Many factors are important when assessing potential programs and labs: location, curriculum, resources, funding and more. There are small things, of course, that some don’t think about until they reach their chosen lab and wish they had considered it an important factor when making their choice. One of those that should be at the top of the list: lab past and future.
Lab past. Sure, it is good to know the graduation rates and job placement percentages of a program. However, more importantly, know this about the lab you are considering. I have been fortunate in this area in that labs I have been a part of have had successful (some very much so) graduates with positions that are perfect for them. I jokingly expressed worry at finding a position after receiving my PhD because, well, it’s a valid concern if you look at the number of PhDs awarded versus the number of positions available. My advisor (jokingly) said I could go to Saucer (a draught emporium that some graduate students frequent) and cry in my beer or look at how well others have done that have graduated from my lab. Point well made.
Lab future is a tough one, but also important. Similar to the other decisions you make when choosing a graduate school, you may want to consider gathering information on the timelines to graduation for the other students in the lab. For me, I experienced both and found benefits to each experience, but this may be different for others. It really comes down to what is important to you and the amount of guidance you need.
Specifically, in my M.S. program, my lab mate and I came in at the same time. At that time, there were no other graduate students in the lab to help show us the ropes and the dos-and-don’ts. It was a little terrifying. I speak for myself, of course, but I believe my lab mate also felt a bit lost a times. Being a graduate student is very different from being an undergraduate, obviously. There are higher expectations, lots of forms to fill out, funding to obtain, and a great amount of independence. The up side to this was that my lab mate and I figured it out together and held our own among other graduate students in the department that may have had more guidance from senior lab members. In addition, our advisor was very helpful in this process. So, if a lab has no senior members, at least be sure your advisor is receptive to questions and/or that you have someone else entering the lab at the same time.
On the flip side, I entered a program for my PhD where I had a bit of time with the senior member of the lab before he moved on to bigger and better things. I also have a lab mate that entered at the same time as I, which is always helpful. Luckily, since this isn’t my first rodeo, I have a good idea what I’m supposed to do to be a “successful” graduate student. However, my research organism and questions have shifted drastically and I have little experience with this system. In my situation, I only had 1 semester with the graduating lab member, but he (and others that have graduated or are still around) is always receptive to questions I may have via email or text. Of course, your advisor should be available for guidance too, and mine certainly is. But, you don’t want to bother your advisor with the small things that others in your lab figured out the hard way through trial and error (i.e., which mesocosms are leaky, where to find plankton).
It’s an added bonus that a Biological Graduate Student Association is in place so the students have an organization that brings them together. As I mentioned before, there are lots of forms and expectations. If you don’t have a “helpful” senior member of the lab, an organization like this can help guide you as well.