How to get your foot in the (lab) door – a subjective guide

Written by Maria Niedernhuber

When you apply for an entry-level job (e.g., research assistant, small student projects) in a lab, first go to a paper search engine (e.g., to google scholar or PubMed), or to the publication section of the lab’s website and read their latest publications. Sign up for field-specific email lists and facebook groups (for me, this would be, e.g., SPM list, multisensory list, ISCON) and watch out for project ads.

If you are planning to apply to a small lab, first send your preferred professor a short email with your background (i.e., your field of study, your specialization, your general interest, useful skills like Matlab or Python). Be polite, friendly and positive. Then suggest some follow up studies based on a recent paper and ask some intelligent questions about their research. (Good) professors do not want you to brag about how great you are (i.e., your brilliant grades are less relevant), you need to show that you really want to do science and prove you can do it. Show your professor that you would like to contribute to the larger vision of the lab, and how you could do it. Read your professor’s blog and watch his talks on youtube, because a talk makes it easier to grasp the vision of a scientist than a lab website. Take every opportunity to attend seminars, lectures, talks and go to the socializing events afterwards. If you want to get a foot in the door, talk to at least around 100 scientists (rough estimate). Talk to research assistants, talk to PhD students, talk to postdocs. As a disabled scientist, networking is twice as important for you than for anyone else. It is very important to get along personally and find trustworthy people to work with. Do not use people when networking in science. Please do not talk to people with the idea in mind that you want something from them, because this is disrespectful. Personally, I believe that, in all fields of life, the connections we have with others are perhaps the most precious thing we have. This counts for everyone equally, but especially when you share a passion, which in my case is behavioural neuroscience. We should treat people we meet not with the idea in mind to foster our professional network or anything, but as the precious person they are, who you share a passion with.

If you are planning to apply to a larger lab, it is often best not to email the professor, but one of his postdocs or PhD students (although the latter might be confused about what you want from them). This has two advantages: First of all, postdocs and PhD students receive a lot less offers for contact than your professor, who will never reply to all the emails asking for jobs he will get because then he would not have time to do science anymore. Second, the postdocs and the PhD students are the ones actually doing the research. Your principal investigator might be selling his science to you (e.g., trying to get you to run a hopeless experiment by saying “It is almost significant, we just need to increase the sample size” etc. Generally, your principal investigator will rather give you hopeless experiments than his PhD student, because it does not matter if you fail in your experiment as a MSc student or research assistant or project intern, you will be able to learn a lot and to write up your thesis. As a PhD student, you better don’t fail). The PhD student and the postdoc might give you a more honest perspective on what current data show and whether they think it is publishable. Your initial work in the lab is some type of trade: The senior scientist will train you and you will work for him probably for free or little money (- obviously, this is horrible. Ask your principal investigator whether he would support you to apply to small foundations funding student research projects. If your principal investigator does not want to support you, do not go to this lab).

When you look up the latest publications of a lab before emailing a professor or postdoc, keep in mind that, in many cases, the lab will not be researching exactly these topics anymore, because it takes a while to publish a paper and new projects have emerged meanwhile. Do not expect that the lab will let you do what you suggested in your email just because they invited you. Your suggestions for new experiments based on previous publications only serve to show your potential new lab that you have the capability of structurally thinking about scientific problems. It is extremely difficult for a beginner to figure out what a lab which seems interesting actually wants, unless you are already in there. If you would like to apply for a PhD there, you need to make sure that the experiments you suggest to your supervisor match his current grants and the best way to figure that out is to talk to current lab members about what the lab is up to. You can also start following potential supervisors on twitter to see what they are up to. Twitter is a very low-threshold way to engage in scientific discussions, and a lot less frightening than to talk to eminent scientists at a workshop. To follow scientists whose work you are interested in and twitter interesting follow up questions is a good idea.

