If you’re reading this blog post, it’s possibly because you have made the decision to sell your soul for the next few years to the noble endeavor of charting the intellectual unknown...and obtaining a PhD. If you’re about to start your first year of grad school, welcome! Welcome to an incredible community of young, growing scientists, all as eager as you are to learn and to push the boundaries of knowledge as we know it. Here at Harvard Neuro Blog, nearly all of our writers are current or former graduate students, so we know what it feels like to be at the start of what can seem like a daunting journey. Over the next several years, you’ll read thousands of pages of primary literature, write proposals, take qualifying exams, and write a dissertation whose length may rival some of your old college textbooks. But before you do all of that, you might find yourself with a preliminary challenge: lab rotations.
There’s a lot of advice on the web for how to choose a thesis lab and a mentor. But if your program gives you the opportunity to explore multiple labs through rotations during your first year, organizing and managing the decision on how to position yourself for first-year rotation success is governed by a slightly different set of rules than those of finally choosing a thesis advisor and project.
We are two second-year students in Harvard’s Program in Neuroscience, which means that we recently went through the rotation process ourselves. Having done so, we felt it might be useful to share our perspectives, as well as those of our peers and colleagues, on how to get the most out of lab rotations in the first year of graduate school.
Rotations, and Why We Do Them
Rotations are short-term opportunities for incoming graduate students to test the waters of multiple lab environments before ultimately choosing a thesis advisor and lab. Through rotations, graduate programs hope to encourage students to figure out exactly what they prioritize in a thesis lab, and hopefully also get some new technical and intellectual experiences along the way. By trying multiple lab environments in close succession, students can use rotations as a tool to test and compare how different areas of study, mentoring styles, and many other lab qualities impact their happiness and overall “fit” for a potential thesis lab.
We asked John Assad, Professor of Neurobiology, and Program Director for the neuroscience graduate program at Harvard, what he viewed as the goal of lab rotations. The motivation behind encouraging students to do rotations was to let them “get a vibe for the lab,” he expressed. “As a rotation advisor, I want you to be in the lab, engaging and interacting with the people and our science. Don’t worry about trying to get something done. It’s great if you can, but don’t worry about that. You’re really here to decide, ‘is this the right lab for me?’” Graduate programs are looking to develop incoming talent and raise the next generation of leading scientists, and program higher-ups recognize that good science comes from happy trainees, who settle into labs that fit their scientific, mentorship, and social needs.
Programs genuinely use rotations as a means to ensure students’ long-term happiness; however, many incoming first-year students approach rotations with the classic high-achieving mindset of “I’m going to find the best lab so that I’ll be successful”, and often, this rhetoric is accompanied by some preconceived notions:
The ‘best’ labs are big, established operations that have churned out loads of trainees over the years.
The ‘best’ labs are the ones all my classmates are flocking toward.
The ‘best’ labs are rolling in money and HHMI-funded.
The ‘best’ PI’s have a large h-index.
The ‘best’ lab studies the very narrow topic I know want to do my PhD on.
In abiding by many of these ideas, several incoming rotation students pore over department websites but then limit their rotation labs to narrow sub-fields, sizes, or reputations. While many of these characteristics may combine to define your perfect lab, not all or even any of these qualities need to be present to comprise the lab that makes your graduate school career great.
Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of choosing options for thesis labs is that it’s not strictly about the science; it’s about you and your relationship with your mentor. Graduate education is highly personalized, from the paths we take to get here, to our experiences during the PhD, to what we decide to do afterwards. As such, there is no formula for taking the “right” path through graduate school, but there are strategies to ensure that you get exactly what you need out of it.
Here are several considerations that we think are important for incoming graduate students when choosing rotation labs.
Instead of starting to choose rotations purely based on the descriptions of laboratories in your university’s department, start by taking some time to reflect on what you want out of grad school. It’s surprising how few students actually take the time to do this.
Take a moment to remind yourself how you got here and why you decided to go to graduate school. People enter graduate school from many different professions; some straight out of college, some from years of full-time work as a technician or in industry. Others take more winding trajectories, sampling a range of other professional directions before beginning graduate school. Think about how your path thus far has influenced the skill set you currently have, and why certain procedures, practices, and environments have worked well for you in the past.
