How Much Is Your Lab Director’s Reputation Worth?

Part 2 in a series on how to pick the professor who will guide your dissertation.

Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

November 06, 2016

When I meet high-school juniors or seniors in my life outside the university, I feel an obligation to talk with them about their college choices. One young man I spoke to recently made it clear that only one thing mattered to him when it came to choosing a college: prestige. He had general goals — studying economics, for example — but they barely figured into his choice. Institutional reputation eclipsed everything else.

I tried to expand his search criteria. I suggested he choose a college with a community he would fit into, and where he would enjoy himself while he studies. We’ll see if my advice made a difference.

The same balance matters in graduate school. Last month I wrote about the value of a doctoral adviser’s reputation in the humanities and social sciences. It certainly helps in those fields to choose an adviser with a big name, but reputation isn’t the only variable to consider. You particularly need to keep in mind that you’re choosing a teacher you’ll be working with for years on a big project, probably your biggest so far.

Many of the same concerns apply in the laboratory sciences. In those fields, graduate students work in their adviser’s lab and are usually paid from that professor’s research budget, which comes largely from grants. As a psychology professor I interviewed via email put it: "A big-name adviser probably has more funding (and more reliable funding) and a larger lab, so you have more resources, colleagues, and credibility if you are a student in that lab."

But in a large lab, you’re likely to get little facetime with your adviser. A big-name adviser "may have stacks of regular 30-minute meetings with his or her lab members rather than extended chances for conversation and collaborative discussions," said the psychologist, who worked in several labs during his own training.

A famous adviser, he added, "will probably be less concerned about precisely what the student works on, and less attentive to the precise details of the student’s work." But that can be good: Less guidance may lead to more intellectual freedom.

Less well-known advisers bring different advantages to the graduate-student scientist. Professors early in their careers may have less funding "and probably a smaller lab," said the psychologist, but are more likely to be ambitious and driven to advance their research programs.

In the humanities, more time spent on research by the adviser may equate to less time for students, but not in the lab sciences. Would-be scientists work on their adviser’s research — because it’s the adviser’s lab.

So ambitious professors in the sciences are more likely "to devote more time and attention to their students," said the psychologist, since those students are helping to advance the professor’s research program. The student probably won’t get "lots of freedom to explore whatever he or she wants" in this case, but instead more guidance and help to "avoid the detours, dead ends, and roundabouts that seem to lurk everywhere along the Ph.D. route."

In choosing an adviser, young scientists would be wise to follow this psychologist’s advice and focus on the actual work they would wind up doing for a particular professor. But how do you choose a lab director who will enable you to do your best work?

A biology professor I interviewed offered some concrete tips. The question of reputation, she said, actually conflates many issues. Reputation matters, she said, because it tells you "how influential your boss’s recommendation will be, and for whom." A recommendation from a scientist with a big name will get particular respect from other scientists, but not necessarily from industry executives. Given that most science Ph.D.’s won’t become professors, that’s important. She offered a series of questions that students should ask themselves in seeking an adviser.

What kind of job do you want? Employers — academic or not — want a recommendation letter that speaks to the qualities they’re looking for. "I work in a small college," the biologist noted, "and when we hire, we look for people who will be able to work with undergraduates. A letter from a Nobel Prize winner praising someone’s research to the skies matters less to me than one from someone less illustrious that praises someone’s teaching and mentoring skills." On the other hand, she said, "If I were recruiting for Caltech or MIT, then I would need to know that the person is working on a sexy project that will get grants, and that the person can run a lab."

How good a scientist is your boss? Let me pause here to point to the term "boss." Graduate students in the humanities don’t call their advisers "boss," but they don’t work in their advisers’ labs, either. I’ll have more to say about that shortly.

So how good a scientist is your boss, anyway? That question "overlaps with reputation," the biologist explained, "but it’s not the same." Scientists who did their formative work years ago have been supervising their lab staff for a long time, not doing experiments. "The big-name adviser," she said, "is more of a manager."

How can you tell if someone’s a good scientist? Look for creativity, productivity, intellectual rigor, the biologist suggests. Look up the last five years of publications from the lab. Of course it matters how many there are, and whether they’re in respected journals. But there are other key factors, too. See whether the papers are "moving the field forward," advises the biologist. "Is the logic of the experiments and interpretation apparent?" Also, "Are there many different first authors — implying there isn’t just one superstar doing all the work?" And of course ethics are important. "Retractions can be warning signs," as can "a bad reputation for publishing iffy results or for poaching other people’s projects or data." Prospective students should consider all of those things.

How are you going to get your training? "In a big lab that works well," said the biologist, the adviser doesn’t stand over graduate students at the bench as they work. Instead, "you have a culture of people training each other."

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. "Not even the best scientist 30 years from their Ph.D. will have the cutting-edge technical skills of a new postdoc," said the biologist, so peer instruction can be state-of-the-art. But if you know that you need specific technical skills that only a few scientists have, you should consider getting your training in a small lab where at least one of those specialists works.

How much does your boss travel? "This also correlates with reputation," said the biologist, "but not exactly." Some famous scientists are on the conference and lecture circuit, but others never leave the lab. The difference shapes the workplace you would be joining.

How big a lab does your boss have? A famous scientist with a lot of funding may hire a big staff, but some well-known lab directors "believe strongly in a small lab where they have their finger on the pulse of everything that goes on there."

What is your boss’s management style? "I once worked for a guy in grad school who ran a large lab," recalled the biologist, "but he had an impressive ability to know what was going on in everyone’s projects, in impressive detail."

It was a different story when she moved to another lab. In that instance, she "picked a project that was far from my boss’s interests because I wanted to take it with me when I moved on," she recalled. Later, when the lab director read the paper that she’d published from that work, the professor said, "This is very interesting. I wish I knew that you’d been doing this." In retrospect, the biologist realized that her supervisor "had very little idea what I had been doing for a living."

That phrasing ("what I had been doing for a living") is again telling. When prospective scientists pick an adviser, they’re picking a lab — and a lab is not just a place of training and learning. It’s also a workplace.

Your potential adviser’s reputation is only one ingredient — a complicated one, to be sure — in that laboratory workplace. If you want to become a graduate student in the lab sciences, you’ll have to work for a boss for years. In choosing that boss, inside or outside of academe, you always want to look beyond reputation.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. His latest book, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, is published by Harvard University Press. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at Twitter handle: @LCassuto.