As a scientist with a disability or chronic disease, the biggest mistake you can make when applying for an entry-level job is to put your disease or disability before the science. When I tried to enter labs during my BSc degree in Tübingen, I did exactly that – I was worried no one would take me, and therefore, I wrote extensively about how I was sure I could manage to put up with lab life. In other words, I was stupid. Obviously, no one knew what I was talking about. In the first place, you are (or would like to become) a scientist, so put the science before anything else. You come to a lab because you want to do science. Therefore, you come to discuss data, theories and new ideas and in the first place nothing but that. It makes a lot of sense for your professor to pay attention to previous experience, but if your professor pays too much attention to bling bling stuff on your CV (e.g., coming from a prestigious university), this is a bad sign.

Everyone tells you to be passionate. Your principal investigator, however, will not tell you to be passionate. She will tell you to 1. do you job and 2. do it fast and reliably, and 3. without a lot of drama. I am personally very driven and I came to the conclusion that you fare better as a scientist being pragmatic and studying science as a “craft”. Too much passion can remove you from science as well (e.g., I was once broken-hearted because I realised I could not research a certain topic of interest – this almost cost me my career because I did not look for alternative options early enough). Sometimes, passion helps you to last in tough times as a scientist (e.g., the tough times which probably brought you to this website).

If you are in a position to decide whether disclose your disability or disease, and you decide to do so, it might best to do it quickly (i.e., before looking for a new flat next to your new institute). If they do not want to take you because they think you cannot do your job due to your disability, you do not want to be there. Such people will be a hassle for you and you are better off not wasting your time with them. You can be certain that they will not tell you that they did not take you on because of your disability, they will tell you something else. Your principal investigator’s reassurance that he will accommodate your disability or chronic disease does not count anything, until you see that he does it.

In some cases, it might also be a doable strategy to wait until your principal investigator sees that your work is good and tell him when you feel comfortable enough. It lies in the interest of your principal investigator 1. to take on junior staff who excel as a scientist, because they want their lab to be successful and 2. to take on junior staff who do not take up a lot of time, because principal investigators are busy. Remember that principal investigators want you to 1. do your job, 2. do it quickly, 3. do it without any drama. Your principal investigator might also just not care about you as a person, but more about you as a “work horse”, and think that you take up a lot of time because you are disabled (- unlike popular belief, this is not the default status, some principal investigators indeed believe in making young scientists grow and strive). If you can, first show that all their fears are unjustified, then talk about your disability, if it makes you feel better. Be careful: I have come across scientists who first did a good job and their principal investigators were satisfied. When they disclosed their disability and/or chronic disease, they were bullied out of their positions or not promoted because “they might not be able to put up with the stress associated with such a position”. You are very unlikely to figure out whether this happens to you, or not. Sometimes, senior staff will tell you in person, or others, that they “did not put you forward for position xyz, because you cannot put up with stress due to your disability.”, i.e. because they really mean the discriminating things they say. Especially for prestigious positions with many applicants, the selection panel will be happy about any reason to remove an application from the pile of applications to consider. Doubts whether you are healthy enough to put up with your job might possibly constitute one such reason, and you have no way of knowing.

My advice to you is:

As a disabled scientist, you cannot afford to be in the lab of a principal investigator who is annoying and has an inflated ego more than anyone else. How do you avoid such labs? When a professor hires you and you had a job in science before, they will often call the person you worked with before to get an impression of what it is like to work with you. As a student, you should do the same: Get in touch with people who work for or previously worked for your professor (- you can tell this from your professor’s co-authors lists on their publications). For example, before I went to the interview which got me my PhD position, I called the PhD student who only had a second authored paper in Frontiers with my supervisor (normally not a good sign). She said that her problem was that the business of science was not for her, and my supervisor was probably the best supervisor one could get in the universe. Once you receive an offer, or during the process talk to 1. someone who is in the lab. However, you don’t just want to ask the students you are being introduced to when you visit the lab, because your principal investigator’s selection of who you talk to is not unbiased. I am pretty sure that you will not talk to the person your principal investigator might bully. In other words: If you want to know whether North Korea is a dictatorship, you should not rely on Kim Jong Un’s lifeguards for an opinion. That is why you 2. should try to talk to a handful of people who left the lab. Ask them on the phone whether they know of someone who was unhappy in the lab, and try to talk to them as well. The people you talk to about your potential new host lab are unlikely to be disabled as well and might not be able to advice you on that. My personal observation is that scientists who are generally friendly and good mentors are also happy to host a disabled scientist in the lab, so you can take non-disabled staff’s general satisfaction in the lab as an indicator of whether a scientist can host you with a disability and/or chronic disease. Take into account that people you ask for an impression of a principal investigator have their own interests and might be difficult themselves. When you talk to them, ask a few general questions about them (“Why did you choose this lab?” What brought you into science?”). I tend to disqualify everyone as a reasonable source of judgment who does not seem to care about the science directly, saying things like “Oh, it’s so good to have Oxford on the paper”, “It looks so good on our CVs to do abc.”, or brag about their grades in their BSc, and who says profoundly negative and unjustified things about colleagues on a personal level, e.g., “she is a bitch”, “he is really just a prick and I don’t like his personality”. Some junior scientists will hesitate to criticize senior staff directly, so pay attention to hints like “She is very demanding.”, “She is very critical.”, “If you publish any less than three publications in a year, you don’t impress her much.”, “If you work less than 12 hours, you don’t impress her much.”.

