University of Cincinnati

Chemistry Graduate Student Association









Advice for First Year Students on Picking a Lab (in no particular order!)

- Figure out how you work best (alone, with a group, with supervision by an advisor, etc.) and pick a group that has a similar kind of dynamic.

- Consider the PI’s management style and what you prefer.  Do you prefer a ‘hands off’ approach or more of a ‘hands on’ approach (in regards to the PI working with you)? 

- Ask the students that are in the Professor’s group to show you the lab, and consider spending time there to get a feel for the dynamics in the group. 

- Consider bribery! Graduate students live on coffee; consider taking a student out for coffee (or lunch!).  Students will likely be more candid if they are in an informal setting.  Never underestimate the power of food when it comes to graduate students!

- Go to the student seminars - It gives you an opportunity to see what exactly the students are doing in the lab! Also, it gives you a jumping off point to start up a conversation with an older graduate student. 

- Ask the professor if you can attend a group meeting (if the group has them) and go to it! It will give you a very good idea about group dynamics as well as let you see what is expected of the students by the PI. 

- Ask the professor if they have plans to move within the next 5 years.  If they aren’t sure they are going to be here for the next 5 years, consider whether you are willing to move if your PI moves to a new University. 

- Ask about his/her current projects and which projects they will be taking a student for. 

- Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions – not only does it give you more information, it shows the Professor you are interested!  Plus, this gives you more “face time” and the Professor will remember who you are!

- Ask a professor what is the average time it takes their students to graduate with a Ph.D.

- Ask students how often they see their advisor.  How available are they when needed.  Can you simply go in and meet with them or do you need to have a schedule timeslot.  How quick (and thorough) are the emails between student and advisor? 

- Does the professor encourage attendance at academic conferences?  Conferences are a great place to network, which is important for your career! 

-  Ask graduate students in the lab about their weekends – are they expected to come in on weekends?  If not, do they still choose to do so?  Ask yourself if weekends are important to you. 

- Determine how the relationship is between members of a group.  Do group members help each other out?  Is there tension?

- Does the professor require you to be in lab during certain hours?  Or are they ok with you working whenever you want, as long as you are getting work done? 

- If you are an international student (and planning to return home at least once within the next 5 years), ask the professor how they feel about you returning home during your Ph.D.  It would likely be a large chunk of time. How do you think they would react if you had visa issues upon trying to return to the States?

- What area of chemistry is most interesting to you?  Remember, you are going to be doing it day in and day out until you finish your Ph.D.  It has to be interesting enough for you to keep coming into lab, even when your experiments are failing! 

- Ask the professor if he/she has any collaborations.  Find out if joining their lab would require you to move somewhere else for a period of time (whether it be short or long) to do experiments.  Are you interested in collaborations?

- Consider the Pros/Cons of new/tenured professors.  Which fits your goal most?

- If you are interested in a Professor, meet with them and their students to form your own opinions, don’t listen to other people’s opinions. 

- Importantly - pick the group that you think will work for you. Don’t worry about what other people think, this is your career, your Ph.D., and your life.

- Once you join a group, do your best to become an expert in your research! 

- Your advisor is the one that decides your destiny for the next 4-6 years – Choose Wisely! And if you happen to not be happy with your choice, realize that the department is helpful and switching groups is fairly easy.

- Consider research assistantships vs teaching assistantships and which is best for your career (ie are you considering academia vs industry?)

- Trust your gut!

- Look at a professors webpage.  Is it up to date? Is it important to you that it is updated regularly?

- Are there post-docs in the lab?  If so, how are they with students?  If not, who will be the one providing you with training?

Additional Guidance found on the web:


General Advice About Graduate School

- take the time to study! If your GPA falls too low, you will be removed from the program and won’t be able to work in the lab anyways!  Most advisors understand the fact that you have to pass your classes (they have already invested in you and want you to be able to work for the full duration!). 

- Be honest and open with your advisor if you need more time to study and need to spend less time doing experiments.  Communication is key!

- Consider putting your grades first during your first year; GPA is important for getting grants later in your career.

- It’s graduate school, it’s going to be hard – but remember it will be worth it! Also, realize you can reach out to others in your year/group/department as most graduate students have gone through hard times in lab as well (ex: experiments not working for 9 months! L).

- If you are having a difficult time in class, talk to the professor and see if they can help clarify what you are struggling with.

- Have fun because this is the last chance that you will have to not be a kid, but not really be an adult yet either.  

- Teaching is important and should be a priority during your first year of grad school. Care about your students and take the time to prepare and be a great TA. It will pay off in the end.  

- Learn time management skills!

- Contrary to the  belief of some PIs, there is life outside of the lab during graduate school! Having a few enjoyable activities may help you avoid burnout! Consider getting involved with events on campus!

- Asking questions is the way you learn about things you don’t understand! Don’t be afraid to say “you don’t know) – sometimes that is all a professor wants to hear!

- Organize, organize, organize!!!  Realize that the data you are collecting now will be in your dissertation.  Start organizing (consider an electronic research journal) early and it will pay off in the long run! Speaking of which – if you are writing, back up often!! Consider backing up on a cloud server and a USB drive!

- If you are attending a conference, take business cards (which include a website and email)!

- Become proficient in the software needed in your lab! Learn to use a reference software (will make writing papers and your dissertation much easier!) such as Endnote, Refworks, or Papers.  Plus, the software will often organize your reference PDFs and you can pull up particular articles from that software (much easier than trying to make an organization system on your computer yourself!).