Consider the reasons you were drawn to graduate school in the first place. What aspects of your previous work did you find most rewarding? Perhaps you’ve fallen in love with your model organism, and the biological or behavioral characteristics that it affords. Do you have a preferred turnaround time for experimental results? Certain types of projects and questions will allow you to quickly test out and get feedback on hypotheses, while others require more longitudinal investment. Furthermore, think about what has been most satisfying in your day-to-day experiments. Do you relish technical tasks that appeal to your perfectionistic side? Do you value generating data in a high-throughput manner? These are all things that might make you particularly drawn to a particular type of work. Based on this, it might be worthwhile to seek out a rotation in which you can do a short deep-dive into ideas that already interest you, continue investigating a preferred model organism, or rotate in a lab where your existing skill set can be deftly applied to an ongoing project. These rotations can serve as a confidence boost, and also ease the transition into a long new chapter.
Furthermore, consider what kind of mentorship you’ve benefited the most from in the past. Are you more productive when you have an authority figure helping set deadlines? Or would you prefer being left to your own devices to figure out why your experiments are going wrong? How do you want feedback delivered to you? Do you need lots of positive reinforcement, or are you okay with handling sharp and blunt feedback? Answers to these questions can be informative regarding what kind of lab size and mentorship style will work best for you. But we’ll touch more on this later.
In addition to your technical skill set and mentorship desires, another facet of yourself worth reflecting on is what social situations you’re comfortable with. Over the course of your PhD, you will be spending copious hours with your labmates and principal investigator. If you’ve enjoyed highly social labs that eat lunch together everyday and hang out on the weekends, scope out similar qualities in rotation labs. Alternatively, if you prefer quieter, more independent avenues to be scientifically happy and productive, seeking out these types of lab environments may fare well. Additionally, consider that some lab communities are known for their intensity, while others may provide you more relaxed, exploratory environment. None of these qualities are inherently ‘better’ than others, but thinking about what has or hasn’t worked for you in the past can help you zero in on the characteristics that will make you most happy in a thesis lab. Or, if you haven’t had much varied experience in these realms, rotations are a great time to get exposed!
All this being said, while having incoming preferences and skills is valuable, it is equally valuable to recognize gaps in this set, and aspire toward becoming a well-rounded and capable scientist. Where you’ve come from does not define where you’re going, and it’s 100% okay (and in fact encouraged) to step outside any lines you’ve drawn for yourself.
Recognize What Training You Need
Now, even more important than what you can already do, ask yourself: what skills would you like to gain? Graduate school is all about training and preparing you for the next stage in your career, whatever that may be. Perhaps you want to eventually pursue a faculty position, or enter science communication, or the private sector? While you don’t need to have made a decision about your future career plans already, think more broadly about the skills you’ll specifically want to develop over the next several years. As you consider what your next step might be, identifying potential areas for growth is an excellent place to search for rotation lab criteria.
Remember also that the type of scientist you become will be highly influenced by your choice of mentor. They’re going to be your primary resource for growth. Their role is not only to enable you to do exciting and rigorous science, but also to help you develop your abilities beyond the bench. Dr. Tari Tan, who helps develop the curriculum for graduate students as Director of Educational Programming for Harvard’s Department of Neurobiology, explained that a PI’s history is a good indicator of which types of skills you might gain in their lab:
“For example, if you want to improve your public speaking, then you should consider joining a lab where they have a good track record of sending students to present at conferences...If you know that you want to learn how to write fantastically, read some of the papers or grant proposals from the labs that you’re interested in, and if you find them compelling, consider training with that professor.”
Your principal investigator will have a heavy hand in steering your scientific, personal and professional development in the coming years. In choosing your PI, reflect on what kind of scientist you want to be at the end of your PhD.
When considering rotation mentors, it is also important to factor in not only what they can teach you, but how they interact with you. Be honest with yourself about what you think you’ll need from your PI in terms of mentorship style and lab environment. How hands-on do you want them to be? How often do you want to meet with them? While this is highly correlated with lab size, interactions and their quality ultimately come down to the PI’s choices in terms of what they prioritize, how they want to run their lab, and what they see as their role as a mentor. Furthermore, the distinctions between various lab environments are far more nuanced than simply the ‘big lab’ vs. ‘small lab’ choice. While all of these are things that you will certainly be exposed to over the course of a rotation, what is perhaps the most indicative from the outset are the conversations that you have one-on-one with lab heads beforehand.
