Choosing a Research Group

The defining activity of graduate work in Chemistry is novel research. Courses are only a starting point for your learning. The bulk of what you learn will be drawn from time spent at the bench or computer working on your project and from reading research papers. The group that you choose to join is the most important decision of graduate school. Duly consider all aspects of a lab in which you are interested. Take note: there are three divisions and over 50 research groups in the department – you have a lot of choices, so you should plan to spend a significant amount of time narrowing down your favorites.

A critical consideration that is often over-looked by first-year students is the extent to which they have been exposed to a broad range of research. While every student accepted in the department has taken classes in the breadth of chemistry, it is rare for students to have experienced more than one narrow research project. It is easy to follow your steps from undergraduate work directly into a similar lab here at Berkeley. We challenge you to expose yourself to new areas! Every faculty member here is a field-leader, and each group has a novel idea just around the corner that might just pique your curiosity. Picking a group from day one might be the easiest thing to do, but it’s not necessarily the most satisfying in the long run!

How and When to Choose a Research Group

Physical and Synthetic Programs

The schedule for choosing a research group is the same for Physical and Synthetic students. You will be guided and advised during the process by your First Year Advisor, who will be assigned to you when you arrive. You cannot join a group before the sixth week of the Fall semester. This rule is a conscious regulation on the part of the department; during this time, you should be actively looking into the different groups in which you are interested. Even if you feel you have settled on a group when you walk in the door, you are required to investigate at least five research groups.

After the five weeks are over, you should speak with the Professor whose lab you would like to join. If the Professor also wants you to join his/her group, you will need his/her signature on a departmental form that is then turned in to the department office (in 419 Latimer). Generally, all students have found a group within 12-15 weeks.

Chemical Biology Graduate Program

If you have joined the Chemical Biology Graduate Program, you will have the experience of three eight-week rotations before your final commitment is required. At the beginning of each rotation, you will submit your top three faculty choices for the following ten weeks. Your requests will be balanced with the other members of the program and the space availability of each faculty member to assign you to a lab. Keep in mind that if you don’t get your first choice in your first rotation, you have two more chances during the course of the year to work for them!

The advice on careful choice of group is similar to that for physical and synthetic division students – do your homework! Before each rotation begins, take the time to investigate your choices for the next rotation.

General Advice

  1. Be proactive in visiting groups and talking to people. It is your responsibility to seek out groups in which you are interested. There is a formal day of lab touring (open house day), so keep an eye out for that on the calendar, but mostly you have to go individually from lab-to-lab and meet people. Finding a fellow first-year to wander with you helps make the process a bit less nerve-wracking.
  2. Take note of the environment among the lab members. Is it an atmosphere – physically, mentally, socially – where you would enjoy working?
  3. Set up your meetings and get your five signatures (if you’re not in the CBGP) early in the semester, as this will give you more time to consider your options and make a decision.
  4. Be flexible. In the beginning, consider any research group in which you’re remotely interested. If you have your sights set on a single group, you might overlook others that could be a better match for you. After that, start narrowing down your choices using the system set out below.
  5. When you meet with PIs to get signatures, really consider the decision you are making and try to get a feel for each lab. Don’t just try to get the signatures and leave as quickly as possible!

How to Learn About Research Groups

First, and perhaps most importantly, KEEP A RECORD! Writing down your experiences and interesting notes about faculty members is the best way to help you make the decision when you sit down to do it.

There are eight steps students have found work well to learn about and choose a research group:

1.   Determine your interests

While this may seem like a funny place to start (maybe you’re thinking “of course I know what I like!”), consider that as an undergraduate you were probably only exposed to one kind of research. It is important to think about what your interests have been, but also consider to what topics or even entire divisions in chemistry you have not yet experienced. You should join a group that is doing research that interests you, but you should not rule out groups because you don’t know anything about the work.

Be open-minded. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself too early. Talk to faculty who overlap with your interests in any way – and expand your interests as much as you can. Selecting one group to pursue doesn’t give you other options if your first choice doesn’t work out due to funding, personality, or space restrictions in a group.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. What are your career goals?
  2. Is this research something you are interested in now?
  3. Is it relevant to what you want to do after you graduate?
  4. Will it help you reach your career goals?
  5. Are your career goals set in stone, or are they more flexible?

2.   Read group papers and websites

It goes without saying that in order to best understand the projects within a group, you must read their published research. The best way to find representative papers from a research group is through their website. Download any and all papers that interest you (if you are on UC Berkeley’s internet or VPN, you will have access to thousands of publications). When you know about the work, you’ll be better prepared to ask questions and express interest in ongoing research. Better yet, if you’re not into anything that’s been published recently, that’s a good sign you should consider other options.

