Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lab A or B?

I didn’t just go to the home country to eat all of the food that we missed or to have BlueEyes be hugged by his grandparents, but also to talk about opportunities to go back to the home country in a couple years and work there to build my own research group. As I already explained, things are a bit different than in the US and the way to get to being an independent researcher means first finding a job as a senior postdoc and from there write grants to hire people. So I went to talk to two different labs, both with people that I already knew and had worked with before. The first thing that struck me was that in order to get a position I HAVE to bring my own money (well, lab B is willing to hire me even without grant, but only if there is enough money available, so no guarantees). Both labs have their positive and negative sides and I have to decide in the coming weeks who I want to write those grants with in order to move back home in about two years.

Lab A is within a big department where people work together a lot. There’s a big name in the field of my newly acquired expertise and together they publish in high impact journals, but on a pretty wide variety of subjects. They have the fanciest equipment and a good infrastructure for the multidisciplinary stuff that I’m interested in. However, the university is cutting a lot of money and everybody NEEDS to bring in grant money in order to keep the labs running. During our conversation, the PI had already figured out what I needed to write my grant about even before I had told what my interests were and what I wanted to work on in the future. After I left I felt that we had only talked about money and not about the exciting science that we were going to do. I really felt kind of depressed about the whole situation. Also, I only got a cup of tea. No lunch, no beers, and no ‘we would love to have you work for us’. I know they would like me to come, because my current PI saw Lab A’s PI at a meeting recently, but it didn’t really show. And then there are some more personal issues that I know will annoy me at Lab A. They have a lot do to with this.
Lab B is a lab with a very steady (but not necessarily high impact) output in a specific field. I talked to Lab B’s PI and another PI at the same institution about collaborating on the multidisciplinary stuff that I want to do at a previous meeting, and I talked to both of them this time too. The equipment there is okay, but less impressive than at Lab A. I would be the first person to do this multidisciplinary stuff here, but there is enough support on both ends of the disciplines to make it work I think. But more importantly: we talked a lot about how my research would fit in with their research and what kind of things I could propose in the grants. Also, I got lunch and both PIs told me how much they wanted me to come to their lab. End result: I was a lot happier at the end of that day

So it seems I have made up my mind already: I feel a lot more enthusiastic about Lab B, even though Lab A is the stronger lab on paper. What do you think: Lab A or B?


  1. As I've learned the hard way, pick the group excited in what you will be doing. The best equipment in the world can't help you get things done the way being excited and motivated does.

    Also, thinking in terms of becoming independent in the long run, being unique seems like a much better way to avoid getting caught in someone else's shadow.

  2. Hmmm... sounds like you might be caught between career advantage and science/happiness. I have always chosen the latter and often regret it (but would do the same).

  3. Lab B, I'm in a similar boat in a way. No amount of money or kit can replace the enthusiasm of your colleagues.


  4. Lab B, I think a more supportive, enthusiastic environment wins out every time!

  5. Thanks for your comments! I also think that being happy in an environment is way more important than being in a place where people publish in higher impact journals. I'm not sure if I can push myself to do the same amount of work in a place where I'm not happy and cannot do what I want to do.
    It is kind of hard to make that decision though because of the emphasis people put on high impact papers and getting lots of grant money...

  6. It really sounds like Lab B is the lab for you. It sounds like your subconscious has realized this already, but your conscious needs to catch up and let you make the decision that is less obvious. (Which is exactly the same position I was in several years ago when I chose a post-doc position)

    I think that no lab environment is perfect and regardless of your choice you will need to come up with strategies to deal with the shortcomings of whichever lab you choose. And I think that dealing with the shortcomings of Lab A will be more difficult than dealing with the shortcomings of Lab B. But I think you should make a list of the top 3 or 4 things you will do to combat the problems in A and B, and see which seem easier to handle on your own.

    One of my friends said to me at the time, "No matter what lab you are in, you can't produce top-quality papers if you are unhappy."

  7. Go with your gut feelings. I was in a very well respected lab which produces a steady stream of high profile publications. I was stuck in the lab for quite a while in order to get the high profile papers out, so I wrote some grants along the way. It worked for me at the end. Some people were/are not as lucky with their work and they are stuck in the lab forever and got very bitter — not a very good environment at all.