Choosing a Rotation Lab
The purpose of doing rotations is to find your Thesis Lab. It is not to publish a paper or complete a project. It is a chance for you to interact with others in the lab including the Primary Investigator (PI) and see in a hands-on way the experimental questions that the lab is addressing and the techniques they use to answer those questions. It is a chance to evaluate if you would fit well into the lab as well as determine if you like the questions and approaches the lab is pursuing.
You are only allowed 3 or 4 rotations. Use them wisely because choosing your Thesis Lab is the most important decision you will make in graduate school. Your thesis lab decision will have an effect on the rest of your career.
Since choosing your Thesis lab is the purpose of doing rotations, all of the issues relevant to choosing a Thesis Lab are relevant in choosing your rotation labs. Many of the issues involved in selecting a thesis lab are discussed more thoroughly in the “Choosing a Thesis Lab” handout. Concepts to help you determine if a lab is a good fit for you as well as specific questions to ask PIs and other personnel can be found there.
Labs and PIs are not a “one size fits all”
Selecting the right laboratory for you can make the difference between completing graduate school in a timely fashion or leaving graduate school in your 3rd or 4th year completely disillusioned. Think carefully about yourself, your career goals, what you expect from your thesis advisor, the kind of working environment you would like, and where you would fit in well.
Some Good General Advice
Have others that you can talk to besides your PI. It is good to have mentors (other than your PI) that you can go to for advice about projects, problems, etc. But in the end you are responsible for yourself. Sometimes other (including PIs, steering committees, program chairs, etc.) do not give you good advice. In the end it is always your decision, your life and your responsibility.
Some tips about Selecting Rotations
from Current Students
Talk to the students/technicians/others in the lab. The best resources are those who have been around the university for several year; long time technicians and senior graduate students know which PIs are good mentors and those that aren’t.
Make a list of the PI’s you are considering working with and have current students and senior technicians take a look at your list and make comments and mark the exceptionally good and bad labs. Sometimes they will just point to a certain PI and say “NO!” If you hear the same advice from more than one independent source, you can probably believe it.
Good mentors and PI’s are hard to find. Consider looking at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences First Annual Mentor Award recipients (on GSAS’ website) as candidates for rotations and thesis labs.
Consider the kind of rotation experience you will have in the lab. For example if you don’t have much lab experience, you might try to arrange it so your first rotation is with a lab/PI that has a good reputation for helping teaching students techniques.
Try to find out what it is like to be a graduate student in the lab. Find out if the answers the PI has given you match the experience of those in the laboratory. If they don’t be very careful. If you find out something that makes you not interested in the lab as a thesis possibility then DO NOT ROTATE in that lab.
DO NOT commit to a rotation until you have thoroughly talked to the students, technicians in the lab and the students in labs down the hall. Sometimes the PI’s that seem the nicest, the most interested in you are the ones that are the most difficult to work with.
If you find out something about a lab/PI that makes you sure that you wouldn’t want to do your thesis work in that lab after you have committed to doing a rotation with the PI, let the PI know as soon as possible that you won’t be doing a rotation there. Say something like from coursework/reading you have really found another area that you are really interested in and you really want to do a rotation in that area. Thank the PI for his time and try to be considerate BUT don’t waste your time doing a rotation that won’t help you find your thesis lab.
Rotations on Hilltop: Consider doing Hilltop rotations during the summer or beginning of your second year when you don’t have coursework because it takes a lot of time to go back and forth between the campuses.
You are important! Most PIs want graduate students in their lab because graduate students do much of the research that gets done at this institution. Find PIs who are working in areas that you are interested in and then “interview” them for the position of being your PI. Ask lots of questions.
Questions to ask a PI
before doing a Rotation
(Bold questions are especially important)
Tell me about your Research and the ongoing projects in the lab? (The Research Interests book is often out of date.)
What do you expect from a Rotation Student in your lab?
What do you expect from a Graduate Student in you lab? What do you see as your role as a thesis advisor?
If I did rotate here and we both felt that your lab would be a good thesis lab for me, would you have the resources (time, lab space, funding) for me to be a graduate student in your lab?
I know that it takes most graduate students at least 5.5 years to complete their degree. Do you foresee yourself being at the university for that time period?
Tell me about the students who have graduated from your lab: what degree did they receive, when did they receive their degree, and what they are doing now? (Most PI’s will be very happy to answer this question. If you don’t get clear, direct answers be very careful.)
Tell me about the style of rotations that students do in your lab? (Do rotation students work with a Post Doc, Graduate Student, Technician on their project or do they have a small project of their own?)
Tell me about the style of lab (friendly, competitive, quiet, noisy, etc.?)
What projects/areas of research might be open to a Rotation Student/Graduate Student in the lab?
Tips for During a Rotation
from Current Students
Classes vs. Lab work. You may have heard that classes are your main focus your first year in graduate school. This is NOT entirely true. Yes, you do need to pass your classes, but you also must find a Thesis Lab. The effort required for your lab work is at least as much as your coursework. (Most current students say they spent too much time doing their coursework and should have spent more time on lab work.)
APPEARANCES ARE IMPORTANT. If the PI has decided you are a slacker because he only sees you in the late afternoon (even though you stay at the lab until late at night after he is gone), you will likely have a difficult time changing his opinion about you, and he probably won’t agree to having you become a permanent graduate student in his lab. There is an art to making sure the PI sees you are working hard. Some tips:
We like to think that the PI will judge you by what you accomplish and not by appearances BUT this is often not the case. Appearances are important. First impressions are important. Yes, these are petty. Yes, they are brown-nosing (at least a bit). But doing at least some of them may keep your PI happy with you.
Rotations are not necessarily representative of what it is like to be a graduate student in the lab. During your rotation make sure you ask current graduate students and others around the lab lots of questions to determine if the side of the PI and lab that you are seeing is the same as their daily reality.
If during a rotation, you absolutely learn things about the lab or PI that make you certain that you wouldn’t want to do thesis work there, consider ending the rotation early, especially if you are early in the rotation. You are NOT required to finish a project during your rotation; however, you do want to be respectful of the PI. Talk to your student coordinator about your situation to help you decide.
If you are truly miserable in a particular lab, definitely end the rotation early (talk to your student coordinator, program advisor for advice). Grad school is difficult enough without being miserable.