Updated: Apr 5, 2020
For some of you, you are about to make the huge decision of where you'll be committing 5+ years of your life to. We know you might be under a lot of pressure, but we're here to help! It was just a year ago when we were in the same boat too. Check out Ayumi's post 'Choosing a Grad School' to get some of our tips on things to consider when you're looking at your options. This post is focused on research, specifically, things to consider when choosing a rotation (or permanent) lab. After all, research is why you're pursuing a PhD in the first place!
Many PhD programs offer a system called rotations, which allow first year students to try out different labs before deciding on their future lab homes. In my Molecular Engineering (MolE) program we are allowed 3 rotations (and under special conditions- 4). Something I learned while researching and interviewing for PhD programs is that many engineering programs don’t offer rotations! Interestingly, I think rotations are more common for the life sciences. But rotations is one of the reasons why I decided to commit to MolE over other programs. I mean, 5 years is a LONG time to commit to just one lab! Heck, some marriages don’t even last that long! So for me, I prioritized a program that offered rotations over others that didn't. Ayumi related rotations to speed dating, and I think that’s a good description of what it’s like.
Some of this advice I learned from upperclassmen, some I learned myself, but all of them are tips I wish I knew when setting up rotations. The beginning of your PhD can be overwhelming with all the decisions that you have to make. Here are some things to keep in mind before getting too ambitious when setting up rotations:
1. Do your research! This may seem obvious, but it may not always be, especially if your program allows you to rotate in a variety of departments. My interdisciplinary interests spanned across many departments: bioengineering, chemical engineering, materials science, and even environmental and forestry sciences! When I started looking through faculty members for rotations, I initially only limited myself to Bioengineering...but I slowly realized that there were lots of faculty members outside of Bioengineering that also focuses on topics that I’m interested in. Such is the beauty of interdisciplinary sciences! So if your program allows you to perform research in different departments, then do your research and look up faculty from different fields! Look up faculty in departments that are even remotely relevant to your interests- you’ll never know who you’ll discover! I would have missed out learning about a lot of great research on campus if I hadn’t. Oh, and if your school has a department of forestry sciences, check it out because there is really interesting research happening in that field!
2. Reach out to lab members. What I liked to do was email the lab members as soon as I set up an interview with a PI. Often, I would glean more information about the lab after speaking to current lab members than the PI! This is the fastest, most reliable way to get a general feel for the lab culture and funding. Remember-if you end up joining, these people will be your lab family and will be the ones who support you through experimental failures and successes. They’ll see your highs and your lows. Pay attention to how the students talk about one another and about their PI. Pay attention to what they’re not telling you. Be wary if you find yourself in a lab where no one has a critique. Be especially wary if everyone is complaining and/or upset with their PI. Don’t go there thinking that you’ll change the PI or bring the change the lab needs. This usually doesn’t happen in romantic situations, and it’s even less likely to happen in labs. You’re first and foremost a student. It’s not your job to ‘change’ the PI, it’s the PI who has to change you into becoming a great scientist.
3. Ask the PI about funding!!! Believe me, I KNOW funding is such an uncomfortable subject to talk about! Not being upfront in asking about funding while setting up my rotations is my biggest mistake that has caused me a lot of heartbreak and discouragement (hey, at least they are interesting stories to tell--and I will share them in later posts). What I didn’t know then was this: that professors can be cleverly dodgy about funding. Getting a ‘yes’ isn’t enough. You need to get an unconditional ‘yes.’ The PI from my first rotation told me that she ‘had space for me.’ Space is NOT the same as funding. I found out that she didn’t have the funding to take me in after I spent a whole quarter falling in love with her lab. I was utterly heartbroken. I got a better answer a second time, but not good enough. The PI from my second rotation told me that “I’m almost positive I will receive that grant”, and I found out that he didn’t and that I couldn’t join. I know anything financial is embarrassing to talk about, but trust me when I say it’s mostly in your head. Professors are very used to being asked about this question, and you have a right to know. Most PIs aren’t trying to screw you over. Sometimes, they end up not receiving a grant that they expected and have to let you go. Just make sure they’re upfront and transparent about their funding situation--whether that means that they have already received a grant or that they are waiting to hear back from funding sources. Current lab members can really help you get an idea about the funding situation of the lab too.
4. Watch out for dodgy answers. Again, rotations are like speed dating. If someone in the lab or your PI tries to dodge a question about their finances, this is a red flag. You need a confident answer. Either they have the funding to take you on or they don’t.
5. Be aware of departmental quotas. This is something that I only learned after my first rotation. Some departments prioritize their own students first when filling out lab positions. I’ve had several friends who rotated in departments outside of their program (me included) where a professor couldn’t take them in because the PIs had to take in students from their own departments first. Ask the PI how many students they are able to take and if there will be other students rotating with you. It may be the case that you will be competing with the other students for one spot, and if this is the case, you might be at a disadvantage if you are not in the same department as the PI. This absolutely doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t rotate in other departments! It’s just something to keep in mind when looking for rotations. That way, you won’t be caught off-guard when a professor you thought had space for you actually doesn’t.
6. Don’t be afraid to experiment with research areas. You’re a first year PhD student! Your university is your oyster! Many of you probably spent multiple years in undergrad working in one lab on a single project, so you might not have found out exactly what kind of research you’d like to commit to for 5+ years. What better way to find out than to try rotating in different research areas? If you’re able, I highly advise rotating in labs that perform research in different areas. That way you can be exposed to new research fields to determine if that is a direction you’d like to be in. Your rotation period can be a way to immerse yourself in a new research field, learn tricks of the trade from lab members, and network with researchers in the field. This is your chance to discover what kind of research questions you’d want to commit to for the next several years, so take full advantage of this opportunity and go outside your comfort zone!
7. Be aware of your PI's expectations. Make sure you know your PI's expectations going into the rotation. Some PIs require some sort of deliverable such as a report or presentation at the end of your rotation. If you're joining a lab permanently, be aware that some PIs require that their students publish a certain number of papers. There was a PI I interviewed with who expected her students to publish at least 5 papers! Publishing is the goal of any long-term research of course, but always be aware of any set requirements that your PI might have for you.
8. Don’t take rejection/ghosting personally! One of the first things I had to get over was my sensitivity to professors either turning me down from a rotation or straight up ghosting me. If you’re like me, I’m telling you now--to keep your sanity, don’t take it personally! PIs are busy, and chances are that other students are also vying for their attention. When it comes down to it, timing plays a big role, especially with larger labs. In a lot of situations, the PI has limited space in their lab and other students booked a rotation before you did. Just because a PI doesn’t respond to you says nothing about your capabilities or qualifications! There are many other labs out there, so don’t be discouraged. YOU got into the grad program, YOU are capable, and YOU will find your place eventually!
9. Maintain constant communication with your PI. Once you have determined some rotation labs, make sure to remain in communication with your PI until your program starts. Sometimes communication gets lost over the summer after graduation. I get it, it may be the first time in years that you have had a summer break not consumed with summer classes or research! In-between those beach trips, hiking, and traveling remember to reach out to your PI every once in awhile. This will make onboarding a lot smoother once school starts and so you can start building a relationship with your mentor. Take initiative, future PhD student!