What’s the difference between a Lab and E.coli … E. coli has culture.
Lab culture is surprisingly hard to describe, in part because it is so varied.
Lab culture is underpinned in the science. There are clear differences based on the discipline: a group waiting for their solitary slot of the year on the particle accelerator are going to have different priorities to a group conducting field work on the mating habits of the common sparrow. This seems obvious, but there are subtle differences in sub-speciality. Take the approaches to studying influenza virus as an example: a virology group working on viral replication are going to think about the problem differently to an immunology group working on flu vaccines who in turn are going to approach it differently to an epidemiology lab working on transmission dynamics.
There are also differences in the approach to science. Amongst others, there are n=3 is good enough labs and there are labs that need to iron out every wrinkle, even if it means never publishing. There are labs chasing the latest fashions and labs working on an obscure niche of the field. There are ‘translational’ labs working towards to a specific product as that will improve human life and ‘pure’ science labs seeking to discover some greater truth - each convinced their own approach is best. There are pile ‘em high sell ‘em cheap labs producing PhD likes sausages and bespoke hand crafted labs with only a single member. There are great labs to work in that generate nothing and shitty labs to work in that get Nature papers. And of course most labs are a mixture of everything.
But it doesn’t end there, lab culture extends into your social life. In some labs everyone stays at work till midnight but only a subset of those where people are actually working as opposed to messing about on Facebook looking busy till the boss leaves (presenteeism). In some labs everyone goes to the gym and power lifts whilst other labs binge drink. Some labs stop religiously for tea together at 10am and some labs no one talks to each other – simmering in resentment. More than anything else, the culture of a lab will shape your experience in the lab now and potentially going forward into the rest of your career (and possibly personal life: intra-lab weddings being not infrequent).
Since lab culture is key to your happiness and productivity, it is important to identify what works for you and then identify a lab that aligns as closely as possible to this. We would argue this is more important than the material detail of the project. Most scientific skills are transferrable; being miserable for 3 years and then quitting is not. John started in Drosophila lab and now work on human vaccines: Charlie started in a parasite lab (not entirely coincidentally in the same department) and moved through mast cells, asthma, pharma and charity. It is better to walk away from a lab that does not align with what you want than suffer for 3 years. This may be hard to imagine when you have spent an eternity looking for a PhD position: but a bad PhD is considerably worse than no PhD.
Identifying what you want takes some hard soul searching; harder still is finding the soul of a lab before you work there. There are some ways to sniff it out – it helps if you can do a 1+3 type PhD scheme and shop around for a lab, likewise masters or bachelors projects in the same lab or department can help. Some labs will have such a strong reputation (for good or bad) that it will precede them. It also gets easier as your network grows. Do some research, LinkedIn stalk the lab and work out how many people have worked there ever and what they have gone on to do, look at the number of publications and where they go. Failing knowledge you have to ask questions. Try and visit the lab before doing an interview, ask other people working in the lab what it’s like to work there but also snoop a bit in the lab and offices. Are they tidy, dirty, covered in ‘hilarious’ posters, is there evidence of communal food in the office, are there rotas for cake club or other social interactions. Interviews are a two way process, don’t waste questions about the start date, ask questions that probe lab culture. This is a tricky line to take as the questions need to be open without being confrontational and to make you sound employable: how often do you meet with your team is reasonably non-confrontational. Take some time to think about it, balancing the emotional with the rational.
At the end of the day it is always a bit of a punt and you may have to settle for good enough and paid rather than perfect but unemployed. However, once you’ve got your foot in the door there are ways to change things.