Choose the right group for your research—A set of guidelines to keep in mind

Ph.D. and postdoc fellows who are willing to move overseas may find this article useful. But researchers planning to stay back in their country may benefit too.

A spring afternoon. A govt. funded high school. 8th-grade students are busy with their usual banter but cautious enough as the headmaster is supposed to take the next class. The headmaster walks into the class. He starts to point out every student starting from bench one and asks what they aspire to be in their life. Doctor. Engineer. Engineer. Engineer. Scientist.

The student sitting at the edge, aspiring to be a scientist, was me. I got fascinated with science at an early age and serendipitous stories have enthused me ever since. In 2021, I finally became a doctoral student, and my dreams were flying high. And in 2023, I quit my Ph.D. with my confidence level hitting rock bottom. Life took a turn for the worse.

Loosely speaking, renowned scientists mostly did their electrifying work in their 20s and 30s. And people tend to work as a Ph.D./postdoc in that prime time of their life. These journeys are meant to be arduous by nature. Creating new knowledge, venturing out into unchartered territories, and convincing the world about the validity of those discoveries—ain’t easy jobs.

Photo by Xan Griffin on Unsplash

But that doesn’t make the task harder all the time. People with whom you work, under whose supervision you work, where you live, how much you get paid, how you are trained—all these factors play a vital role in determining the quality of your life and shaping your motivation for the future. So, do the homework now so your future self can thank your past self for the wise decision that you made.

Based on my own experience and numerous people I have consulted with; I am trying to delineate a guideline for where your homework should start. The primary target audience of this article would be Ph.D. and postdoc fellows willing to move overseas. But researchers staying back in their country can find these pieces of advice useful too. I shall focus on choosing the right lab, not on tactics of finding new positions.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Scrutinize the alumni list

Take a look at the Alumni page of the group with a critical eye. This may help you discover what the past members are up to. Are they still in academia? Are they ending up with faculty positions? Are they transitioning to the industry? Many folks do take up non-academic jobs based on their career goals and circumstances. But people having tragic experiences during their research stint in academia tend to move to the industry if their field has options there.

While scouring through the list, try to notice the proportion of international researchers working in that lab. More international people implies that the team is culturally diverse and likely has a better-accepting culture. Trust me, being part of such labs makes life so much easier.

Reaching group members out

Connect with members of the group up front. Do it in a bit informal way, if possible, utilizing social media platforms. Interact with senior grad students and postdocs to get an overview of how the lab is managed. If you sense that toxicity, hierarchy, and blame games are norms in that workspace, save yourself from years of misery and search for other labs. Don’t wait to take this step till you receive the interview call or the offer letter.

Alongside, if you spot an alumnus who is from your country, that person can provide an insider view of the group’s culture. Also, the group may have an active interest in hiring people from your country. Knowing a go-to person for unexpected troubles is always a great idea.

Be shrewd about the communication

Remember that most of the time, the communication medium would be written emails. And the choice of words set the tone of the texts that are devoid of emotions. If you are moving to a country and you are proficient in the native language, that is awesome. Else, English is the medium of communication mostly and if the supervisor is not competent enough, that would be a red flag in a way. Communication clarity is of utmost priority in research.This point may seem trivial but when your supervisor responds to your research proposals with poorly chosen words, you may linger in a state of ambiguity. And confusion poisons productivity. Such a phenomenon isn’t limited to emails only, it can happen in verbal conversations too. Open-minded supervisors cooperate if they struggle with their linguistic capabilities. If that happens, you are in good company. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Consulting with senior colleagues

Talking to senior colleagues from your past lab who moved abroad can aid in finding a starting point. If you are aware of any well-connected colleagues overseas, they can guide you too. These people mostly have done their homework and know a handful of labs already. And in the best-case scenario, they can directly recommend you to a group with a conducive research environment.

Do homework about the country

Is the economy of the country growing fast? What are the R&D spending numbers of the country? Which countries are hot choices for your peers? Each of these numbers matters if you are trying to make your daily life easier when you live there.

A growing economy would likely ensure better transportation, decent salaries, and a better-quality lifestyle. Higher R&D numbers may potentially mean better research infrastructure and you get more work done in less time. And if you follow the path of your peers, you will end up in the community of your peers too. All these minute factors would add up to your well-being during your stay abroad.

On a small note, picking the right city is important too when you aren’t proficient in the local language. Primarily, foreigners remain concentrated in the big cities and that is where you will find your peers too. When you pick a small township, getting accepted into the culture would be challenging. In small cities, very few people would be open enough to embrace a foreigner.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


That is all. And here I should stop. Landing up in a research lab that promotes happiness, cares for its members’ mental health, doesn’t entertain a culture of overwork, and does fantastic research, is not merely a matter of pure luck.

Although luck plays a significant role, ending up in a group of nice coworkers would require a decent amount of homework too. And after reading the entire article, I hope you have an idea of what to know beforehand. All the best for a pleasant barbecue experience with your future teammates!!!

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