How to pick a lab rotation: Before, During and After

Nearly all graduate students at our University are required to do 8-10 week rotations in at least three different labs prior to picking the one where they will pursue their PhD. Rotations provide an excellent introduction to the work and culture of the lab, and the opportunity to be exposed to new areas of research and new methodologies.

However, starting in a new environment can be intimidating, particularly an environment that appears to function fine without you.  The following pointers might help graduate students think through their rotation experience.

Before the rotation:

Look up everything you can about the lab. Check their papers. See if you can get a sense of their culture, the different questions they work on, and the methodologies they employ. The lab website can be helpful.

Think about what the rotation itself entails. In our lab, we have instituted a formal curriculum that exposes the rotation student to different methodologies and analytic approaches through a somewhat structured curriculum and a series of weekly lectures. Experimental biology (e.g. CMB, UPGG) students are introduced to basic methods in biology including PCR, genetic engineering using CRISPR-Cas9, cell culture and mouse models, next generation sequencing and basic analytical approaches. Computational biology students (e.g. CBB) are introduced to data generation methods in biology, analysis of next generation sequencing, basic statistical and survival analysis.

We also encourage students to pick a project that is close to their interests and one which allows them to learn something new. (The only thing not allowed in a rotation in our lab is exclusively doing something that you are already good at. You MUST learn something new.)

Be sure to meet with the PI and discuss the actual content of the rotation with the PI beforehand—every lab is different.

During the rotation:

Be predictable and work hard. Provide your PI and other close associates in the lab your planned hours and class schedule. Then stick to your planned hours and let people know about exceptions. You’re your schedule is predictable and you are seen to be working hard, the others will go out of their way to help you with your project, even keeping some aspects going while you are away or in class (e.g. incubations or managing your jobs on the cluster).

Seek time with the PI. Some labs have formal structured meetings with PIs (we do), but every lab is different. You should have periodic one-on-one meetings with PI to get a sense of the directions of the lab and different projects, as well as your own rapport with the lab and the PI.

Check your gut at the end. I like to tell my students—if you liked your first 8 weeks, think about sticking around and joining the lab. It gets better. If you hated your first 8 weeks, you should run. It gets worse. Every lab is a unique work place with its own culture, pet methodologies and routines. Every lab is a great place for someone; you just have to figure out if you see yourself thriving in that group.

After the rotation

Don’t worry about keeping in touch constantly. Typically in mid-late April of the academic year, we schedule meetings with all the rotation students. The easiest conversations are when we want the student and the student wants us. The rare occasion that we want the student but they plan to go elsewhere is also easy—the student’s preference comes first; we never hard-sell anyone. Finally, even for the occasional students who want to join the lab, but cannot be accommodated, all is not lost. I have served on a number of students dissertation committees and written letters of reference years after their rotation. It is important to think of the rotation as the start of a relationship, regardless of whether you eventually join the lab.

Conclusion

Picking a lab can be difficult decision made all the more difficult by a plethora of good choices at most major institutions. Of course, the lab you pick is important. But what is even more important is what you do once you get there.

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