A Ph.D. Student’s Guide to Lab Rotations

So you’ve come here to read my unsolicited advice about making the most out of your rotation experience? Excellent, I’ve got lots of tea for you and I’m certain that the tips I share here will be extremely beneficial to you.

Okay first, if you are not aware of the unwritten rules of graduate school, please know that everybody and they mama talks. Rotations are like being on a job interview, every day for weeks. They’re kind of like that that 90 day probationary period before your job benefits kick in. Yes, rotations are meant to serve you and help you find your Ph.D. home for the next few years BUT rotations are a two-way street, a 20 way street, and everyone is involved.

  1. You have something to prove. The labs you’re joining know nothing about you other than what’s on your resume (if they read it) and grad school app (if they remember it). They only know what you share, but what holds the most weight is the actual work you do in the lab and how you do it. That will speak to your abilities as a scientist to a lab full of people who don’t know you. Put yourself in the PI’s shoes, this is really the only period they have to assess your work ethic, motivation, talents, etc. It’s important you start off on a great foot.Also, your lab mates are interviewing you, too. Trust and believe their opinion of you will hold just as much weight as the PI’s. Everyone wants a lab with good chemistry (for the most part…there are always exceptions i.e. toxic lab spaces, but like… please don’t join a toxic lab).
  2. Please, for the love of God, if you have rotation evaluation forms READ them BEFORE you start the rotation and make sure you’re assessing your progress. I didn’t do this but fortunately all of my evals were fire #noflexzone. But I remember looking at the rotation evaluation form at the END of my rotation SHOOK… like DAMN THESE QUESTIONS MAD SPECIFIC. Below is an example of my rotation eval form. 

    On a scale from Poor to Exceptional:

    Time & effort devoted to project
    Technical ability
    Intellectual contributions
    Reads and thinks about relevant literature
    Work well with lab mates, mentors
    Oral presentation skills
    Lab citizenship, safety
    Academic progress
    Shows initiative and motivation
    Learns new skills
    Asks question and offers ideas

    Even if your program doesn’t do these evals, find any eval online (this one I took from the University of Michigan PIBS program) and keep those questions in the back of your mind.

    You see how these points are MAD specific and there are things you can and should actively be doing in the lab to demonstrate that you are exceptional in every category (which I was not lol but you get my point).

    You can also see how if you’re not thinking about how you’re addressing these qualifications during your rotation you’ll be in for a rude awakening when it’s time for you to be graded. (Although rotations shouldn’t be graded. They should really be pass fail because some advisors be TRIPPIN and that burden shouldn’t fall on the student buttttttttttttttt I DIGRESS).

  3. ASSUME that you will have to give an end of rotation talk. If you don’t have to give a rotation talk, insist on giving one anyway. Rotation talks are important for all parties involved, it gives you a chance to shine in the lab and demonstrate what you were able to master in a short period of time and that you were invested in your project. Of course you’re not expected to be an expert in a few weeks but the rotation talk is a great opportunity for you to show your abilities as a scientist. Rotation talks are also a type of evaluation for your mentor. If you give a trash talk, I promise you they’re going to question what type of graduate student you’d be in the lab. Most importantly, rotation talks force you to think about your data, build a story, and communicate your science effectively. Whether you plan to join the lab or not, those are critically useful skills to have no matter what you do in life.
  4. Be proactive about setting up bi-weekly or monthly meetings. This is probably the most important piece of advice I have. For my first rotation I requested to meet with my mentor to provide research updates bi-weekly. It was really for my sake, to force me to begin putting my data together early and not get lost in the abyss of data analysis 1 week before lab meeting. It was also to keep my mentor updated on my research progress, share my ideas, and get feedback. If you’re in a large lab and your PI doesn’t know what you do every day, chatting about your work can be extremely helpful because there are things they will likely point out that you can incorporate to do better science!
  5. Faculty, staff, and students talk. If you’re doing poorly in your rotation, you best assume that information is not staying in the lab. The same way you talk to your friends about your experiences in the lab, faculty talk too. The last thing you want to do is jeopardize your reputation for not putting in enough effort. Treat every rotation like it’s the only place you want to be.

    Okay let’s pause for a second. I  put these tips first because I do think they should be the first things you think about while trying to find your new lab home. There are politics in every field, in whatever you do, and it’s important to know what a rotation really means. BUT – the rotation period is about YOUR needs. This is for you. So now let’s focus on you.

