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2nd year - Looking for advice for which DEPARTMENT to join?


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I finally joined a lab! It took me 4 lab rotations (each due to a certain circumstance) but I ended up with a good lab, a nice PI, and some research I feel like I could wrap my hands round. HOWEVER, it’s a basic science lab so it's no longer on the medical school campus, and its grad students are in a completely different department than I now. My program coordinator, has asked me to decide which department I want to officially join. It's stay or go. Please help me!! Here are the differences between the 2 departments as far as I know:


Name: Cellular, Genetic, and Molecular Biology (CMGB) - This is the department that I entered grad school with. 

- PhD degree offered by the School of Medicine

- No TA requirement

- Quals: Written + Oral (I think they give you a paper to read at the exam)

- Required seminar every noon Friday at the Med Campus (will have to travel commute or take the shuttle to get there each week).

- Department (grad program) is disbanding this program in 2 years, restructuring it, and renaming it.

-  95% of all my friends/classmates are still in this program, but not my lab. 


Name: Molecular and Computational Biology (MCB) - This is a department/building that my lab takes place. 

- PhD degree offered by the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

- 2 semesters TA requirement (which I heard screws up your salary)

- Quals: Written + Oral (I think they give you a paper to read 1 or 2 weeks ahead of time)

- Required seminars take place in the same building

- Department seems well established, as the life sciences department is also an undergraduate college.  

- All other students in the lab (3) had joined this department from the start, so they have no experience with the medical school program.

- My PI has never mentored a CMGB student. 


My PI says he does not care either way. I’ve always been leaning toward the first one, because it has no TA requirement and I got to know several faculty members really well at the medical school (from rotations, classes, and meetings), whereas I don’t know any of the faculty in this building in my new department. It seems by staying in CMGB I could at least have an excuse to keep in contact with those people. By joining MCB, I think like I am cutting off all ties from the graduate program I entered with (I’ll have to check on this one), but that would definitely feel weird and I’m a bit scared that I’ll feel really lost, especially since after I graduate, I don't want to be only associated with basic science (I want to join industry).


By the way, this is at the University of Southern California. 


Thank you so much!!

Edited by liastra
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I would stay in the first one for all the reasons you mentioned above. Think of all the time you will save by not being a TA that could be put into your research and thesis instead. It doesn't matter if your PI doesn't specialize in your exact area of research. Your PI is a mentor and is there to help guide you. He does not know everything about what all of his students are researching. At a certain point, you will become the expert in your chosen area of research and he will be learning from you.


(As you can see by my signature, I have not started grad school yet, so take my advice for what you will. But based on my bf's experiences of doing a PhD, this is how the relationship seemed to progress with his PI. She was not an expert on his specific area of research but was able to advise him on how to go about and make improvements to his research and thesis).

Edited by jenste
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Hi liastra!  


Being that you are at the medical school, I had some questions about doing research for a PI in a different department - how does it work?  Does your current PI have a joint appointment with the CMGB department?  Did you have to jump through hoops and such to make it happen?  Extra signatures, papers, and petitions?  Lastly, will your committee be composed of faculty members mostly from the CMBG department, medical school, or MCB department if you were to stay?


I'm extremely curious because I, like you, want to stay in my current department, but I'd like to venture and do research for a different department...


PS if your current department makes you happy and you can do research with a PI in a different department (and his/her research makes you happy and is fulfilling) then do it!

Edited by Quantum Biology
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