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182. How to Choose A Rotation Lab and Advisor

Lab rotations are a pretty sweet deal – you get the chance to work in a lab for a few weeks to see how it fits. Do you like the people? The project? The advisor? If not, try another lab and see if that one is a better fit.

But at the end of 3-4 rotations, you ultimately have to make a choice, and you’ll live with that decision for the next 3-5 years!

This week, we offer a checklist of ‘Things to Consider’ when making your decision, and a warning that many students prioritize the wrong features!

Lab Rotations – A Curse of Opportunity

First year grad student Megan writes:

Hi! You may have already recorded a podcast on this topic, but I wanted to suggest doing one on “choosing a lab/mentor” during rotations. I am starting my rotations in October, and I am feeling nervous about making a wise choice. Loving the podcast!

Most students think about just one thing when it comes to choosing a lab rotation: does the science look cool?

While it’s important to find a topic that motivates you, it’s certainly not everything. Remember, your goal in graduate school is to get out of graduate school with a degree! There are ways to optimize that outcome even if the research topic isn’t what you’d like to spend the rest of your life exploring.

Aside from the compelling research questions, we encourage students to consider two other themes: the lab culture, and the research advisor.

Make a List, and Check it Twice

Here are some topics to think through as you embark on your rotations. It’s a good idea to keep physical notes (paper or electronic) about your experience, because it’s all too easy to forget Lab 1 after you’ve finished Lab 3.

  • Science fit
  • Lab environment / culture fit
    • Lab size
    • Lab dynamic (fast paced or slow and steady?)
    • Lab schedule
    • Social and outgoing or people keep to themselves?
    • Are you able to comfortably be yourself?
    • Do keep in mind that labs are transient… people are coming and going all the time. Over the course of a 5 year PhD, the people in the lab at the end might be very different than the people there when you join.
  • Mentor fit
    • Early career vs. later career
    • Big name? Hot field? Will they be traveling a lot?
    • Are they generally available? Do you want them to be?
    • Hands-off or micromanager?
    • Do they build you up or tear you down?
    • How do they handle conflict in the lab?
    • How quickly do they answer your emails?
    • Have a conversation about your career aspirations w/ them during the rotation – how did that go?
    • Boss vs. mentor

Hopefully, as you answer these questions, you’ll identify the right lab for you. And remember, a good mentor is more important than exciting science. You’re in graduate school for training, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities later to explore other research topics.

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