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148. Listener Mailbag: Contacting Prospective PIs, Supporting Friends, et al!

Happy New Year to all our Hello PhD listeners!

2021 has already been… a lot. But we’re here to help.

This week, we open the mailbag to answer your questions about graduate training and life in the lab.

You Asked for It!

Our first note came from Vibhatha, who found that a Science Writing Checklist we mentioned way back in Episode 21 was missing from the website:

I know this is years later, but I am trying to access the material from the podcast. The following link is not available:

Is it possible to get this information? I also tried to check the website, it is also not available. If you can provide an alternative source to grab this information, it would be really helpful for me.

We reached out to our guest from that episode Dr. David Shifrin, and he was able to locate the file. It’s now available in our show notes at 021: The 4 simple tips that will make your writing stand out.

Thanks to Vibhatha and David!

Virtually Satisfied

Our next email was from a listener who responded to our recent episode on virtual interviews: 146. Ace Your Virtual Graduate School Interview w/ Dr. Beth Bowman

We asked for your experiences, and what it was like choosing a grad program without ever having set foot on campus.

Lindsey was an early test-subject, virtually interviewing in Spring 2020. Here’s how that turned out:

Hi Josh and Dan!

I just started my Ph.D. this fall in mechanical engineering. I was going through the interview process right as the Covid lockdowns started in the US, so I only got to visit half of the schools that I was accepted to. In the end, I was deciding between a school that I got to visit in person and one that I was not able to visit. I ended up going to the school that I did not visit in person.

It was definitely scary to commit to a school and a city that I hadn’t been to. Talking to students on Zoom really helped get a sense of the culture, even though it was a lot less information than I got from visiting in person. I’m very happy with my decision and love my research topic and the wonderful people that I get to work with! 

That’s great news, and thanks to Lindsey for sharing! If you have experience with virtual interviews, feel free to leave a comment below, or email us at

Hello? Is Anyone There?

Brian wrote to find out if there is a better way to contact potential PhD advisors. He’s been getting a lot of nothing when he emails his request.

I have a question that I would love to get your take on: what is the optimal way, and time, to email prospective PIs?

In my emails to PIs thus far, I have included a bit of my background, expressed my specific interest in their work, asked if they were taking on new students and if so, if they would be able to meet to further discuss their research.

My response has been limited, and I would like to increase my impact going forward. As far as timing, do you think there’s an optimal time over the next few weeks to email PIs so that I can form connections in advance of admission decisions?

This one is tricky, because Brian is trying to make contact during the Holiday Season during a pandemic. It’s possible that things will ‘unstick’ in the New Year.

But we offer some guidance on crafting those outreach letters anyway. For one, make sure it’s short, personal, and clearly not a form letter that you’re blasting to 50 PIs.

We also recommend picking up the book The Early Career Researcher’s Toolbox: Insights Into Mentors, Peer Review, and Landing a Faculty Job by Dr. Andres de los Reyes.

We interviewed him back in episodes 135. The Science Training Toolbox and 137. Tools for Finding a Research Mentor, so you can hear his advice for making contact.

His book has handy tips for identifying the mentors that will help you most, as well as sample emails you can adapt for reaching out.

A Friend in Need

An anonymous listener has a problem with a close friend who is struggling in the lab.

I was wanting some advice about maintaining a healthy friend, but also a lab-mate, relationship.

I ended up joining a lab with my closest friend in the program. Ever since joining she was not given the project she desired and ever since she has hated science in the lab.

She constantly complains about the research (mostly the heavy mouse work that we do) and frequently says “Do you actually enjoy doing this?” which makes me question myself and I have to tell myself “yes I actually enjoy science this is why I’m here”.

I think she feels that she is able to vent to me because we are such close friends, but at the same time I don’t want it to have a negative impact on my 4-5 remaining years here. I’m not quite sure how to handle supporting her but maintaining my own mental sanity.

Supporting friends who are unhappy in their labs is something we have direct experience with! 🙂

Know that your friend’s disappointment is not likely to get better over the years without some outside help. We recommend pointing her to some of the counseling and graduate training services on campus to see if she can talk through her expectations and plans.

It’s possible that with a little perspective, she can find her groove and get through grad school, but you’re not her therapist.

It’s also possible that she’d be happy in a different lab or working on a different project. Students are usually afraid to speak up for themselves, and even more afraid of the prospect of changing labs and ‘losing all of that time.’

But changing labs can actually help a student graduate faster. We interviewed one-such-PhD back in episode 051: Should I change labs or quit grad school?

Hearing the stories of other successful students may help your friend build the courage to make a change.

Master Technician

Finally, Mel is trying to decide whether to pursue a Master’s degree before applying for a PhD program.

I graduated with my Bachelor’s in biology, and I’ve been working in industry for the past year and half. I got started with research a bit late in my college career, and joined an immunology lab during my senior year. I was previously on the pre-med/pre-PT track before, so I was primarily focused on that before I got into research.

I feel that my experience is limited compared to many others who apply directly into a PhD program, so this is why I wanted to get a Master’s first. I’m hoping to get more lab experience, learn more in the classroom, and work with faculty who could write me strong letters of recommendation. I’m also hoping to explore different fields within the biological sciences realm to figure out my exact interests. 

Please let me know if you have any suggestions about this. I’ve heard mixed things about whether or not a master’s could actually hinder my admission to a PhD program, and I want to make sure I’m choosing the best path for myself.

We typically recommend that students who are SURE they want to pursue a PhD get their experience by working in a lab for a few years as an employee.

Yes, you can enter a Master’s program, but you’ll be paying the University for that privilege rather than earning a salary while getting the experience you need.

We offer some advice for finding a lab that will give you the autonomy and training to prepare yourself for grad school, and offer some caveats where you may actually prefer the Master’s degree.

That’s it! We’ll close up the mailbag until next time. Happy New Year!

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