Lab Rotations: Finding the Right Relationship

Picking a thesis lab can be a daunting task. To increase the likelihood of a positive Ph.D. experience, most programs require students to test the water through rotations. I can’t speak to the structure of other programs, but in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine program, we have a class dedicated to professors and their research. We listen to  Principal Investigator (PI) elevator pitches to help get a better understanding of a lab’s personality, interests and previous students. In most cases, we also scour the internet, bouncing from bio to bio on our program’s website to find interesting rotation labs. In this short time, students become interested in some labs’ research and personalities. Others’, not so much.

Is this lab the right fit for my thesis work?

It starts to gets stressful when it’s time to make contact. With a narrowed down list, we send emails asking to meet with PIs to discuss the potential of rotating in their labs. They either agree to meet, aren’t available or never respond. Despite the stress, it usually works out. You settle into labs and subsequently finish your first, second and/or third rotation. After about three months, if a lab is the total package — interesting research, mentorship, funding — you may ask to join the lab for your thesis work. And when labs are not the total package, we question if it’s a good fit. So is it just me, or does rotating in labs feel like speed dating?

Choosing a thesis lab is like entering a relationship

You’re gauging your interest, learning expectations and entering into a relationship. Yes, a relationship. It sounds weird, but when you join a lab, you’re entering into a long-term professional relationship with your mentor, with your lab mates, with your collaborators. These are the people with whom you will spend the next 5–7 years, so it’s only fitting to test the waters, ask questions and be picky. It requires you to reflect on your priorities, what you want out of your Ph.D. experience and what lab best fits your needs. It’s a big decision, but it’s yours to make. When you have decided on a lab, telling other rotation labs your decision can feel a bit like a breakup. We’ve all been there. Just remember, “It’s not for you, it’s for me.”

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