Context: Undergraduate computer engineering student in the US looking at attending graduate school in two years. I’m trying to figure out which research topics interest me—hopefully to find one to pursue in graduate school. I’ve only done one semester of research so far and I’m switching out of that lab because I didn’t enjoy it (unhelpful PI and graduate assistants).

Question: Is it seen as disrespectful to be in two different labs at once when trying to figure out a research topic to pursue? If not, should I be aware of any other conflicts when working for two labs?

I’m concerned primary about how this will be viewed by the professors, not the ethics of being in two labs (the research topics are pretty different).

  • 2
    I doubt they would view it as disrespectful (and if they do, you don't want to be working for that person anyway). However, are you sure you have enough time to undertake two research projects at once? – astronat May 21 '18 at 7:09
  • @astronat I’m intentionally taking a lighter course load in order to focus on research, so that’s why I believe it’s possible – Nodcah May 21 '18 at 15:28
  • Are you switching or adding? 2 labs sequentially is just fine. Two at once would seem odd to me. – Fred Douglis May 21 '18 at 16:57
  • Are these two labs in the same department? – Azor Ahai -him- May 22 '18 at 16:47
  • @FredDouglis I would be switching to 2 new labs – Nodcah May 23 '18 at 6:28

We had an undergraduate in our group quit abruptly at the end of the quarter, saying he liked the research better in the other lab he was working for. This is fine, everyone knows some people won't work out for whatever reason.

However, this was the first time my PI had heard he was "two-timing" us, and yes, she was pretty upset.

I do not think it's per se disrespectful to work in two labs at once, but it is certainly rude to hide that fact from one or both groups. That said, if you tell two PIs that you're working in two labs to figure out what you like better, they may be less inclined to help/mentor you because they know there's a big chance you'll drop their lab pretty quickly because you can fall back on the other lab you like more.

I don't recommend this course of action, but as long as you're transparent with both labs, I would not say it is wrong of you to attempt it.

  • I was going to say something much like this. If doing it to see which to pursue, neither may be happy. – Fred Douglis May 23 '18 at 13:11
  • @Azor Ahai, "they may be less inclined to help/mentor you": To future readers, I'm actually in this situation. I'm an undergrad working in two labs. The professor in one lab somehow found out and he has been very unhelpful. I notice that he doesn't seem to assign me the tasks or suggest relevant papers. I would say it varies from professor to professor. – IgNite Nov 19 '19 at 10:28

This is a relatively common occurrence. Many people work in two different labs but in most situations the research is related to one another (i.e. computational and a medical research that uses the computations). Often times, even in these situations, people doing this end up choosing 1 lab or the other after a year or 2. Having 2 different labs doing different research will be a major strain on your time, so make sure you're willing to put in that kind of work. Most of these kinds of labs require 8+ hours a day when you are in graduate school, and while in undergrad between 3-5 hours a day. This is for each lab so expect 6-10 hour a day of work plus whatever classes you are taking. so having 2 might become overwhelming. I can see if you are taking easier classes you might be able to get away with it but most degrees get more difficult and time consuming as you progress so I assume that's unlikely.

To answer your question, the PIs will have the exact same worry I stated, they may believe you will not have time for both. Some won't even allow you to join if they believe they won't get everything they want out of you. You might be able to find 2 PIs willing to allow you to do this but you'll have to quickly show you are extremely capable or they might get frustrated with you.

  • 8 hours a day? Do you mean per week? – Azor Ahai -him- May 22 '18 at 16:16
  • Per day in graduate school, maybe 3-5 per day in undergrad. Unclear if OP is asking for prior to graduate school, graduate school, or both. That's from my personal experience but that's in the natural sciences. – imdannyboy909 May 22 '18 at 16:25
  • This is while they are in undergraduate ... that is a lot of time – Azor Ahai -him- May 22 '18 at 16:29
  • Many professors expect your time, especially if they know you are concentrating on your research rather than classes. I am going under the assumption that this research is for furthering their experience rather than for monetary gain. The 2nd option may require a different response. – imdannyboy909 May 22 '18 at 16:44
  • Well, is it 3 hours a day (reasonable), or 8? No one should be working 8+ hours/day five days a week while taking classes as an undergraduate. – Azor Ahai -him- May 22 '18 at 16:46

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