisor has some time to guide you!! Support is essential, not only in your experiments but also in designing your career path. In some labs they only care about your “numbers” (papers, successful project proposals, abstracts for meetings, etc.) and not about helping you to improve your research. That’s very sad…

On doing research on a topic that is currently in vogue

Zach Hensel: What’s popular and fundable when you start a PhD probably won’t be anymore when you need to win grants to get tenure (the half life of a topic in vogue can be even shorter than that).

Adrian Teo: Indeed, by the time you are done with your training, your topic may no longer be hot.

Biswapriya Misra: Topic-wise, I feel the whole funding scenario is quickly bending towards big data. Big data is something that is going to be pervasive and applicable to all areas of STEM and R&D.

Trendy for one field can be rather boring for another one. Instead of chasing a hot topic, why not go for what interests YOU?

Emmanuelle Vire

But if you are not motivated, skilled or interested in a hot topic like Big Data, but have a unique passion/interest in another area, GO FOR IT! Disinterest and lack of focus are detrimental in the longer run!

Emmanuelle Vire: Trendy for one field can be rather boring for another one. Instead of chasing a hot topic, why not go for what interests YOU? It’s challenging to find motivation at times and being fascinated by your research question is the main driver for science. How people view a subject does not matter, the only thing that really matters is quality. The best work will always stand out.

Bahtiyar Yilmaz: You should ask yourself what you want to study and this will be an attractive research subject for YOU. No matter how good or well-funded the project is, if it is something that you don’t like it, it will never be motivate you.

Sergio Álvarez-Pérez: I mostly agree with previous comments, but the problem is that sometimes what you find “trendy” is not of much interest for other members of your community. Anyway, I also believe that is important to feel happy with your own research.

Is idealism a luxury of the privileged in science/academia

Adrian Teo: One cannot be very idealistic in science. Funding mechanisms drive the direction of research and type of research.

Zach Hensel: I disagree, science is one of the few professions where you can stick to your principles and succeed.

Sarvenaz Sarabipour: I agree with and believe in Zach’s response.

Biswapriya Misra: Well in this rapidly changing political and financial climate, I do not think that any set of ideals will survive a year, let alone a decade (of PhD + Postdoc time!). So what is going to be paramount is the ability to be flexible and keep changing, although this can be challenging.

Sergio Álvarez-Pérez: Unfortunately, idealism is not welcome in many labs…


Further reading: 

Space, freedom and the opportunity to establish one’s own system are among the highlights for junior researchers. Nature (2018)


This conversation was lightly edited for brevity by Devang Mehta

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