Make an Educated Guess, Don’t Play Rotation Roulette

By Patrick Thomas and Songling Chen |

If you're reading this blog, chances are you're either in the middle of lab rotations or you recently completed your lab rotations. Choosing your dissertation lab is a paramount decision; it can have significant consequences on your time in your department, on your time at UCR, and on the remainder of your career. Deciding what lab to choose is understandably difficult for students. However, being honest about the difficulty and the magnitude of the decision can make the choice more manageable. We have compiled a list of things to keep in mind while making the important decision of selecting an advisor and a lab. If you would like to learn more, complete articles can be found at the links below.


1. What do you want?

It’s important to understand who you are and what you want. After all, you're the one pursuing the Ph.D. This is an opportunity to grow as a scientist and intellectual. At the same time, this will be your work-home for the next few years and you need to be happy. There’s nothing worse than walking into a situation with a preconception regarding how the situation will play out only to become disillusioned with reality. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to  start trying to narrow down what you might need in a lab in order to thrive:

  • What are my research interests?
  • What do I want to avoid conducting research on? (This can be just as important a question)
  • Am I a morning or afternoon person?
  • Do I work better in larger or smaller groups?
  • Do I like collaborating?
  • Do I need clearly stated objectives to be productive?
  • What do I want to do when I leave grad school?
  • What do I want from a mentor?


[Image Description: A kitten pacing back and forth excitedly while looking up. A caption below says, “So Many Choices...”]

Pictured: You, trying to figure out what you want in a lab


These are all worthwhile questions to ask yourself. You might not have the answers on your first day in lab and that’s okay. The hope is that more time in grad school has made it easier to answer these questions now that you're ready to choose your lab. Hopefully, over the course of your lab rotations, you've learned as much about yourself as you have about the new discipline you’re studying.


2. Learn about your PI...

[Image Description: Lisa Simpson, from The Simpsons, points to Principal Skinner as she says, “And this is Principal Skinner.” Skinner waves and says “Hi.”]

Pictured: Your peers, introducing you to your future PI 


The rotation period is an opportunity for you and your PI both to evaluate your fit in the lab. Don’t be afraid to ask your PI (or, should it be potential PI?) questions that might give you more context about the lab. Consider the following questions:


  • What do you expect from your graduate students?
  • Will I be able to meet with you on a regular basis?
  • How large is the lab?
  • Do you personally train most of your grad students or do senior lab members help?
  • Is there funding for me and this project?
  • Does the lab conduct a journal club on a regular basis?
  • What is the manuscript editing process like?
  • Will you correct me if I am going down the wrong path, research-wise?
  • What do your students do when they complete their degree?



3. ...but ask others to confirm what you’ve heard


[Image Description: Bart Simpson, from The Simpsons, holding a can of soda asking “What about you?”]

Pictured: You, welcoming new information from your peers


Running a lab is like running a small business. Any good business will market/advertise to potential employees, customers, and future collaborators, but sometimes a company’s marketing is too good to be true. While a PI might have a certain perception of a lab, they’re busy people. While you are rotating, build a rapport with other graduate students and post-docs. These people have invaluable information about the day-to-day of the lab that can help shed light on any questions you have. It will behoove you to ask these folks questions about the lab. If their answers align with the PIs, you’re probably hearing the truth. If you get inconsistent answers, you might need to consider the perspective of the person giving the answer. You may find that the lab's day-to-day operations don't fit with the answers you gave to the questions in section 1 of this blog.


4. Ask yourself again what you want and evaluate who can provide it...

At the end of the day, this is a decision that will shape the path of your career. You are the only person who has the agency to do what’s right for you. Being realistic about your goals in grad school, career aspirations, and lifestyle is the best way to be happy with this decision. Make a list of pros and cons. Talk with your roommates. Take your time with this decision and do what’s right for you (not what will get you published fastest or will require you to teach the least). While a PI might have guaranteed funding and assure you a shorter time in lab, a project that doesn’t pique your interest might make a five-year residency in a lab seem like a decade. Conversely, a lab might not be well funded but you may get more intimate time with the PI to develop your scientific and communication skills extensively. The right lab for you isn’t always going to be the perfect lab for your research interests. Understanding what you need as a student and how you can contribute to a prospective PI’s lab can make the choice that much easier.


5. It’s okay if your first choice isn’t working out


[Image Description: Mero, from Desus and Mero, looking at a series of equations and mathematical figures in confusion.]

Pictured: You, trying to work out where things went wrong


Not every PI-student relationship is going to work. Sometimes there's an adjustment period for one or both parties. Keeping open lines of communication and being respectful goes a long way towards solving these conflicts. Remember, your PI can’t help you if they don’t know what’s wrong. That being said, there are circumstances where the relationship is unsalvageable. You shouldn’t stay in a lab that isn’t conducive to your success. It's not worth wasting your time or compromising your well-being to make a failed “science marriage” work. While asking the questions above might help prevent mismatches from occurring, sometimes a breakdown in a relationship is unavoidable. If you do feel the need to change PIs, it’s best to do so in a civil and professional manner. Try speaking to your department’s grad advisor to let them know what’s going on. A new lab might be what you need and the advisor should be able to help you. Don’t forget, your grad advisor is there to help advise you, so use them as a resource! 


6. Here are some additional resources about choosing a lab and resolving lab conflicts: