Congratulations! You have just entered your first year of graduate school, a journey with countless ups and downs. To quote Charles Dickens: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.
In your first year, you will probably take classes and do lab rotations. A lab rotation is a trial period to assess a lab and its people, while they assess you, to see if you if you are a good match for each other. The best way to think of rotations is like a date for a potentially (very) long-term relationship. Your school will provide you with ample information on taking classes, but picking rotations is a different matter. How many rotations do you do? How do you pick rotation labs? And, how long do you stay?
Picking the Labs to Rotate In: Decisions, Decisions
Some people start grad school knowing exactly who they want to work with. This is a little like deciding to marry someone before the first date. At the other end of the spectrum, there are people who go into labs without studying the lab and the way it is run, like they are going on a blind date; neither strategy is ideal. The best strategy is in the middle, where you choose your labs wisely but keep an open mind.
Most students have some idea of the field they’d like to work in. If you do not have a favorite field and are in an umbrella program, try to narrow your field down to 2-3 topics before you dive into the lab hunt. The first step is easy: go to the department’s website (or email the administrative assistant), meticulously study every single principal investigator (PI), and make a list of PIs whose research appeals to you. Reading abstracts from their most recent papers is a quick way to do this. Once you have a shortlist of 4-10 labs and before reaching out to PIs, determine what you want from a lab and mentor. Ask yourself these questions:
- What kind of mentoring style do you prefer? Do you want someone hands-on, hands-off, and/or with an open door policy?
- Do you like working in bigger labs versus smaller ones, where the dynamics are different?
- What kinds of scientific skills/techniques (i.e., animal work, mass spectrometry, microscopy, etc.) do you want to learn?
- Is the lab environment supportive? Social? Or professional?
After you’ve given these questions some thought, then contact the people already in the lab, and if possible, alumni of the lab. Those students one year above you who worked in the lab will have the best and most updated advice. This process can be uncomfortable at times, like talking to a prospective date’s close friends, but it is definitely worth it.
If the majority of people you talk to have a similar opinion of the PI, you probably have an accurate picture. Cross out the labs that don’t fit your criteria and your shortlist becomes even shorter. Now it is time to contact the PI of the labs.
During your meeting with a potential PI, these are the absolute must-ask questions:
- Do they have funding to take a student?
- Are they willing to take a student?
- What are their expectations from rotation students? What about once you join the lab?
- What are some projects available for you?
By now you should have a sense of the top 2-5 places you’d like to rotate in. But how many rotations should you do, and for how long?
Number of Rotations: The Sweet Spot
The dating analogy still holds true: you cannot go on an infinite number of dates. You want to do at least 3, even if your first rotation ends up being the best experience of your life and that was your first choice - do 2 more. I would advise rotating in three of your top choices, and do a fourth rotation in a lab outside your comfort zone. If you like microbiology but would like to learn crystallography, rotate in a crystallography lab! Remember, even this rotation should be well studied; the same conditions apply as the previous three rotations.
The Duration: How Long to Stick Around
Your rotations are not the time to generate data or to publish; it is time to evaluate the lab, people (including the mentor), and the science. First, give yourself at least 2 weeks. After 2 weeks, if you’re convinced that you will NOT be joining this lab, wave goodbye and move on. You have no commitment to stay. When it comes to the upper limit on rotation lengths, it varies from school to school. Most schools have recently introduced the idea of 8-week “half-rotations.” Take advantage of these if they are available to you because you do not need more than 8 weeks to evaluate a lab. To make maximum use of the short rotations, ask yourself the following questions during a rotation:
- Is this the lab environment I want to be in for the next few years?
- Do I like the management style of the PI?
- Is this the research I want to be doing for the next few years?
Unfortunately, a rotation does not always guarantee a position in a lab. Even if you love a lab, there is the possibility that the love is one-sided, that the PI will say no for various reasons. Maybe someone in the lab doesn’t like your personality, or the PI thinks you’re not a good fit. There’s no court to appeal to, so you will just have to move on! Remember that each school is a small ecosystem; don’t burn bridges and maintain civility, because you might have to collaborate in the future.
Picking a Thesis Lab: A Match Made in Heaven
Now that you’re done with rotations, it’s time to dive in head first into your thesis lab. Almost everyone has that one lab they clicked with, and it is often mutual. If that’s the case, welcome to your new home. If you’re torn between two labs, go with your gut. In the end, you want to join the lab that is in line with your values. Once you’ve joined a lab, do not second-guess your choice, because you have definitely made the right one!
Alireza Edraki is a PhD candidate at the RNA Therapeutics Institute at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He received his B.S in Biological Sciences from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His research interests are evolution, RNA biology and CRISPR gene editing. Ali is passionate about writing and teaching science. He started teaching when he was 16, and has been teaching ever since. His goal is to become a science educator, to teach the public about the wonders of science.
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