Therefore, if you’re wondering how to gauge a lab’s characteristics beyond just scientific focus while setting up a rotation, our primary recommendation is to sit down and have a conversation with the PI. Over the course of the meeting, think about how you’re reacting to the conversation: you may be excited about the proposed project, but how did you feel about talking to the PI as a potential mentor ? Do you get the sense that you got along? Did you feel as though your perspectives on science meshed well? And do you envision yourself having a supportive advocate for your career in this PI? If the answers to these questions are ‘yes’, chances are, you’ll have a lot to gain from rotating in the lab. Furthermore, it may also be helpful to reach out to the PI’s graduate students and trainees (both current and former) to ask how they would describe the style of mentorship in the lab.
Your answers to these questions are likely still developing as you enter graduate school, and they will continue to evolve as you go through your rotations over the course of the year. As you try out different labs and mentorship styles, you will gain valuable insight into yourself and your needs, which you can use to choose any subsequent rotations. This type of feedback is only gained from experience, which underscores the importance of leaving yourself flexibility and room to explore in your rotation schedule.
Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
As graduate school admissions become increasingly competitive, most students are already entering their graduate programs with multiple months or years of intense research experience under their belts. While this experience bodes well for your overall graduate school preparedness, it unfortunately, also primes incoming students with the (often false) sense of: “I know exactly what I want to study in grad school”, by which students continue studying extremely similar fields to what they pursued pre-grad school. While this mentality can certainly lead to a successful PhD, rotating in labs solely immersed in a singular or narrow sub-field can often preclude opportunities to engage broadly with your discipline of choice and to gain new analytical and technical skills. So, if you’re a proficient bench scientist, perhaps try your hand at improving your programming skills in a computational lab for a few months. Alternatively, if you’ve always been more of a theorist, consider being an experimentalist for a few months, and learning the substrates of the systems you’ve always been interested in modeling. It’s also important to note that previous experience in a subfield is in not a requirement for rotating, so don’t hesitate to reach out to anyone who sounds like they might be a potential fit. Furthermore, PIs won’t assume that you’re rotating until you explicitly tell them, so there’s no harm in scheduling meetings to discuss potential rotations even if you’re only remotely interested.
We spoke to our classmate and fellow Harvard NeuroBlog writer, Alex Chen; he took a ‘wide net’ approach in his first year, during which he did three rotations which spanned techniques from programming behavioral tracking software, to whole-brain calcium imaging, to subcellular organelle electrophysiology.
“Experiencing such a diversity of questions and methods broadened my knowledge about neuroscience, gave me more tools with which to approach future questions, and most importantly, showed me what kinds of questions and day-to-day experiments I most liked doing. This is the goal of rotating,” he said.
So if you’re even 10% unsure about what questions and techniques excite you, it’s worth rotating in at least one lab that is completely different than what you’re used to. (If you decide to do a rotation just to learn a new technique though, make sure you make that intention clear to the PI in advance.)
Chen isn’t alone in believing in the benefits of diverse experiences. Interestingly, despite their success in graduate school and beyond, both Tan and Assad expressed some level of regret for not having explored more during their rotations. Assad noted, “I’ve seen people who made big changes and really fell in love with something in grad school. Just take a chance on something new...I wish I had done another rotation”. Similarly, Tan stated that despite her initial interest in mouse olfaction, her approach to rotations was too narrow in retrospect. “When I went to do my postdoc work, I switched from mice to C.elegans. And I absolutely loved C.elegans as a model organism. I am convinced to this day, that had I rotated in a C.elegans lab, I probably would’ve chosen that over mouse, just because I fell in love with the system,” she told us. Even more compelling is the fact that both Tan and Assad made the switch between model organisms after leaving graduate school; This goes to illustrate that while it’s never too late to change directions, rotations provide an excellent channel for exploration with low commitment, because you never know what might pique your interest.
As disciplines within the life sciences converge and cross traditional boundaries, it is becoming ever more important that young scientists equip themselves with an increasingly broader toolbox of technical and critical thinking skills. In approaching rotations, it will be useful to consider exposing yourself to a variety of questions and techniques, not only to build up this toolbox, but also to ensure that what you “think” you want to work on is actually what you want to work on for the next several years.
Lab rotations are not meant to be nerve-racking. If you find yourself reading this and still are wary about the coming months or the uncertainty about choosing lab, don’t be. Rotations are a flexible, low-pressure opportunity for you to learn new things in science and about yourself as a scientist.
The path to graduate school success starts with you, your curiosity, and taking the initiative to find the spaces where you can maximize your own growth as well as your intellectual impact on the scientific community, one step at a time. The first step in this path is yours for the taking, and with a little self-reflection and open-mindedness, we hope you can take it with confidence.
-Written by Content Editors: Maya Jay and Kelsey Clausing