This may be one of the biggest decisions you make in your life. You are sure you want to do a PhD but are still uncertain about where or who to do it with. Which school should you pick? Which area should you focus on? Which Professor would not bite your head off? Choices, choices.
In all honesty, the choice boils down to fortuity of events. You may apply to various schools, but what if only one accepts you? Or you could apply to one school and you get in. Or lucky you, apply to all schools and they all accept you so you can have your pick! Obviously you would want to pick a good, reputable school. Somewhere people have actually heard of. Even if it were not a famous school, at least choose a lab well-known in its field. Doing a PhD in an unknown school, in an unknown lab, that publishes in unknown journals, will not get you very far.
What should you do your PhD in? This is one that poses a lot of headaches to many students, because it is a tough choice, and many have the wrong impression that it will limit you to that field for life. Truth is, many end up doing completely different things from what they did during their PhDs. Of course, if you want to be a true academic, you could take the conventional route and absorb yourself entirely within your single chosen field of study. Which means learning from the best in the field, becoming knowledgeable in that particular area, and starting your own lab on an independent branch of study which in actual fact is not far off from your PhD lab’s main research focus. This might suit some, but not others, it is entirely up to one’s personality. Note however that what you choose to do during your PhD does not limit what you can do in future.. Science is science. It is forming hypothesis, designing experiments, performing them and making sure they are reproducible before making conclusions. It applies to any field of study, and this process is what you expect to hone during your PhD. Sure you might become an expert in diabetes, cancer, neurodegenerative disease after immersing yourself in the field for four years, but what makes you think you cannot gain the same depth of knowledge from some strategic, focussed reading post-PhD?
Next, choosing a Professor. This all boils down to your own resourcefulness as well as character. There are three kinds of PhD students, the ambitious and experienced, the ambitious and inexperienced, and the clueless.
The ambitious and experienced PhD student usually has a few years of research experience under his/her belt and can manage a project pretty independently. These students would probably do fine under a busy Professor who is hardly ever around. However, I cannot over emphasize the importance of post-docs. Whatever it is, you cannot do research in a silo. You need fellow human minds to bounce ideas off, and if your post-docs are smart, capable and available, that only serves to your advantage. So take some time to talk to people in the lab, and make sure you would have the sufficient tools and resources to be able to do what you want to do.
For the ambitious but inexperienced PhD students i.e. little/no previous research experience, they would probably need more hands-on guidance. This may work if you have a post-doc assigned to you or if your Professor is young and able to spare the time to guide you personally. These students do not do well if there is not enough guidance, so if you are one of these, make sure to ask before you join if you would have a personal mentor in the lab. Also ask how often you would be monitored in your research i.e how many times a week would you meet up with the Professor? Remember, this is 3-4 years of your life, so to make sure you are getting everything out of it, you would want to make sure the people are available to teach you.
For the clueless who have no idea what they want. The most essential thing you would need to do is to just talk to more labs/Professors. Only by talking to Professors and their lab members would you get a feeling of how it would be like to work there. Talking to previous lab members especially, also provide great censorship-free insights on how working for the Professor and various people in the lab may be like. Also take a look at their publication history, if they are publishing 6 or more papers a year in reputable journals, that is a good sign. On the other hand if there have been no papers from the lab for more than 5 years, that is a VERY clear warning sign. Another useful thing is to look at what previous PhD students from the lab end up doing. If many of them are still in science, that’s always comforting!
Some PhD programs come with some coursework, but many do not. To be honest, coursework may be nice to learn new facts/techniques, but in the end a PhD is about doing science. And many are of the opinion that coursework ought to be minimized so that one can fully attain lab nirvana. However, I feel it would not hurt to have the occasional course/workshop on current scientific techniques, career guidance, social networking skills etc. The latter area especially seem to be lacking in many PhD students!
So there, key take-aways, know thyself and what kind of guidance one needs. Do your homework and get to know the lab. Try to choose a lab good at what it does and having enough resources to do it. And never join a lab without talking to the Professor first for goodness sake!