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Rotations and Selecting a Lab Advice?


ERR_Alpha
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Hey everyone,

 

My current anxiety attack (whats new) is stemming from choosing labs to rotate in and inevitably selecting a thesis lab (!!!!!). So I'm looking for any sage advice from the GradCafe, of course. I've talked to plenty of grad students at my school but I figured I'd look here too.

 

Just a quick summary: Myself and two (possibly more) people in my cohort are interested in the same two labs. (Ugh) To make this worse, they are also dual appointed in chemistry, meaning there are MORE students from that dept also looking to rotate. Apparently, the chem students are easier to fund, putting me at yet another disadvantage. The lab I'm currently rotating in now I'm not super excited about but maybe I'll come around to it. I currently have a list of 8(ish) other people to rotate with- I can only technically do two more rotations, even though I *could* do more, generally people only do three. 

 

So, question- should I try rotating in a lab with less competition? I've had plenty of grad students tell me to expand my comfort zone and I could find something I really like. 

 

TL;DR - Asking for any advice or personal stories on rotating and choosing a lab.

 

Thanks guys!

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My tactic is that as long as the lab doesn't stray too far from my research interest I'm more concerned about having my personality mesh well with the PI. I don't think I'd feel comfortable having two highly competitive labs as your next rotations as the first one is turning out to be a bust. What comes to mind for me, and this is very much based on my preferences, I'd probably look at the next rotation being in a "safer" lab and if it turns out well try a riskier one for the final rotation, if it doesn't then definitely number three will be a safe lab. But, ultimately, if you need four to find the right place then you need four. 

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Do go outside your comfort zone. 

 

Before you commit to a rotation, ideally try to find out from the faculty members (i) if they actually have funding to take on new students (ii) how many new students they intend to take. That will help you gauge the level of competition. Choosing a lab where you get on with both the PI and the group is really important, as is (long-term) lab funding and research interests. Be very careful around PIs who say they "might" have funding to take you, or who "are waiting to hear back on their grant" - it is risky using up 1 of you rotations on a group like that, because funding does fall through fairly regularly.

 

Be savvy of how the PIs decide which new students to accept. Sometimes it is very much a case of first-come-first-served (people who do the first rotation or work over the summer tend to get prioritised), other times the PI doesn't really mind. It is common for the PIs to ask their group members what they thought of the rotation students and how they behaved in the lab, so be aware of how you are presenting yourself and attempting to integrate (if its a "quiet" lab then don't put music on loudspeakers without asking others first, etc). 

 

If you're unsure of which labs to rotate in, try asking the more senior grad students you know what their impressions of the labs are. If you prefer to keep to yourself as you work, it may not be a good idea to rotate in a lab that is renown for being very chatty. Or the PI could be really difficult to work for - but the group members themselves won't admit it to an outsider.

 

Lastly, rotations are also a great opportunity to meet new people in the Dept, learn new lab techniques and generally expand your scientific knowledge base! Keep an open mind, be savvy and don't stress more than is necessary.

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I'd say go for the labs you like the most regardless of competition.  One of my rotations had about five or six students come through from various departments, and the PI was practically begging me to join at the end (you, too, could be in that position, but you might want to think if the other students have a significant edge over you or not).  I'd rather be adventurous and risk having to do a fourth rotation (I did four, and it worked out just fine btw) than pick something safe or something that you aren't excited about.  Aside from hating the environment, finding a research topic that was just "okay" would probably drive me nuts.  If you are at a big enough institution, you should be able to find a place where you like the PI, environment, and research topic quite a lot.  Another thing you didn't mention was whether or not this prof can take 2 or 3 students in the upcoming year, which is an important factor.

 

I would only try "expanding your comfort zone" if you are, I don't know, straight from undergrad and haven't given it much thought or didn't get much exposure to a variety of topics in research labs.  One guy in my program said he was only going to rotate in breast cancer labs.  If you know what you like with a good amount of certainty, no one can tell you otherwise.

 

Actually, now that I think about it, almost everyone in my program did an extra rotation for one reason or another.  I'd hit up the labs you are most interested in, and save the fourth rotation for something safe-r if it comes to it.  The 6-8 week rotations (or however long they are for you) are not lost investments, and are a drop in the bucket compared to your overall doctoral education.  You should totally spend an extra rotation to make sure you've found the best fit.

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When I rotated most PI's recommended having one "risky rotation" i.e. 5-6 students fighting for 1 spot or a lab that might not have funding. The other two should be safer, i.e. the labs have funding and less students. Definitely expand your horizons on research topics, I ended up in a lab very different from what I worked on as an undergrad.

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Since doing a rotation early seems to have benefits, why not schedule the first 2 with your favorite labs and absolutely work your butt off to set yourself apart from the other students? You can do a third and possibly fourth rotation in one of the labs that will be easier to get into.

Edited by bsharpe269
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