Choosing a PhD lab: should we fix the advice or fix the system?


It can be a real challenge for PhD students to decide on a lab to do their research.

I began reflecting on this a few months ago after advising a mentee. I had offered the standard advice that you can find all over the internet: “Talk to the people from the lab.”

Yet I soon realised that this advice is flawed, for reasons we don’t often think about.

If someone is asked about the lab where they work, their answers may be deeply shaped by its particular academic culture. Most postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers have no experience of non-academic workplaces, so have no standard of comparison. We may hear colleagues’ tales of bullying and harassment, and these become the measure by which we assess our own experience.

We may normalise unprofessional or unethical behaviour of a senior principal investigator (PI) towards a peer, for example, and then accept it when such behaviour is directed towards us – especially as it is often tolerated (and almost endorsed) by other academics as eccentricity or typical big-shot behaviour. We may see bullying and harassment as just a particular management style.

“If you are going through hell, keep going,” they say. And so we do. While we are working on our doctorates, peers may interpret any hardship we endure as just part of the doctoral experience. Indeed, we may see it as a failure if we are not struggling and overworked.

I remember that when I burst into tears after a meeting in the lab and told a postdoc I might be suffering from depression, he took me to a quiet place and explained that such feelings were quite normal during a PhD and that everyone went through the same process. Little did he know that a few months later I would be having thoughts of taking my own life.

So we finish our PhDs and pat ourselves on the back for surviving. Perhaps it is only then that we begin to wonder whether there was a problem with the culture and management style at the lab – and perhaps in academia more generally.

One crucial issue is the power dynamic within laboratories. Many of us depend on our PIs to help us get our articles published and provide us with letters of recommendation. This can stop us from speaking up. Conversely, the colleagues known to be vocal about the management style in the lab may not be selected to spend time with a potential PhD candidate on their interview day.

Institutions seem to make little effort to improve their conduct, allowing their status to dictate the range of acceptable behaviour. The majority of students who complain fail to achieve any sort of satisfactory resolution and it is often suggested to them that they are too weak or sensitive to do a PhD. Despite all the talk about mental health, the mechanisms to support or protect PhD candidates against bullying and harassment are largely ineffective and take no account of best practice.

Finding a good lab to begin their research career is made even harder for PhD candidates by the fact that any past scandals or investigations are unlikely to be public knowledge, while websites such as, which allow people to look at employee reviews of places where they may want to work, do not rate academic labs.

There are no quick fixes, but institutions must do more to safeguard the psychological safety of all those affiliated with them. They must ensure compliance with guidelines and, taking a leaf from industry’s book, professionalise their induction programmes for graduate students, research fellows and professors alike.

Promoting well-being and work-life balance can help override lab-specific toxic cultures. Annual pulse surveys that address workplace satisfaction, student-supervisor relationships, psychological safety and mental health can also be useful in determining which labs are at risk of becoming dysfunctional environments. Exit interviews can contribute to that picture, too.

In the meantime, PhD candidates should bear in mind that while talking to people in the lab can be helpful if they manage to talk to the one person who is willing to spill the beans, that person is likely to be very hard to find. As for the others, take their comments with a large pinch of salt.

Author Bio: Joana Vieira is a medical writer and a mentor on the International Mentoring Foundation for the Advancement of Higher Education’s international mentor programme.