My Ph.D. program required 3 laboratory rotations in the first year, with each rotation lasting 1 quarter. You were allowed to commit after any of the rotations, but you had to get through all 3 before you officially started in the lab you committed to. Students in my program were fully funded by the program their first year, so there was no worry about finances and we had the liberty to focus on coursework and rotations. The rotations were honestly really useful! Looking back, I can’t imagine committing to a lab for the entire duration of grad school without having had some time to test the waters. It’s a huge commitment.
In this post, I’ll summarize how my 3 rotations went, and then I’ll present the top 10 most important things you should ask during a lab rotation.
How my 3 rotations went:
First rotation (Fall Quarter): This was with a faculty member I had contacted in the summer before my senior year of undergrad, when I was starting off the application process. I really wanted to work with them and they had told me I could rotate if I got in. Their research topic at the time was really interesting to me, and I had experience from undergrad working with the model organism and liked it a lot (Drosophila). The lab was on the smaller side, so I became acquainted quickly, and everyone was genuinely pleasant. It went smoothly, wasn’t too much work (maybe a couple hours per day) and I generated some minor data.
Second rotation (Winter Quarter): This was another faculty member I had contacted in the summer before my senior year of undergrad. A very similar situation to my first rotation: small lab, great folks, a couple hours a day. I got a bit more actual work done during this rotation and I established a protocol and generated some data. I ended up committing to this lab at the end of my rotation.
Third rotation (Spring Quarter): Because I had committed to the second lab, I was open with the PI of the third lab that it would purely be for experience, and the PI was totally fine with it (it’s a well-accepted aspect of how our Ph.D. program is run). This rotation required the most from me and I was in the lab for a lot longer than the previous two rotations I did. I essentially became the lab’s courier for all the human blood samples they were collecting, processed them back at the lab, and I performed a lot of data analysis using Excel for them. I ended up not liking the way the lab was run, and one of the lab techs had a very toxic personality, so I was glad I had already made a prior commitment.
Now, here are the top 10 most important questions to ask during a lab rotation:
1. “Do you currently have funding to take on and support another graduate student?” “How often do your graduate students TA?”
This must be asked prior to committing to a laboratory rotation. When you only have so many rotation slots, you have to be decisive with which PIs you’ll give your time to. Avoid any PI’s that say they don’t have funding but are willing to give you a rotation. You don’t want to end up TA-ing every quarter and you certainly don’t want to end up being underpaid because of your PI’s inability to obtain funding (both of which I’ve witnessed during my time in grad school).
Some Ph.D. programs require students to TA for a certain amount of quarters or semesters. Others have no real requirements. You need to be aware of what they are for your program and see how the PI manages funds in that regard.
2. “How are weekends, sick days, mental health days, and vacations handled in the lab?”
It’s important that your PI respects you as a whole human being with other things going on in your life. They don’t have to know about them, but they have to respect you when you ask for time off for legitimate reasons. Try asking this type of question to both the students as well as the PI.
3. “How many years into working in the lab do graduate students submit a first-author manuscript? How is the attitude towards co-authoring in the lab?”
This is pretty straightforward. Depending on the graduation requirements for your grad program, publications may be important to inquire about. In addition, authorship has to be discussed openly, plainly, and with written proof before any major projects take place. You certainly don’t want to join a lab where members have had arguments about this. That can reflect on the lab members’ abilities to communicate, and the PI’s ability to mediate conflicts and manage their staff.
4. “Where have your past graduate students gone after graduating from this lab? What is your attitude towards academia and industry?”
Luckily, my PI was very understanding about the fact that we all have different interests, and wasn’t one of those traditional “academia is life” types. Depending on what your personal career goals are, the answers to these questions may not really matter, or may matter a lot.
5. “How often do you meet with graduate students 1-on-1?” “How often do you meet with the PI, 1-on-1?”
Do the answers line up? I met with my PI every 2-3 weeks or so for a quick chat, and that worked well. We also had lab meetings every week.
6. “How long has it taken past graduate students to graduate?”
Compare the answers you get to the overall historical average graduation time from your program.
7. “When do your students complete their qualifying exams, and what do you look for in students when determining if they are ready to advance to candidacy?”
I completed my qualifying exam the summer after my 3rd year. It honestly felt like a normal presentation and discussion with my committee and it was really easy. I felt super prepared by that point and I’m glad I did it then. I don’t think I would have been as prepared if I had done my quals in my 2nd year or the summer after my 2nd year. The other students in my cohort actually did their qualifying exams even later than me! There’s really no one “right” time in terms of years in the program for a student to advance to candidacy. Try to pick their brain and see how they decide to allow their student to do so. Try to get the graduate students to answer this question, too!
8. “What’s the biggest struggle you’ve had since you’ve joined this lab?”
It’s important to get a perspective that’s not always positive. See if it’s something that sounds manageable, or if it points at a deeper issue regarding the way the lab’s run.
9. “What are your policies regarding undergraduate assistants in the lab, and can we expect to mentor them during our time in the lab?”
Mentoring undergraduate students is very rewarding, both educationally and socially. One of my colleagues from grad school didn’t mentor any undergrads during their time in the program, whereas I mentored 2. It really depends on the lab and the PI’s attitude towards them. Not having to mentor any undergrads may not be a dealbreaker for most grad students, but on the other hand, having to mentor undergrads every semester, starting as soon as you join the lab, with no breathing room, may be something that tilts the scale for you.
10. “How would you describe the environment in the lab? Is there a lot of collaboration? Is there time for casual conversation, or is it strictly business?”
Once again, there’s no one right answer for a question like this. My lab was almost always strictly business, quiet, with maybe a casual conversation thrown in once in a while about cashing out a BOGO Starbucks coffee deal or politely asking how the lab tech’s trip went.
You need to think about what sort of work environment you’d be able to tolerate for the entire duration of your Ph.D. If you don’t have much real-world work experience to make that decision, that’s okay. Think about how the labs you volunteered in as an undergrad, places you worked before, or just about your personality and how social you are, to figure out what your preferences may be.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it does address a lot of the important lessons I took away from the rotation and graduate research experience.
It’s important to keep in mind that no lab or PI is perfect. PIs are not infallible beings that do no wrong. They have their own personalities that include admirable qualities as well as qualities that they need to work on. This goes for the lab members, as well. Your goal during a rotation is to find out as much as you can about the dynamics of the lab and how you will feel working there. It’s more important than the subject matter you’ll actually be doing the research on.
It may be intimidating to bring up some of these questions, but these conversations are all part of a grad school-level job interview process to get your job in the lab. You are bringing valuable to the table; don’t forget that. Best of luck to you.