How to choose a PhD project

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Ivan Delgado
Ivan Delgado's picture
How to choose a PhD project

In case you are thinking about starting a PhD, or know of people that will soon be in that position, here is a little piece of advice (six of them actually):
In summary: 
1. Determine your general area of interest
2. Narrow down your field and sub-field of interest
3. Pick a good graduate program, but especially a good advisor
4. Come up with some good questions
5. Choose a suitable experimental system
6. Don't be afraid to make adjustments
I could not help thinking about this today as a friend of mine decided that she was stopping her PhD (finish it as a Masters) and then move on to a new university to continue pursuing a PhD. There are many reasons why things like these occur, like when the Biochemistry department kicked out 6 PhD students from their program during the years I was pursuing my PhD in genetics.
If anyone has additional words of wisdom, or other points to consider, please share.

heehawmcduff's picture
Those are great words of

Those are great words of advice.  I would maybe also add
"Try to understand the limitations of your study" as I've found the PhD students can frequently overstate the significance of their data

Jason King
Jason King's picture
I think my number one

I think my number one priority would be to pick a GOOD LAB. That would be one that has a good record of publications coming from all graduate students and postdocs working in it. These labs will have many well established techniques and opportunities for you, as a new PhD student to become involved in some parts of other people's projects and gain a few co-authorships along the way.
Joining a new lab with little in the way of a publications track record will mean that you have to establish everything yourself - which could be seen as an interesting challenge (you'd learn a lot) but since PhD research is usually limited to 3 years, you'd be lucky to publish well.

Ivan Delgado
Ivan Delgado's picture
Parvoman brings up a good

Parvoman brings up a good point: how long do you want your PhD to last? This depends on a number of things, including where in your career you are (starting a PhD straight from college or coming back to science after years of doing something else, like playing lead singer in a rock band - it happens!).
I've heard from multiple PhDs from the UK that a PhD there lasts only 3 years. In the US a PhD typically lasts at least 4 years, and 5 to 6 year PhDs are not uncommon (this does not mean you should be staying in a PhD that long). I agree that going to a new lab in the UK would be very tricky since you have very little time to get things done and cannot spend much time putting things together. In the US on the other hand I would say that because you have more time you can take that risk with a little more confidence. The rewards can be significant since you can take a larger proportion of the credit if things work out. Ultimately though, here is some good advice I got when I was in that position: for your PhD go to a place that has a nice balance of PhDs and postdocs (i.e a PI that is interested in mentoring students); for your post-doc go for the big name, all (or most) post-doc laboratory (the PI is likely not very interested in developing students and spends most of his or her time generating papers). Of course, a well balanced lab with a great name PI at any stage of your career would be ideal.