It would be:

Always prioritize people before projects

This one is counter-intuitive, at least for me, and I have come learn this one the hard way. I would definitely not call myself a people person (except perhaps… ahem… in an interview situation). I am far more interested in science than I am in people. Some label this Aspberger-ish type personality, which to my ears sounds slightly derogatory, so I call it a feature.

In fact, the vast majority of all great scientists I have met in my career have not been people persons. Au contraire. There are so many pseudo-scientists out there who talk the talk, but do not walk the walk. This post, however, is not about them. This one is about us.

To be specific, say you have the chance to do diploma or graduate work for two different groups, and both await your decision.

Group A conducts research in your favorite area. You have always wanted to do Group A science. Professor A, on the other hand, is an asshole. His students are afraid of him. He is a control freak and relies one a whole lot of micro management. The team members of Group A appear to be stressed out and depressed.

Group B is totally different. First of all, they research stuff you have never heard of before, and you feel uncertain if that is your thing at all. Professor B is a cool dude, though. He cares for the well-being of all his students. The team members of Group B never work nights and weekends, and they laugh and joke in the lab. Team B staff appear to be having a good time.

Go for group B – without a doubt.

I have wasted years in A-constellations and I have been fortunate enough to be part of B-teams several times. In hindsight, the decision was ridiculously easy. If only I had know about my simple rule:

Always prioritize people before projects



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14 Responses to If I could offer only one piece of advice to the young scientist getting ready to enter the field

  1. Maks Fomich says:

    I enjoyed reading this because “group B” was my choice 1,5 years ago

  2. Jon Tennant says:

    Great advice – I wish more people considered this before jumping into something they’re going to spend 3+ years working on! I hear too often about how sick PhD students are with their respective supervisors/lab group.. Pity really.

  3. Katina says:

    This is really important advice, I agree – but at the same time, I worked in a “Group B” lab and loved my co-workers but didn’t get a single publication. I’m now working with an “Group A” for my PhD and not only do I have multiple publications, but I’m completing my PhD in half the time. Why? I LIVE in the lab, meaning my work gets done faster. How long do I want to be a pauper grad student? As few years as possible…

    I’ll admit, it’s tough when you’re in the lab every single day and sometime you don’t see any sunlight or another person, but I want to get them done, and it won’t happen if I’m not a direct, well-controlled path with few distractions.

    • drfreddy says:

      I never said B was less productive. In fact, I think B-types have the potential to be much more productive in the long run.

      You can only do what you hate doing for so long. Then one day, you find just can’t go back.

      Go B. I just did once again. And it’s awesome!

      • Group B can be more productive because group A will have overworked people falling asleep during the day and working sluggishly.

        The other thing is that Group B supervisors tend to have fewer enemies in academia, which can ease networking and finding a job afterwards.

  4. Ola says:

    Interesting, I’ve never done research, but want to. This article gave me some insights, thanks for the share

  5. soilduck says:

    Totally and always!

    This is the Number One piece of advice I always give as well 😀 But, I do also tell them to make sure that the supervisors are also well published/respected/connected in that field too 😉

  6. Mr. Fixit says:

    Maybe I was lucky, in grad school I worked in a that was more B than A, except for the fact that we all pretty well self motivated. The PI made it clear what was expected in the beginning, and we all worked 60-75hrs a week. He did not micro manage us, and I truly believe he cared about it. When the university screwed us out of money he offered to loan us what we needed out of his pocket. He even cosigned someone’s lease once. Lucky me…

  7. It’s good advice, but based on a false dichotomy. There are plenty of groups that fall inbetween the extremes you present as A and B.

    Of the stunted choice you did present, A is definitely the worse option. Having said that I’ve worked in a group that you’d classify as B for my first postdoc and it was a disaster: the boss was obsessed with networking and schmoozing rather than the fact that the lab was a disgrace in equipment and safety terms, that his students were demoralized and learning nothing and that smiles and barbeque events and his house weren’t going to fix any of that.

    Here’s some advice I’ve not yet heard mentioned: When you ask your present supervisor about potential future ones (e.g. if you’re a Masters or dipoma level worker looking for a PhD, or if you’re a finishing PhD looking for a postdoc), treat whatever you hear with a good dose of skepticism. Two professors might be friendly to each other, best friends even, but ineffective or nasty supervisors to their groups. Worse still, the most oppressed of students and postdocs are most often reluctant to be honest with visitors considering whether to join. If you go to a new institute or university looking to join a new group, probably the best impression you can get about them is from neighbouring groups (ie in neighbouring labs). They are likely to have less loyalty to your potential future supervisor and are probably more neutral in reporting the work ethic and social dynamic in the group your considering. Another (though slightly extreme) trick is to phone the lab you’re thinking of joining at midnight or 1 am and see if anyone answers. If so, you’re probably looking at a group A situation.

    All things to consider.

    • Dave says:

      Bingo, think of taking a position just like purchasing a new home. The realtor and neighbors are always going to say the neighborhood is great. Come back at 2am and drive down the street once or twice, listen for trains or a nearby hospital. You have to find people who do not have a vested interest or completely surprise the people who do (2am phone call) to get the truth.

  8. JH says:

    This is something I have been thinking and have reached a similar conclusion. But here is a more difficult question. If you have to apply for eg. graduate student or postdoc position and most of the groups you would consider are abroad (this is a real situation for someone living in Europe), how to tell the difference between groups?

    I have no experience, but here are some ideas. Finding ex-group members and asking them about the boss and the group. Asking people from neighboring research groups, as suggested by Luke. Research articles may well have some signs. What else, are there any suggestions? Of course, asking directly from members of the group might not give good answers, or it might affect ones chances negatively.

  9. Research is, of course, not business. Business is about money, even though it involves deep intellectual aspects. Research is not efficient, slow, frustrating and depressing

    until the Eurekas come. We need to be compassionate not only with others, but also with ourselves.

    For me the Internet, with all the good science contacts, is a great way to build bridges. However the support of a team is a human experience.

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