  6. Your rotation is YOUR opportunity to find a new home. Talk to people before committing to a lab. Talk to faculty, staff, and students. Ask meaningful and specific questions. Give specific scenarios if that helps (i.e. I plan to take x weeks off during the winter break and x weeks in the summer, would you be okay with this?). ASK THESE QUESTIONS WITH TACT. At the end of the day, grad school is a professional space. If you hear negative rumors about someone i.e. “So and so is a monster” …don’t ask potential lab mates “is so and so a monster?” … say something like “I really value work-life balance and flexibility in my research schedule. I prefer to get my work done during the week and to have weekends for myself. I’m thinking of rotating in Professor so and so’s lab.. do you think this would be a good fit?” If they respond with tact they might say something along the lines of “I’m not sure that would be the best match for you.” You peep game? Good.
  7. Red flags can be subtler than you’re used to. Some people will say “hell no, over my dead body” while others will say “that would be a unique fit and I’m not sure if it’s a perfect match but it wouldn’t hurt to try.” Some will just straight ignore your interest and recommend other labs. I didn’t pick up on these signals when I chose a lab as a Master’s student and ended up switching labs a year later. Fact of the matter is, if it’s a good lab, people will say that. If it’s unclear, where there’s smoke there’s probably a fire.
  8. Cut your rotation short if it’s not working out. GET HELP. Talk to your support groups (staff, trusted faculty, old mentors, new mentors, other students, etc.), the earlier the better. You are not obligated to stay in an unhappy environment. If your intuition tells you to leave or something feels off, honor that and dip. This is YOUR education, no need to waste your time or be in a wrongfully uncomfortable situations.
  9. Before you commit to joining a lab ask specific questions. You see how I put this here twice? Think about what you want and what you NEED from a mentor. Think about the training you want, the extracurriculars you plan to be involved in, etc. You may be spot on in assuming your mentor will be supportive of your initiatives but ALWAYS confirm. Before I joined my lab, I chatted with our graduate student support staff and they told me to come up with a list of things I want/need and discuss with my mentor. I had to take time for myself to really think about what I want to accomplish in life. After all, this is my degree, my training. You have to be sure that you have a mentor that will support you joining the science circus if that’s your goal.

    Some of the question I asked included:
    – Vacation time. I laid out a very specific plan of how long and when I plan to take breaks to make sure we were on the same page.- I shared that I wanted to do a summer industry internship, that I would be involved in extracurricular organizations for my social and professional life
    – Expectations in the lab: how long was I ‘expected’ to be in the lab. Some PIs expect you to work every day, that ain’t the PI for me. Some research requires you to be in the lab every day, that ain’t he research for me.
    – I also made sure to ask about my performance, if I was meeting expectations, etc. This is important for many reasons. You need to be aware of how you’re doing in the lab and be open to constructive feedback so you can improve. You learn how your advisor assesses success, is that based on data, time commitment, effort? If your advisor thinks you’re performing poorly, do you agree? Disagree? Are they buggin or is there validity to what they’re saying?  While this is your training, your advisor will rightfully will want a return on their investment as well.

  10. When you’re ready to join a lab, HAVE THAT CONVERSATION WITH THE PI. Nobody is a mind reader. You need to be direct, discuss funding, discuss openings, and the possibility of you joining the lab. The last thing you want to do is wrongfully assume you have a spot that you don’t have.
  11. Don’t join a lab if you don’t feel at home. PERIODT.  I don’t care what anybody says, what the limit on rotations is, if you have not found a supportive space that you’re excited to be in. Do. Not. Join. That. Lab. PERIODT. Taking a couple of extra semesters to really settle yourself will save you a lot of headache in the long run. Better you take time to find the right place rather than switching labs years down the road. Which brings me to my next point.
  12. Change labs if you need to and don’t be afraid. I know people who changed labs 4 years into their Ph.D. program, and some after two years in who had to redo their quals, but at the end of the day, you’re going to be tied to your lab/advisor for life. You want to have the best relationship possible. Plus, the Ph.D. is damn near half a decade, you want to be in a good space during that time.
  13. Don’t compete. People have different opinions on this but I refused to “compete” against my peers. Of course, be strategic and maybe don’t rotate in the lab that has 13 rotation students… I mean, you want a mentor who has time for you right?
    So if a place seems over saturated that’s probably not a good look regardless. When I say don’t compete what I mean is, if there’s another student who plans to rotate in your lab of interest, the odds/probability of you joining are probably impossible for you to calculate. Choose labs you want to rotate in because you like the PI, the research, and the environment. Now, of course you shouldn’t do all your rotations in labs who don’t have funding for new students, that wouldn’t be a good idea but don’t waste your energy trying to predict where people will go. Just go with the flow, follow your heart, and use your resources (grad student support staff, other faculty mentors, etc.). They can help guide you. I was fortunate to be the first student to rotate in the lab I joined but that’s not why I chose to do the rotation. In fact, I didn’t even consider that at all. I chose that rotation solely because I heard great things about the lab and I was really, really, excited about the research. The End.

