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How to choose your research laboratory

When choosing a research laboratory for your undergraduate project, master’s project or DPhil there are many things to consider, not just the research topic! It is really important to choose the right lab for you, as you will be spending a lot of time here. This is a clear guide of all the things to consider when choosing your lab!

1. The research topics of the lab and the project you’re applying to

Let’s start with the most obvious one: the research question. Consider whether you’re interested in the topics researched by the lab in general and, particularly, the project advertised. Ask yourself what draws you to the project advertised, and further, the specific scientific field. Your degree or project does not confine you to a particular field, however it is always useful to get specific experience in the field you will end up working in, so choose carefully.

2. The supervision of the project

Check how the project will be supervised, because supervision makes or breaks a project and as such, your experience in the lab. It is normal to have an overall supervisor who oversees the project, and a day-to-day supervisor who trains you in the lab. It is super important that you ensure you have the right amount of supervision for you. For all new starters, you need day-to-day supervision every day at least until you’re orientated in the lab and familiar/confident with the techniques, if not for longer. Make sure this is being offered by the lab. In terms of overall supervision, this is done by the PI, or principal investigator. It is important to have regular meetings with your PI to ensure they are happy with your work, and you are happy with your progress in the lab. Your PI is essentially your boss, so make sure that they seem like someone that you can have a positive professional relationship with. For instance, if you are someone who requires positive reinforcement, you may clash with a PI who focuses on constructive criticism. At the interview, you should get the chance to chat to the PI and also members of the lab without the PI present, so you can get a good sense of what they are like to work with. In my experience, the supervision set up is actually more important than the topic of research.

3. The laboratory group

You will be spending most of your time with your lab group, and so it is important that you fit in well with the group. Some groups are very small and close-knit with few members working on a narrow range of projects, whereas some are very large with many different line managers and research areas, and then there are some in the middle. A small lab would be around 4-6 members, whereas a large lab could have 15+ members. Choose an environment you’re most comfortable in, in terms of size and atmosphere: some labs are very communal and chatty, whereas others are very much focused on individual work.

4. The research centre/building

While most of your time will be spent in your lab, you should also be part of a department and building. The department will be responsible for your training, putting on lectures, providing facilities such as liquid nitrogen and organising social events. They will also be responsible for organising your thesis committee, for a DPhil. See what the department offers in terms of additional training and lecture series and weigh up how important this would be for you to gain from a project/placement.

5. The length of the course and the funding

This section is more for those interested in a DPhil, as undergraduate placements are usually a set amount of time included in your course, and masters projects are often self-funded and a set amount of time (3 months to one year). DPhils will either be 3 or 4 years usually, and some can come with scholarships/funding. Make sure you read up on this and how to apply for funding. In general, 4 years of funding is preferred as a DPhil will often last more than 3 years, and the last year therefore may not be funded. However, 3 years of funding is also really good to secure.

6. Additional opportunities

Oxford is an amazing place to do research due to all of the extra opportunities here, such as placements in industry, guest seminars, college experience, internships and job opportunities. If you are applying for a long programme, see what else the place has to offer!


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