You are most likely to work without being paid when you enter a lab for the first time, and training is your so you should make sure that you do not get into a lab which exploits your workforce by making you work extensive hours and skip your weekends. “Big” or, worse, “upcoming” principal investigators with inflated egos might seem very attractive at a first glance, but turn out to be very difficult to work with. The exploitation of your workforce keeps their labs going, so do not sell yourself under value, blinded by the name of a prestigious university or a famous group leader.

Do not go to a “we work long hours”/”we brag about not having a life” lab. First of all, they do not actually work these crazy hours. My guess is that the illusion of the 80-hours week comes from not having fixed working hours. Many scientists just about always do science if they are not busy taking care of their families (frequent moving is a greater obstacle to having a family in science than long working hours), or if they are not busy meeting friends, and busy doing other things. Many scientists who claim to work non-stop spend half a day on twitter, or facebook, or with their buddies in the institute’s gossip kitchen. This means that, indeed, many scientists are always busy doing science – if they are not just busy doing something else. Do you own calculus, and see that, in most cases, their time spent with work does not add up to 80 hours a week. Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule, but you do not want to invest in these exceptions, because they are unlikely to live long, and you want to build long-lasting mentoring relationships. Anyone else I know who actually works that long spends most of his time removing errors they did during data processing when having worked despite having been tired and not concentrated (I have been there, you can learn from my mistakes). I would even go so far as to say that I would doubt the quality of the science done in a lab with a “long hours culture” because stressed staff make more mistakes (see “reproducibility crisis in psychology and life science” etc.). A “long work hours” lab is a no-go. Good science is slow science. Do not go to labs in which principal investigators brag about how many hours they work. These working habits are bad for anyone’s health, and you should take care of your health as an academic with a disability and/or chronic disease. Unlike popular belief, you do not need to submit yourself to such crazy work ethics, and by submitting yourself to such crazy work ethics, you support academic slavery. The time you need to finish a task tends to expand if you have more time available, and you will not get more done by working longer. Moreover, do not go to a lab in which supervisors claim to recognize that working long hours is bad for you, but then continue to brag about how many hours they work themselves despite knowing it better. In other words: If a bird shits into your principal investigator’s brain, it is his own fault. Same for your colleagues. Do not pay attention to your colleague’s career, and your colleague’s bragging about his working hours, concentrate on your own career. Take your time to find your own style.

Try out your professor before you commit to anything (- your professor will do the same): Ideally, you need to have undergone the cycle of a) thinking of an experiment and discussing how it is done, b) running the experiment c) analysing the data d) writing up at least once. If, after a test phase of a couple of months, your professor does not want to give you the chance of doing these things, maybe it is best to look for another lab. To visit the lab for a couple of months before you get settled there gives you the opportunity to 1. arrange the accommodations you might need due to your condition; 2. figure out whether you can establish a functioning working relationship with your supervisors. If you decide that you do not like the lab or that it is difficult to receive the accommodation you need, it makes it easier to leave the lab. Many scientists are passionate mentors – make sure you meet these ones, and not the others! There will be someone to give you opportunities. Be patient.

