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6 steps to help you find the RIGHT supervisor and lab for a research-based MSc/PhD

Contributor Simi Juriasingani

Are you applying for a research-based MSc/PhD?

If so, you might be wondering how to go about finding the RIGHT supervisor and lab.

Here are 6 steps to help you along this journey:

1) Reflect on your academic and career interests to determine the types and fields of research that would suit you.

Before you spend time and money on applying to graduate research programs, take some time to reflect on your undergraduate journey and career interests. When thinking about what kind of research you want to do, think back to your past lab experiences to decide whether you’d like to perform experiments (basic sciences research) or if you’d rather work on a computer with patient data (clinical research). Also, take some time to think about the courses you’ve taken and the subjects you enjoyed, as this could help you figure out what field(s) of research you’d like to pursue a MSc/PhD in.

Additionally, try to outline your career goals to determine your priorities throughout the process of finding the right supervisor and lab. If your aim is to get research experience that will improve your applications to professional programs (medicine/dentistry), having a good relationship with your supervisor may be the most important factor due to the need for publishing opportunities and strong recommendation letters. If you want to become a professor, lab funding and productivity may be as important as your relationship with your supervisor because you’ll need to achieve outstanding research progress to stand out as a professorship applicant.

2) Come up with a list of potential supervisors/labs you could work with.

The next step is to look into labs you could work in and supervisors who could be good mentors. There are many factors to consider during this process such as geographical location, the lab’s funding and productivity, etc. If you don’t know where to start, look up influential papers in your field of interest. Do some research on the authors of the paper to figure out what labs and institutions they are associated with. This process can take weeks or even a few months depending on how wide your search parameters are and how willing you are to move to another city/province/country.

3) Refine your list by doing some additional research to determine whether the supervisor and the lab environment would be right for you.

Once you have an initial list of labs/supervisors, it’s time to refine your search. Look at their labs’ websites. Search them up in government funding agencies’ websites to see if they have ongoing funding. See how many papers they have published in the last five years and look into how matriculants from their lab are faring in their careers now. Try and connect with students who are working in their lab or those who have recently graduated to ask them about their experience with the supervisor and working in the lab. Compare the information you collect to the expectations and goals you came up with at the start of this process (step 1). As you refine your list, create an overall ranking to determine the order in which you’ll reach out to the labs/supervisors.

4) Reach out to the professors on your list sequentially.

A few months before graduate school applications are due, reach out to the supervisors on your list. I would recommend emailing 2-3 professors at a time. When you email them, be sure to include a summary of your academic background and express WHY you want to work with them. The more unique and thoughtful your reasoning is, the more compelling your email will be. Don’t just refer to their papers. Try and look deeper into their background and connect their work to your background/interests.

Once you’ve emailed them, wait at least a week before you email them a second time as their academic responsibilities may prevent them from replying immediately. Don’t be discouraged if you find out that some labs don’t have openings because this is a natural consequence of limited research funding. Be polite, professional and concise in your communication. Remember, the goal here is to figure out if they have any openings and secure an interview.

5) Prepare to answer and ask questions during the interview.

Once you are invited for an interview, be sure to set aside some to prepare for it. The formality or casualness of the interview will depend on the supervisor, but it’s important to be prepared for all possible outcomes. You may be asked detailed questions about your previous experiences and the lab’s current focus so that the supervisor can get a sense of what you’ve done before and how carefully you’ve read their papers. On the other hand, you may get more open-ended questions that aim to gauge your overall knowledge and interest in the field. The toughest question you may encounter is the request to pitch them a project you would be interested in leading. This is almost impossible to get right on the spot, so be sure to give this a thought before your interview.

After you answer the supervisor’s questions, you’ll likely have the opportunity to ask questions of your own. This is an important opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants. Asking insightful and meaningful questions will reflect your critical thinking and inquiry skills more than any description of your previous work ever could and you can prepare for this in advance of the interview! In addition to thinking of research-based questions, make a list of any practical and logistical questions you may have about stipends, funding, training, etc. Be polite but also be honest and upfront about your expectations and questions so that you can determine if the supervisor and their lab would be the right fit for you.

6) Know your priorities and decide amongst your options carefully.

After an interview, take some time to think about how it lines up with your previous research and expectations. While students are largely at the mercy of which labs may have openings, it’s important to remember that the supervisor/lab you choose will affect your life for several years. Thus, it’s critical to be honest with yourself about whether or not the position would offer the right working environment for you. If you end up in a situation where a supervisor offers you a position but you don’t think it would be the right fit, it’s ok to refuse the offer and thank them for their time. This is the point in the process where you have to be the most honest with yourself because by settling for the first offer you get or a prestigious lab with red flags, you’re doing a disservice to yourself.

Good luck with graduate school applications!

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