So those are my general tips! If you’re still with me, shout out to you – hah, now let’s move onto my rotation experience

So how’d your rotations go?

I started my program in the Fall (September) having lived in Belgium for the past year as a Fulbright researcher. I moved back home in July, enjoyed my summer, and moved to Michigan to get started.

I had all these grand plans of having an amazing superstar list of rotation labs, and by the end of the first week of school, I had basically done little to no research about potential labs. I think, I was overwhelmed with all of the choices (400+ labs) and this was the first time I was able to CHOOSE my lab. I had also planned to do four half-semester rotations and ended up doing two full-semester rotations. For our program, we are required to do rotations through the Fall and Spring, either  two full semester rotations or four half semester rotations.

The first lab I rotated in, a few people had *highly* recommended to me and had nothing but wonderful things to say about the PI. They were absolutely right, she is amazing and all the goals and someone I hope to be mentored by for life…I digress. The research sounded cool so I set up a meeting to discuss projects and possibilities and we hit it off. Because I was so late in setting up my rotation, she recommended I do a full-rotation and I agreed.

At that time I really did prefer to do a half-rotation but agreed that because I was a week late, I was already cutting into an already short experience. In hindsight, which is always 20/20, I am SO glad I did that. As y’all know from my last two blog posts about my first year of grad school, classes were NO joke (really, read about my struggle here LOL). My full rotation was a life saver when I didn’t have to stress about transitioning to a new space while I was flailing in the deep end of pharmacology. Granted, other people did half-rotations and performed just fine. 

So, long story short, my first rotation was fantastic. Loved the lab, liked the research, and my post-doc mentor was awesome. 

So my seconddddddddd rotation, I actually had that set up from jump. I learned about the lab through a research blitz event where we talked to PIs for 5 minutes and they told us about their research. I distinctly remember thinking, “this sounds really dope but I have no idea what this man is talking about” (I do now LOL). I understood the concept but the field of cardiac electrophysiology was completely new to me.

Anyyyyyyyyyyyyways, so I also wanted to do a half-rotation in this lab and ended up doing a full-rotation and joining. And you know…….I don’t know what happened but I just couldn’t find another lab that I was genuinely interested in rotating in. I felt that I should be taking advantage of this opportunity to expose myself to different types of research and test the waters but… …I just didn’t … I just couldn’t find another lab. So I called my mom like… “mom, I’m having trouble finding another lab” and she goes “Chi-Chi… when you want something, nobody can stop you from getting it. The fact that you haven’t found a lab and are now trying to force yourself to find a new places suggests that you’ve already found a home. You don’t want to leave and that’s why you haven’t found another rotation!” 

She was absolutely right. I was just stuck on forcing this idea that I had to do all of these rotations when in actuality, I already found a home.

So yeah, my rotation experience was pretty phenomenal. And if yours isn’t, that’s okay! If it’s absolute trash, that’s okay! The goal is to find a home, and when you do that, you win. There is always a way to change your rotation into a positive experience and somebody, somewhere, can help you do it if you just ask!

The tips I shared in this post are based on my experience as well as others who had great, horrible, or mediocre rotations. Learning the dos and donts for myself and through others is what led to this list of essential tips that I know will help any graduate student make the best of their rotation experience

As someone who left a lab that was not a good fit – one year into my two-year Master’s program – and someone who has been in extremely supportive lab environments, I understand and appreciate the importance of a good fit and the PEACE that it brings. I work hard, I’m challenged, and I’m happy. Everyone deserves and can have that. You just need to know what to look for, speak up for yourself, be vocal, and communicate, communicate, communicate!

If you have questions or want to share your thoughts about the process please do so in the comments!

With Love,
Chi-Chi

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