I find it beneficial to find someone in my tribe who is just a little bit further along in their journey than I am. These tribe members act like pathfinders by looking back on their own path and, with a certain amount of introspection, let me know about pitfalls or advice that can help me on my journey.
I have gathered a virtual group of recently graduated (graduate) students to act as our pathfinders. In this series of posts, you will hear their thoughts on questions that either graduate students have asked me or I have even wondered myself.
How can you participate in the conversation?
- Post your thoughts in the comments. If you’ve recently graduated, make sure to include that in your response.
- Email me directly.
- Share this post using the social media buttons to expand its reach.
Today’s pathfinder topic is finding a research group or PI. As a graduate student, the reality is that you spend a significant amount of time with your research group. The PI that runs it sets the tone and environment for your academic life for years to come. As a wet-behind-the-ears first-year graduate student, I picked my PI and research group by topic on the second day of classes. I spent zero time asking questions about how the group was managed or thinking about how big a role this decision would make in my life. I WAS EXTREMELY FORTUNATE that my PI and research group was a good fit for me.
If I were to do it again, I might have asked questions of my soon-to-be peers like “how often do you see the PI?”, “what’s their temperament?”, “how social is this group?”, “do you get the support you need?”, “do you have to get a Ph.D. to be a part of this group?” Having the answers to these questions wouldn’t have altered my path, but I certainly would have been more informed.
To get a broader perspective on how others found their group/PI, I asked our pathfinders a process question (HOW) and a reflection question (REFLECT):
How did you find your research group/PI? If you would do this differently, why and how?
HOW: I researched the faculty in the department and made a shortlist of the people who I could find myself working with. Before I started my first semester, I set up meetings with those I could get a hold of to talk through their research and the kinds of things I was interested in. As an incoming Master’s student without much experience in my intended field of study, this was a great way to be introduced to a lot of ideas and people really quickly.
HOW: Referral from my Master’s advisor.
REFLECT: In general, my recommendation to people is always to choose your research group first by the PI, then by the school, and then by the particular research area. The PI makes such a big difference in the kind of experience you have in graduate school, and their mentoring style should be weighted heavily. Their mentoring style can often best be discerned by talking with their current and former students.
HOW: I applied for many Ph.D. programs in 2012 and got some campus visits invitation, including the one I went to later. I interviewed several PI’s there and made the decision. The decision was made based on many factors.
REFLECT: I would do pretty much the same. But, if possible, I would apply for more programs and go on more campus visits.
HOW: Online search and PI’s previous research articles.
REFLECT: I would search for awarded grants in my field of interest to make sure I contact PI’s in my field of research with available funds.
HOW: I met one of my Ph.D. advisors in Italy when I was looking for a research project for my Italian Master’s Degree and asked him to come work with him at UNC. I joined the Joint Fluids Lab at UNC for a six-month project in 2012 and worked with both of my future advisors. Then I went back home to Italy, graduated from my Italian Master’s and applied for the Ph.D. program at UNC. So when I joined the UNC Math Department I already knew I was going to work with them.
REFLECT: I think it would have been highly unlikely for me to be accepted in any US Ph.D. program without this fortuitous connection, so I’m not sure I can imagine a different way of going about it.
HOW: Contact professors through emails after I got admission.
REFLECT: I probably would take my time and try to know more about different professors after I started grad school.
HOW: Research papers and group website.
REFLECT: If there were opportunities to visit certain research groups or meet group members at conferences, the communication would have been more efficient.
HOW: I interviewed a couple of people in the field of reactive systems (fire/explosion). The one I went with demonstrated a really well-run lab, had funding in place, was very easy to talk to and get along with, and inspired me with his own career story.
REFLECT: No real complaints about this process. I think viewing it as interviewing them (instead of them interviewing you) was a helpful framework to make the right decision.
Our pathfinders used a combination of research and networking to find their research group and PI, talking with group members and PIs to get a sense of the work and the environment. Their reflections put a lot of emphasis on spending time in this process. Chris’ comment on framing the conversation as “interviewing them” as opposed to the other way around rings true in many conversations I have had with past and present graduate students.
Let’s assume you’ve found a group or PI that does research in the area you want to explore. You’ve also managed to get on their calendar. Here are some tips for making the most out of these conversations:
- Ask yourself what kind of group/PI you need to be successful so you know what to ask about in these conversations. If you don’t know, try an online personality test (16personalities is a great free resource I have no affiliation with) to get you started.
- Prep beforehand: going into an important conversation cold or winging it will get you some info but maybe not what’s important to you.
- Online stalking is acceptable as part of your research (please keep it legal). Just follow it up with personal conversation: “I noticed the PI took students to conference X, is that typical?”
- Try to have separate conversations with the PI and the group members.
- Remember to not do all of the talking. Make sure to listen to the answers you get. Be curious.
- Ask if it is ok to contact them with follow up questions.
- Be old school: send that thank you email a day later regardless of how you think the conversation went.
Taylor Killian graduated from Harvard with a Masters in Computational Science in 2017 and worked for at MIT Lincoln Laboratory for two years as part of his fellowship program. He is now in a Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto where he’ll work at the intersection of Machine Learning and Healthcare. @tw_killian Linkedin Github
Kimberly Stevens graduated with a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Brigham Young University in December of 2018. She is now a Lillian Gilbreth Postdoctoral Fellow in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at Purdue University.
Shahrouz Mohaghe earned a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State
Francesca Bernardi is a Dean’s Post-Doctoral Scholar in the Department of Mathematics at Florida State University. Her research focuses on wastewater filtering and porous media. She received a Ph.D. in Mathematics and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018. She is the co-founder of Girls Talk Math – a free day camp for female and gender non-conforming high school students interested in Mathematics and Media. She is part of the Leadership Board at 500 Women Scientists – a non-profit grassroots organization aimed at making science more open, inclusive, and accessible. @fra_berni
Chris Cloney graduated in April 2018 with a