6 reasons to do your graduate work in the lab of a junior PI, and 6 reasons not to

There’s pros and cons to everything.

One of the eternal questions of graduate schools is whether you should work with a junior or a senior PI. I have commented on this question before and argued that either decision can be the right one. Here, I present a more comprehensive list of arguments for and against. As you’ll see, there are plenty of arguments going both ways. You may assign more weight to some than others and thus arrive at a decision that is best for you. Ultimately, I think it doesn’t matter too much; there are other factors that are more important, such as whether you enjoy and fit in with the lab’s culture and approach to research, collaboration, publication, and so on.

So here is my list. If you can think of something I forgot, please let me know in the comments.

6 reasons to do your graduate work in the lab of a junior PI

  1. If you’re one of the early students in the lab of a rising star, you can rise to prominence with your PI. You may end up as the first author in one or more of your PI’s key publications, and this in turn may secure your own faculty position and seniority in the field.

  2. A junior PI may have more time to supervise you. The lab is likely relatively small and you’re not competing with 10 other lab members for your PI’s attention. Also, your PI may not yet be that involved with university service and other non-research obligations, and thus have more time to interact with the lab (i.e., you).

  3. A young lab may be doing some really novel, cutting-edge work. An older lab is more likely to work on the stuff they’ve always worked on, stuff that was real innovative 10 years ago but is an old hat now.

  4. If your PI is not that established, there’s less risk that once you graduate your adviser is such a towering influence in the field that you can’t establish yourself as distinct from him/her.

  5. In a large, established lab, you might find yourself working on a small part of a larger project. Even if you do excellent work, your name might in the end not get associated with the big paper that comes out of that work. (I’m not saying you won’t be a coauthor. I’m saying you might be one of 20 coauthors and nobody will think you were the person who made it happen.)

  6. The younger your adviser, the less likely it is that he or she come down with a debilitating disease or die a sudden death. For example, the risk of death of a 60-year old man is 10 times higher than that of a 35-year old man. Just avoid younger PIs with a passion for BASE jumping, cave diving, or motorcycle racing.

6 reasons to do your graduate work in the lab of a senior PI

  1. A junior PI is untested. It is less clear how sustainable the PI’s research program is, how likely the PI will be able to attract funding, and how good his/her research ideas are. If the junior PI is on a bad trajectory, it is likely that your PhD won’t be that great either. (Keep in mind, though, that your PI’s success depends to some extent on you!)

  2. A junior PI may not be that powerful or well-connected in the field. The two of you may find yourselves fighting uphill battles with reviewers, journal editors, and other labs in the field. The exact same work might be lauded as the world’s greatest invention since sliced bread when coming from an established, senior lab or derided as inconsequential, boring, or wrong when coming from a junior lab. Having a junior adviser can also make it harder to find an academic job after you graduate.

  3. A junior PI may not be that powerful or well-connected in the university. This may put you at a disadvantage when it comes to TA positions, university fellowships, and other dealings with university administration. In particular, if something unexpected happens, e.g. the class you were supposed to TA for gets cancelled, a senior PI is more likely going to have resources to deal with the situation.

  4. The lab of a junior PI may not have the resources you will need to carry out outstanding research. In particular, if you join a lab in its first or second year, you may find yourself spending a year or longer just setting up lab infrastructure. By contrast, a large, established lab will likely have everything you need to do ground-breaking work the moment you walk into the door.

  5. Since your PI is new, he or she still has to prove himself/herself. As a result, your PI might end up competing with you. For example, a junior PI might insist on being the one presenting your work at a conference where a senior PI might let you present your work yourself.

  6. If you join the lab of an untenured professor, you risk that your PI won’t get tenure while you’re in the lab. That experience is likely going to be as disruptive to you as it will be to your PI. The worst-case scenario is an upcoming tenure decision 2-4 years out from when you start your PhD. If you’re only in your first year when your PI doesn’t get tenure, you should be able to just join another lab, without having wasted much time and effort. And if you’re in your fifth year or later, you should be able to finish up your dissertation work even if your PI has to close down his/her lab and move on. But if you’re right in the middle of your thesis work, you may have to throw away 2-3 years of work and start from scratch.

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology


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