Rotation labs: How to pick the right lab during graduate school

So, you’ve gotten into graduate school to study your STEM subject of choice. If you’re attending an institution in the United States, you will most likely have to complete rotations in a handful of labs before selecting your final PhD thesis lab. You will be armed with enthusiasm and fueled by sheer excitement at the world of science that will unfurl beneath your gloved fingertips. Before you start this adventure, though, I have some hopefully helpful tips:

  1. Talk to the students in the lab. This is the fastest, most reliable way to get a general feel for the lab. Pay attention to how the students talk about one another and about their PI. Most importantly, pay attention to what they’re not telling you. Be wary if you find yourself in a lab where everyone has only exaggeratedly amazing things to say about their lab/PI, and not one critique. And if everyone is complaining and/or upset with their PI, don’t go there thinking that you’ll bring change. “Be the change you want to see in the world” is generally noble life advice, but not realistically applicable in this case.
  2. Discuss the lab’s funding situation with the PI. Are they actually recruiting students to join their lab? If you join, how will you be supported? This might seem like an awkward conversation, but it’s important to ask because it means the difference between having financial support and being forced to TA for your whole time in graduate school. TA-ing for your whole graduate career will put extra stress on your actual research hours.
  3. Read their papers—not just the summary on their lab website. This might seem obvious, but I stress this because you might be tempted to just browse their website, and build an impression from that. However, websites aren’t always up to date. By reading their papers, you’ll get an idea of their complete and current research scope, their experimental methods, and most importantly, the rigor with which they defend their ideas. This will also provide insight into whether the lab is a good fit because you will see what the important techniques are in the lab. Every lab has at least one technique that everyone must be able to execute well. For some, it’s a microscopy assay; for others it’s a folding assay, unfolding, etc.
  4. You might be intimidated by some of the methods you see being used in your lab of interest. Don’t let this dissuade you, because the purpose of PhD training is—*drumroll*—to train you to answer a scientific question in a critical way. Go into your lab with an open mind, willingness to learn, curiosity, and determination.
  5. Observe the PI’s mentorship strategy by not just what she/he tells you, but by how she/he engages with trainees. Also, find out what the expectations are, Make sure to have a clear understanding of what is expected of you during your rotation, and if/when you join. Expectations differ from lab to lab and PI to PI, so just be sure!
  6. When identifying labs, pick one place where you’re 100% certain you’ll love it—or at least as certain as possible. Then, choose a lab that piques your interest but might differ from your past research experience. Lastly, select a place that’s in between. Ultimately, you want to be able to contribute a unique skill to your lab home. A wise professor once advised us to “create value.” What skills do you have that enable you to create value in and for each of the labs? What do you bring to the table that makes you more appealing than other candidates? Discerning this will help you not only engage meaningfully with the subject matter/topic of interest, but also think critically about your training goals.
  7. Hopefully, you will find a good training lab at the end of this rotation ordeal! If not, don’t fret: It’s not a personal indictment, nor the end of the road, but rather a common bump in a very difficult process. So, schedule an appointment with your recruitment coordinator to discuss your options, and keep in mind that you do, in fact, have many options.

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