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Lab rotations vs. Direct-to-PI


agrizz

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So if/when the time comes, I will find myself having to choose between biomed/neuro programs that have mandatory laboratory rotations, typically over 3 full semesters, or begin straight-away with one PI.  

 

I've spent some time working out some pros and cons, but I wonder if any one has any additional insight:

 

Lab rotations - Pros

  • You potentially can survey variable research topics
  • Potentially initiate collaborations with additional PIs from the one you eventually choose
  • Learn variable research techniques
  • Find a good fit for the research itself as well as the lab personnel and advisor

Lab rotations - Cons

  • You begin rotations 1-3 semesters prior to when the advisor you hope to choose has to begin funding you and he/she may hope but not actually have sufficient money when the time comes
  • You are now applying based on faculty who won't be responsible for your funding for another 2 years.  In some cases, they may be confident that they will be able to take you in 2 years but learn later they are unable.  
  • There will be no guarantee that you secure the PI that you want based on what is, essentially a second application process/competition with other students
  • Some have to rotate into their second year

Direct-To-PI - Pros

  • If accepted to the program now, you're inherently assured (most of the time) that your funding is secure
  • You can start your research immediately rather than losing a few semesters in the rotation system.

Direct-To-PI - Cons

  • All eggs are in one basket once you matriculate
  • No trial period as in rotations
  • Some change their minds about research interests after exposure
Edited by agrizz
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Other pros to the rotation system:

  • Every student in the program has worked in ~3 labs, and knows the students in those labs...who have also worked in 3 different labs. The entire program will be more cohesive and collaborative.
  • From the perspective of a PI, having students who have established relationships in other labs may promote collaboration, as students tend to pick rotations that deal with similar-ish subject matter.
  • An incoming student might think that Prof X is a perfect fit for them (on paper), but in reality, being able to get along with other lab members and be happy in the lab is a huge productivity promoter. Rotations allow students not only the opportunity to work on different projects, but also to find the environment best suited to their work personality.

Cons:

  • Yes, iffy funding 2 years out. However, I think profs usually decide whether to take rotation students based on their projected ability to fund them. Also, most programs allow for additional rotations if a suitable lab isn't found within the normal rotation allotment.
  • Diffused time that could have been put toward concentrated work. But, I mean, the purpose of a grad program (in my opinion), is to do a bit of exploring within a specific field, and to garner a deeper understanding of multiple current research topics. I don't see grad school in the same "get in, get out" light that undergrad is cast in.
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Being on my last rotation, I wanted to add a couple things:

 

Pro - aside from fostering future collaborations with other PIs, you also have the opportunity to check out potential members for your thesis committee and connect with many other grad students and postdocs who can help you in smaller ways. One of my rotations was extremely useful as far as getting to know a lot of people whose technical skills have been and could continue to be a great resource. 

 

Pro - if more than one PI wants you, you will be in a position of greater power with respect to negotiable things that could motivate you to join one of their labs. I know this sounds a little awkward, and I certainly don't mean that in any manipulative or twisted way, but I'm watching it play out in my case right now. It could also be pretty awkward to be aggressively "courted", so I suppose that's a potential con. Alternately, you could end up in a neat co-advisorship situation, and there are a few important ways this could help you. 

 

Pro - I've learned a lot about different PI management approaches, and it's been far more enlightening than I expected. I feel like my decision will be much better informed now, and I won't be as likely to wonder if everyone else has it better on days when my PI drives me bananas (because this will definitely happen anywhere, no matter how good the PI). 

 

Con - feeling like a vagrant for a little while. 

 

Important detail - my program has 3 required rotations, and I think they do say something along the lines of each rotation being about a semester. But in reality, we first year students have easily negotiated rotations as short as 8 weeks and on average 10-12 weeks, so it definitely will not take a year and a half. The deadline for choosing a lab is the end of the summer (so one full year, or 3 academic semesters including the summer), but that allows time for up to 4 or even 5 rotations "just in case". March-April is about when 2 of us will be starting in our permanent labs. One student decided to do one semester/rotation just because, but she's unusual that way. 

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The thing that really made me decide that I wanted to do rotations was that it allows me to work with multiple faculty and see if we actually can work together in an effective manner. That single pro was stronger than any con I saw with rotations.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I would probably prefer rotations.. seeing that you're a good fit with PI in terms of management and personality is important, and I don't think you'd really know until after you've worked with them a while. 

 

But I'm curious. Do those programs with rotations tend to take longer than those where you just jump right in? I feel like that'd set you back a full year in your research/dissertation.

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I would probably prefer rotations.. seeing that you're a good fit with PI in terms of management and personality is important, and I don't think you'd really know until after you've worked with them a while. 

 

But I'm curious. Do those programs with rotations tend to take longer than those where you just jump right in? I feel like that'd set you back a full year in your research/dissertation.

Ours expects 5-6 years from start to finish. It might theoretically take more time, but on the other hand your rotation project can lead to your dissertation and the skills you learn from other labs can also be pretty useful.
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