3.   Use Your First-Year Advisor

Your first-year advisor is an excellent resource about the character and research of groups in which you may be interested. Once you’ve settled your course schedule, you should use your first-year advisor as a sounding board for questions regarding your choice of a research advisor. They will often help smooth the process of getting meetings and finding space in labs. Make friends and continue to meet with your first-year advisor!

4.   Meet with the Faculty Member

Faculty members are extremely busy. Department committees, teaching requirements, grant writing, current students, traveling to talks, family life, and, especially at the beginning of the semester, meeting with other first-years, can make their schedule challenging. Be respectful of this challenge; but when trying to contact a professor, be persistent with either e-mail or phone calls, or try to catch them just before or after their group meetings. Be sure to get a date and time for official appointments, and adequately prepare yourself beforehand.

Finally, make an impression! The first time you meet with a faculty member may only be for 10 or 20 minutes. Be friendly, alert, inquisitive, and respectful. Remember, they are learning about you as much as you are about them.

Here are some questions you might consider asking the faculty member:

Example questions to ask the professor:

  1. How are research projects generated in your group? Can a student come up with his/her own thesis topic?
  2. Are your students involved in writing proposals or reviewing papers?
  3. How independent are your students to plan their experiments, choose their courses?
  4. What sort of interaction do you have with your students? Do you have weekly/monthly meetings, or do you see them on a drop-in basis?
  5. Towards which research projects are you looking for students to contribute?
  6. Are there any brand new projects being initiated in the lab?
  7. How many years does a graduate degree usually take in your research field?
  8. What jobs do students get after they graduate from this lab?
  9. How flexible are the working hours in your lab?

Things to consider:

  1. Do you get along with the person you are considering as a PI?
  2. Does your potential PI seem interested in you, your research project, and your general welfare?
  3. Does the group have a good dynamic? Would you enjoy working with this group every day?

5.   Meet with students in labs

Having been in your position, current graduate students are the best resource for learning about life in a research group. Meeting with current graduate students is much less formal than meeting with faculty members. Simply go into a lab, introduce yourself as a new student, and see if they have time and are willing to speak with you. If they’re busy, ask if you can come back, and set up a time to do so. Remember, all graduate students were once in your position, and we do our best to return the favor of answering questions!

Example Questions to Ask Students in the Lab:

  1. How often do you meet with your PI to discuss your research progress?
  2. Does the PI have projects that s/he suggests for students? Do students primarily come up with their own ideas?
  3. Do you have regular group meetings or a journal club?
  4. Does research in this field generally require forty/sixty/eighty hour work-weeks?
  5. How much vacation do people in your lab usually take per year?
  6. How many grad students are there in the lab? How many post-docs?
  7. Is there enough funding for all the projects?
  8. Does your PI help pay for visits to conferences?
  9. Do you ever do things together as a lab socially?
  10. Would you discuss your career plans with your PI?
  11. Does your PI have tenure?
  12. Is your PI in town most of the time, or usually away at meetings?
  13. How do you spend your day? What experiments, assays, and analyses are you actually doing on an average day?
  14. What techniques does your lab use?
  15. How “hands-on” is your PI? Is s/he involved in your work on a day-to-day basis, or do you work independently most of the time?

6.   Attend Group Meetings

Weekly group meetings include presentations from current graduate students and post-doctoral fellows about their research in the group. The quickest way to get a sense of both a group’s research and the dynamic between faculty and students is to attend and watch the style of presentation, the material covered, and the interaction of the group members with the speaker and the PI. You might be pleasantly surprised, or you may find out the group you thought you liked isn’t what you’d hoped. Generally, it is good practice to introduce yourself to the Professor before attending their group’s meeting (either by email or in person). If you are interested in a group, express your interest to both the faculty member and the group by continuing to attend group meetings.

7.   Stay motivated and be persistent

Every year a small number of students do not find a research group to join in the fall, and that’s ok! Getting into the group you want can be a competitive task. The department’s experience has found these first-years are either on the shy side and aren’t aggressive enough in pursuing their interests, or they are honestly equally interested in two or more groups and delay their decision until the faculty members cannot accommodate them. If you feel this describes you, pay particular attention to the following tips from seasoned graduate students and faculty:

Put your foot in the door. As soon as you become very interested in a group, let the professor and perhaps some grad students in the group know about your intentions right away. This will do wonders in saving your spot.

Don’t waste a day. You’ll have a busy first semester, but this is not something to slack on. Aim to have a group by the end of September, and you just might!

8.   Lynn Keithlin.

Lynn Keithlin (419 Latimer, keithlin@cchem.berkeley.edu) is the graduate student affairs officer who has coached many other students just like you through this difficult process. She will lend a kind, informed hand to your decision. She is a connected resource in the department and can mediate space and personality conflicts between faculty members. She also has the ear of the Department Chair. Stay in touch with Lynn, and you’ll be sure to find a place in a group that you’re happy with!