BY KELLY BOATRIGHT SEXTON
NOT SO LONG AGO, I WAS A GRADUATE STUDENT slogging away in the laboratory, with no light at the end of the tunnel. The project that I had been working on
for the past two years was a high-profile project that aimed to
open up a whole new field for my laboratory. It was the type of
project that seems to draw young idealistic graduate students in
droves: exciting, risky … and going nowhere.
With my new side project, I was working in an area that fell
within the core competencies of my lab for the first time in my
graduate career. Additionally, the postdoc who had proposed
my side project was an advocate with a vested interest in my
A big problem was that my project was outside of the core
expertise and focus of my lab, with the end result being that
I wasn’t able to benefit from the guidance of the more senior
graduate students and postdocs.
Fortunately, midway through my third year in graduate school,
a postdoc in my lab proposed that I work on a small side project that would answer some questions that had resulted from
his work. At first glance, my new project did not seem to be terribly exciting, but by this point I just wanted to get my hands on
publishable data. The thought of standing in front of an almost
completely data-free poster at yet another conference, talking
about experiments that I planned to do (once I got the project
working) was more than I could bear. Since I had little to lose
except my time, I decided to give it a try.
success. I received excellent technical advice from those around
me and began churning out data in no time. As it turned out,
the results that I generated were exactly the opposite of what
we had anticipated, and my side project quickly became my
main project. My research led to a controversial hypothesis that
eventually became the cornerstone of my thesis and the springboard to several first-author papers in respected journals.
Fortunately, my story had a happy ending, and I was able to
graduate in just under five years, despite the fact that not one
single experiment from my first two-and-a-half years of research
ended up in my thesis. But we have all heard horror stories of
the seven- or eight-year dissertation and, while you can never
completely control for this scenario, you can take precautions to
avoid having it happen to you.
Take care in selecting a lab
For starters, it is crucial that upon entering graduate school
you select the right lab. Do your research! Find out how many
graduate students your potential advisor has trained. Where are
they now? How long did it take them to get their Ph.D.s? Give
them a call and find out first-hand what they thought of the lab.
Of course, if you are considering training with a new professor,
you can’t rely on their past record, but you can inquire about
their expectations of a graduate student working in their lab. If
a potential advisor expects a minimum commitment of six years
in order to complete your graduate studies, you should at least
know that up front.
Evaluate potential projects
Once you are in the lab, you should choose your main project carefully. Ideally, this would involve hours of discussion with
your advisor and other members of your lab, during which your
technical skills and scientific aspirations are considered and carefully matched with potential projects.
In reality, the scenario may fall somewhere between your
advisor telling you exactly what project to work on, or your
advisor taking off for a few weeks to go on the conference
circuit while you figure it out yourself.