Do NOT Choose Your Favorite Mentor
In Graduate school the PI (Principal Investigator) that you work under is also your career Mentor. Now, don’t confuse a ‘career’ mentor with a ‘personal’ mentor. A career mentor guides and directs you on how to achieve your career goals, a personal mentor helps you develop as an individual, and guides you in navigating life. If you are in Graduate school you have probably abandoned the advice of your personal mentor, and should already know that choosing ‘best’ PI/ Career Mentor is the most important choice you will make in Graduate school. Think about it, you will be basically married to this person; meeting with them, following their advise, smiling and nodding while ignoring their advice,for the next 5 years. Considering, that the average marriage only lasts 8 years that is a long time to be stuck with someone.
In choosing a mentor and a lab, you may be tempted to choose the person who has the most exciting science, the calmest demeanor, or the straightest teeth. But be smart, there are a few key things you need to think about and the rest is just fluff. First off is MONEY; does the PI have it. Plenty of PI’s are glad to have you rotate (i.e. providing them free labor) in their labs for 3 months, and even offer you a thesis position without any real means of financially supporting your stipend (i.e. paycheck). It feels a little crass and against the nobility of ‘science’ but if they don’t have solid funding, don’t waste your time.
Next, don’t choose a PI that makes you feel good. That’s what your family and friends are for (do your best to keep them around, you will need them). What you need is someone who can give you clear constructive criticism, otherwise you will flounder. Yes, praise is important and motivating, but learning your strengths and weaknesses is critical for your future. A Mentor who is unable or unwilling to be upfront with you at the risk of hurting your feelings isn’t going help you develop as a scientist. Worse yet, you may choose a mild mannered PI that makes you feel comfortable at first, but doesn’t tell you clearly when you are screwing up or pissing them off, leaving you in a guessing game of confusion and even greater insecurity than you came in with. Instead, look beyond your personal/emotional needs and find someone who will give you support your academic needs, and who is able to give it to you straight. This person may not end up being the most socially comfortable person to hang out with (few good scientists are), but he/she will be more likely to help you in your career.
Notice that I didn’t say anything about their field of science. I honestly and firmly believe that finding a PI/Mentor in an exciting and engaging field of science is far less important than finding one who will challenge you and work well with your strengths and weaknesses. All fields of science are interesting and exciting once you get into them. Sure, some are more ‘hot’ than others at any given moment, but it is the process of science and discovery that are really going to drive you, and you can find that in any field. The only caution would be to be sure that their field of research is fundable, but that goes back to the first point.
In summary, know yourself, find a PI/Mentor who can support in your career, challenge you and be direct, and you will have a turbulent, rocky, but successful graduate career. One that you will look back upon with pride and thankfulness.