It’s almost summer and a new class of graduate students will be starting soon (we usually get at least a few students that do summer rotations). This got me thinking about how students select rotation labs. I put together this list of considerations that I think might help students trying to make decisions on where to rotate.
1. Follow your research interests. If you are truly enthralled by a subject or research area, do a rotation! It might seem obvious, but don’t overthink it. Even if many other students are rotating in the same lab, your genuine enthusiasm will likely make you stand out as a great fit for the lab. Also, don’t agonize about whether the PI has 5-7 years of funding already secured for you (hint: unlikely). These are tough times but there are mechanisms through the graduate program and university to make sure there’s never a lapse in funding that holds back a student.
2. Look for a mentor that will support multiple career paths and create opportunities for you. As a brand new graduate student, it’s likely you’re not sure what you’re going to do yet with your degree. Make sure you pick a mentor that is willing to have career conversations with you often and help you find opportunities that will help you decide or explore your chosen direction.
3. Be fearless! This is a great opportunity to explore and try new things. If you know nothing about a field, it’s hard to know if you would enjoy it. If there’s a lab you’re curious about but have no background in, give it a try! I am always surprised by what piques my interest after learning more about it.
4. Follow your nose to find the right lab team/family for you. It’s not a guarantee that you will get along fantastically with all members of every lab but it’s important that the lab is a place you can imagine being happy for many years. A culture of mutual respect should first and foremost be demonstrated and promoted by the PI. Listen to your fellow students about the reputation of the PI to catch any major red flags, but remember that a poor fit for one student may be an excellent fit for another. You know yourself and if you think you might thrive in a specific environment, give it a shot!
5. Remember, your needs, abilities and confidence will change dramatically throughout grad school. I always tell students that the uncertainty they feel as a first year graduate student won’t be the same when they’re a 4th year. You will learn a great deal and undergo a massive transformation as a scientist throughout graduate school. Look for a PI that will grow with you and is willing to give you more flexibility and freedom as you need/want it.
6. If you’re on the fence about rotating (or even if not), ask to sit in on a lab meeting! I have invited a lot of students to sit in on lab meetings or journal clubs. It’s a great way to learn about the lab culture and see how the lab and PI interact.
7. Picking a rotation lab and ultimately a graduate lab is a big decision, but it’s not terminal. Most places have the option of doing more than the required number of rotations. Even if you join a lab, things go very badly and you need to switch labs, your graduate program will be there to support you. It happens more often than you might think for many different reasons, so don’t let stress and fear rob you of the fun of this great exploratory time in your career!