Figure out whether your lab mates are alright, and socialize. Your lab mates can make your life just as miserable as your principal investigator can (or maybe a bit less). If you struggle with your principal investigator, it might be good to have someone in the lab to talk to, or to back you up (but do not expect too much from them, because there is conflict of interest).

Look for a mentor from the same university, who is not in your lab. Same reason than above – you need allies when you feel discriminated against by your group leader or postdoc or anyone else in your lab. Look for a mentor from a different field than yours. It might be wise to have someone to turn to (where there is no conflict of interest with your principal investigator), because they have an unbiased view on what is happening. Knit your net as dense as possible, because if you fall, you want to fall safely.

Socialize with others with the same health problems and with others with different health problems. Do not let them drag you down when they feel bad, but support them when they need it. Think solution-oriented, not disease-oriented. If a certain solution works for your mate, the same solution might also work for you (independent of your disease).

Research sources of funding and suggest them to your principal investigator, sounding as confident as if you had already obtained the cash for your position. You are more likely to get your supervisor’s support, if you have funding (surprise!). You are more likely to get funding if you have your supervisor’s support (surprise!). This is the chicken-egg-problem of funding academics. To resolve this problem, it is best to suggest some sources of funding outside your university or institute to your potential supervisor and talk about these funding application with confidence, just as if you had already succeeded with finding funding (but without sounding arrogant, it is a blessing to be funded), so they feel you are a safe investment.

Perceive your funders as partners rather than wallets. I previously advised you to put the science first. However, this is not the only thing you need to keep in mind when doing science. You need to recognize that science is shaped by cash flows (i.e. funding bodies funding science, they are frequently also setting agendas, they decide whose work is “interesting” and who can pursue it) – whether you like it or not. Research your funders thoroughly and study how academic cash flows work. Your funders decided to fund science because they would like to enrich the world in some way (e.g., an old lady funding pain research due to a disease-inflicted family history, a foundation wanting to get different disciplines to talk etc.) and you are their means of achieving this. Think of your funders as someone who bets on you as their racing horse to have impact on the world. Find a funder who you share goals with (they will notice if you don’t, and you just waste their and your own time). Do not be offended if they do not take you because many funders have awkward constraints on their funding (e.g., this year primarily funding people with a STEM background from Asia, etc.), so your success does not depend on your own scientific excellence, but on the applications of others and a good bit of luck. Many funders lack a scientific background in the science which you do, so take into account that you write your application for a general audience. You need to tell your funders a story about your research.

While principal investigators might be hesitant to take you on with a disability or chronic disease, a funding body awarding research fellowships or PhD scholarships is more likely to put your application forward to increase the diversity among the individuals funded by the organisation. If you have a mental health disorder, I would advise you only to say that you have a chronic health condition and are therefore a protected minority, but do not say which one (except if it shaped your biography and the story you would like to tell your funders). However, you are still at disadvantage, because, due to your disease, you might not have been able to gain as much lab experience as another person, and your funder is unlikely to take that into account. If that is the case for you, just show what you have and point out that, despite your disability and/or chronic disease, you managed to get as far as you got – it will compare better than you think. Funding bodies are only interested in your past because they use it as a cue to predict how well you will perform in the future. So when you apply for a scholarship, do not worry too much about side issues, e.g. the life time you lost due to a hospital stay and that you are much older than anyone, or some bad grades in your BSc degree – think of what you would like to do in the future and how you would contribute to the goals of your funders with this. For example, if you have been exposed to financial pressures due to your disability and/or chronic disease which caused your performance to deteriorate in some years, say that obtaining a certain scholarship might not expose you to financial pressures and you might be able to show your full potential. Funders are humans, too, and many will show understanding for disabilities and chronic diseases.

Tell them that disabled scientists are persistent – or how else do you think we even got so far? As a disabled scientist, you have shown to be more persistent in pursuing your scientific and life goals in times of trouble. Persistence is the key skill of any scientist (over and above intelligence and other CV bling bling) because science is often frustrating and you will fail as a scientist if you simply give up when there is a problem or when things are getting rough. As disabled staff, it is easy to show your principal investigator that you have this skill – your mere presence in the lab is actually evidence enough.

Servus and all the best of luck for your career,


About the Author

Maria Niedernhuber

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