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Lab rotations: expectations and norms?

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I start my first rotation in 4 weeks! I am excited, but I'm also stressed out -- mostly because I don't have a clear picture of what will be expected of me. I feel naive.

 

I've discussed my interests with my PI for this rotation and he's developed a sketch of objectives for the rotation. It looks kinda like this (where w,x,y,z are techniques):

  • w to determine blah blah blah
  • x to assess other outcomes of blah blah blah
  • y to serve some other purpose
  • z to look at blah blah blah from another angle

I'm coming into this Neuroscience program from a different field. I am only familiar with technique w.

 

I've taught myself all of the techniques that I know. I come from a small, postdoc-free lab where there simply wasn't another way to learn. I don't know if this is normal, or if this is what will be expected of me during this rotation.

 

In a rotation, are you usually shown how to do new techniques? I am fine with teaching myself, but I know that self-teaching requires extra time for screwing up and troubleshooting, and I want to be realistic about what I set out to achieve during this 10 week rotation. It's difficult for me to predict what I will be able to do with this time when I don't know how long it will take me to learn techniques (as this depends on whether it's normal to be shown how to do things or not).

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I don't have answers for you but am in a similar position and am also interested in this topic. I am interested in knowing how much progress is expected on projects to make a good impression with the PI. I get that there isn't an absolute answer to this. Generally speaking though, is significant progress expected or do the PIs usually just want to see that you self-teach, are a hard worker, etc?

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I would hesitate to talk about "norms" for rotations. 

 

The types of questions you're asking can very hugely from school to school, as well as from lab to lab within the school. 

 

Some schools expect significant progress to be made during a rotation (i.e., presentation with results to the department at the end). Some view rotations more just to see how people mesh and are low-key while you're taking courses. Some view it explicitly as a chance to learn new methods that will be applicable whether or not you stay in that group. 

 

The best way to get your questions answered (and honestly, a lot of things about your schools norms) is to form a relationship with some of the senior graduate students and ask them. 

 

I honestly wish more of our prospective/incoming students did that! Most of them are ultra-focused on making friends with their cohort, or the students a year ahead of them and tend to almost completely ignore the senior students in the department. It tends to a very bad "blind leading the blind" situation, where you get several years of students consistently doing things that irk the faculty, focusing effort on areas that no one really cares about, and a ton of unnecessary stress on the part of the younger students. 

 

Also to add: you are naive when you start. No one expects you not to be. Own up to it, and ask senior people for advice. This most certainly won't be the last time in your professional career you're in a new situation and need to find a local mentor to help you through it. 

 

For junior faculty, one of the first pieces of advice they get is to cultivate a "trusted senior faculty member" to use for advice. The same thing applies for graduate school, post-docs, industry positions, etc. Get to know someone that you can trust that's been around a while, and listen to their advice.

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All I can give an answer to is how rotations are done at my institution, but I'm sure it's far from universal, as has already been stated. For what it's worth, we had a formal rotation agreement with the PI, where both the student and the professor had to agree on what work was expected from the rotation. Naturally, this wasn't something that was set in stone (one of my rotation agreements listed that I would work on a method that I never actually touched because I was doing a different set of experiments). There was the expectation that the incoming graduate student would get training, there's no way around it as all labs do the same technique in different ways (I learned at least 3-4 different ways of doing a western blot, for example. )And, yes, learn absolutely everything you can during a rotation, it's a great way to bring a method from one lab to another. I know I did it during my rotations.

 

Some professors will give you lots of freedom to craft your own idea, others will put you to work on another researcher's project (grad student, postdoc, technician), others will use you on a high-risk/high-reward idea they have to see if it's viable. Ultimately, where I am at, the point of a rotation was not to generate a meaningful result (although it was encouraged). Some people I know got results, some people had everything they touch fail, other people had to move on to the next rotation just as the experiment started working. The point was to get to know the professor and for the professor to get to know you and for the student to find an advisor.

 

But, again, this was just my experience at one university. Expectations will vary depending on where you are. But, senior graduate students will be your best resource and there should be some available for questions. Again, institution specific, but during my orientation we had current graduate students talk to us about their experience with the program and they gave us advice. Other long-standing lab members such as technicians will also be able to give you some advice, they may not have done rotations, but they have likely known many graduate students and know the culture of the university (and more importantly, of a particular lab).

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Most PIs and grad students understand that rotation students aren't going to start knowing everything. So don't panic too much! What I'd do is ask the PI directly "What are your expectations for my rotation?" and "What would you need to see during my rotation before you admitted me into your group?" It might just be that they want you to turn up, do at least *some* work and get along well with the current group members. Or it might be that they have a specific project they want you to complete. 

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My program does require that rotation students give a presentation at the end of each rotation -- results are expected.

 

I had a lot of freedom in "designing" my rotation project. I put "designing" in quotes because I read papers from the lab, identified a question that I'd like to look into -- which was supported by the PI -- and the PI listed some methods I should use.

 

I think the lab has between 2-4 postdocs. I think the root of my confusion is that I have NOT been in a lab with postdocs before, and although I know they essentially "run the lab", I don't know what this functionally looks like. Will I be able to ask them for help? Will they be so busy that it really won't matter that they are there? Is this another thing that varies from lab to lab? See, I'm naive. But it's comforting to know that naivete is normal at this stage and that I'm not alone in that feeling. I guess I'll just show up and give it what I can.

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Most postdocs will be willing to answer your questions - even if they seem like "dumb/niave" questions. The rule of thumb is to not ask the same question over and over.

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Most postdocs will be willing to answer your questions - even if they seem like "dumb/niave" questions. The rule of thumb is to not ask the same question over and over.

Also, even if you know you've asked too many times, ask again rather than potentially messing something up.

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If the postdocs aren't willing to help you, or blow up if you ask the same question twice, or act like you're invisible...then this isn't a lab you'd want to join.

 

When in doubt about something, always ask. It's better that the other group members are mildly annoyed that you're asking the same question repeatedly, than you breaking a piece of equipment/needlessly set yourself back by a week by doing something wrong.

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I tell my undergrads that if I have to explain the same thing over and over because they aren't paying attention, I might get annoyed. But that will be nothing compared to how upset I'll be if they don't ask and damage something.

Especially because not asking can not just set you back, it has the potential to set everyone in the lab back if you mess up a central piece of equipment or contaminate something.

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I should have been more specific, my bad. All I meant by my earlier comment was that the student should pay attention to what the postdoc or older grad students in the lab and of course ask questions if they are confused. I do agree that not asking a question could be more detrimental than taking a few minutes to get a question addressed. 

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I wasn't meaning mine in opposition to yours, just reinforcing the point as I feel it's often overlooked.

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