In most graduate school applications, you are asked to talk about your research area of interest. At some schools, you can apply directly into a department and hit the ground running, while in others have applications for broader programs. Regardless of the type of program, lab rotations are required prior to choosing who it is you will work with until you graduate.
In my program, students are required to do 3 rotations prior to selecting and committing to a lab in which they will complete their thesis project. I decided to do 5 rotations. Prior to starting a rotation, you are expected to research through a list of potential advisors, submit their names to the program director, and only after you get the green light letting you know that it is okay for you to start your rotation with them, do you proceed. I decided to do things my own way. Like every other student, I submitted my list of potential advisors who I thought I might want to work with, but the ones I put down were not who I ended up working with. I followed through with my first rotation as planned but It was not what I expected it to be. I spent seven weeks merely reading papers, biting my time for when someone would come around and teach me something. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t just passively sit there, I was proactively moving around the lab, asking questions, observing where I can, and asking how it was that I could help. I sort after any potential work that I could do hoping that my enthusiasm and willingness to learn would grant me a project of my own. But before I knew it, the rotation was over, the most that I did was a BSA protein quantification assay and an occasionally helped in the cell culture room.
I learned that this is the experience of many first year PhD students. The PI who ran that lab told me that the true purpose of a rotation was to give you exposure, not a project. Sometimes exposure means merely showing up, watching and asking questions. I understood, and it was fine, I learned a lot through just talking things out and reading about them.
After the experience I decided to switch who I had planned to do my second rotation with. I made the transition smoothly and only asked for approval after I had already changed my mind and started working. This worked out great. I liked the lab, and even like the people in the lab, and I liked the project that was lined up for me. Apparently, I did a good enough job and the PI asked me if I would like to make his lab my dissertation lab. I agree because it felt like we saw eye to eye. But the next day, he asked another student as well. So now this guy was planning on taking on two students. This is fine, except for that fact that my program had this rule that each lab can only take one student at a time. This cause a bit of some drama. I was advised not to make a final decision on what it was that I was going to do, especially since at that point I still had an entire rotation left to complete.
I went through with my third rotation. This was the lab I was most excited about, but sadly it did not turn out as I expected. During my third rotation I learned that I needed an advisor who was more readily available. Some students are independent, can think for themselves and can service perfectly fine merely emailing their advisor. Additionally, some students can also come in in their first year and designed their own project. I am not one of those students. During this rotation, I felt I was going to be left stranded and aimlessly floating around waiting to figure out what it was I was supposed to do. I need an advisor who is available for more than just one 1hr every week and commits more than 7 minutes of that hour to his or her students project. I like a PI who has an open-door policy and if he or she cannot be in the lab, then there should be a senior students or senior scientists that can show me where things are and how things are done in the lab.
These concerns led me to my 4 rotation. At this point I am learning, just because someone work is a good fit with your interests, it does not mean you have to pick them. For me, it was important that the advisor, the project, and the lab culture was a good fit for me. I did my 4th rotation without telling anyone. It lasted a week and half. I did one assay, and within 10 days, I learned what the lab was about, what they did, and the culture of the lab. I liked it, but I had two concerns. One, the senior student I was working with told me I should consider elsewhere and only if everything else does not work, should I consider his lab. This made me feel like maybe I was not wanted. When I thought about it, it felt like maybe they did not take me seriously because I was bouncing around so much, and I only scheduled a week-long rotation with them, so maybe they felt like I was not serious myself.
When I started my 5th rotation, the lab which I ended up choosing, the PI of the lab received me with a lot of enthusiasm. My program director email him, (a program outside the graduate program) told him I was looking for one last rotation and asked if he could host me for a few weeks as I learn how things are done. In a sense I came somewhat recommended, by, circumstance. This must have given him some impression that maybe I’m smart. We set up a meeting and met within a few days. I liked the guy right off the back. Calm focused, smart, motivated, has a lot of work going on in his lab and a lot of funding. I liked what he was working on and looking forward I saw that I would received a full education in his lab.
I came into this program interested in virology and host pathogen interaction and ended choosing to work on rheumatic disease with a specific focus on spondylarthrosis. I’ve been told that I strayed away from my initial inters, I was unfocused and did not know what I wanted, I say, I knew what I wanted, and this integrated program has given me the chance to learn about a lot of different fields. Pathogens has been implicated with development of a lot of rheumatic disease and autoinflammatory dieases, so from a different angle, I feel I am doing exactly what I came here to do.