Once you have chosen a school (or vice versa) to work in, your most important decision will be to choose a laboratory. The decision can be based either on the topic of research or on the mentor. I would strongly recommend the latter (BOX 1). Good scientists work on interesting and important topics, so a good mentor has this covered. Your goal as a graduate student is to become an expert in wielding the scientific method, and this can be achieved pursuing any project. The topic matters most in the types of experiments it entails. A good project will enable you to design, perform and analyse experiments on a routine basis, ideally several per week, if not daily. This provides the best training and, importantly, is also the most fun. This will also develop your abilities to conceive the crucial controls that are needed to interpret the data in a meaningful way. ‘Control creativity’ is a central part of your scientific IQ; it comes only from the experience of designing and interpreting experiments. You should avoid projects that are largely based on using a single technique to develop a reagent or collect data (for example, generating a transgenic mouse).
Box 1 On the innate superiority of rabbits over wolves
A rabbit is happily grazing one day when it is ambushed by a wolf.
“Please don’t eat me Mr Wolf,” pleads the rabbit, “I haven’t completed my Ph.D.!”
The wolf spits out the rabbit and laughs until he almost chokes.
“Yeah right! A rabbit? Doing a Ph.D.? What about? Carrots? Duracell batteries? I just gotta hear this one!”
The rabbit clears its throat and intones: “On the innate superiority of rabbits over wolves.”
“That’s a crock for a start,” scoffs the wolf.
“But I can prove it,” says the rabbit. “Come to my hole and I’ll show you my results, and if you still don’t believe me, then you can eat me. Deal?”
“Sure. Can I have fries with that?” says the wolf, following the rabbit down the hole. But only the rabbit comes out.
Months later the rabbit is grazing contentedly again when it meets another rabbit.
“How’s tricks?” asks the friend.
“Wonderful,” says our hero, “I’ve just submitted my Ph.D. dissertation.”
“Congratulations! What’s it called?”
“It’s called ‘On the innate superiority of rabbits over wolves’.”
“Unbelievable — I mean, literally. Are you sure?”
“Yes, I thought it was crazy at first too. But I’ve tested the model rigorously and that’s the result I get.”
“Look, if you don’t believe me, why not come to my hole and I can show you the results?”
“Of course, I’d love to!”
So the two rabbits scurry down the burrow. In the first chamber is a workstation, covered with and surrounded by piles of books, papers, printouts and half-eaten carrots. In the second chamber are boxes and boxes of wolf bones, all catalogued and annotated. And in the final chamber, in a rocking chair, is a large and very satisfied looking bear.
Moral: do your Ph.D. on any subject you like, provided you have a good supervisor.
Posted on the Nature Network
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