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Lab Rotations

Samia has a guest post up from an anonymous grad student who just passed the qualifying exam after only the first year of grad school, and who managed this accomplishment by somehow getting permission from the department to not do the required first-year lab rotations and starting immediately in the lab of the thesis advisor. On the basis of this experience, the anonymous grad student takes the position of strongly advocating this approach of foregoing lab rotations, even in departments that nominally require them.

This is absolutely fucken horrible advice.

While it may end up working out for you that you had decided on your exact field as an undergrad and refused to entertain the possibility of doing lab rotations as a first-year, there are a number of downsides to this approach that you seem to be unaware of, and which make it poor as a matter of general advice to others.

First, while there are some people who have known since undergrad *exactly* what they are interested in scientifically, feeling this way before starting grad school–and even as a first year–is almost always an illusion. Most people think they know exactly what they want to work on because that is what they were exposed to as undergrads and it got them very, very excited. That doesn’t mean that something else one is completely unaware of might not get them even *more* excited. The most creative and productive scientists can get excited about almost *any* area of science, and the people who assert that there is only one thing that interests them and that they could ever be interested in can be limited in their capacities.

Second, even if after your lab rotations you realize that you really already did know what you want to work on for your PhD, if they were selected wisely, your lab rotations will have provided you with a broader appreciation for the technical and conceptual range of approaches available in your field. Ideas or techniques you were exposed to in labs that you ultimately don’t join can end up providing key elements to your thesis research.

Third, even if after your lab rotations you realize that you really already did know what you want to work on for your PhD, the personal and professional connections you will have made in the labs you end up not joining–both with the PIs and with other trainees in those labs–can end up being absolutely invaluable to you. Examples of this include realizing that one of those other PIs would turn out to be a great member of your thesis committee, that one of those other trainees could be a great collaborator, that one of the other PIs might turn out to be a key advocate for you if your own PI needs some nudging about one thing or another, and that one of those other PIs might have connections at other institutions that could be useful in your future training as a post-doc.

To summarize, there are *many* reasons why lab rotations are considered a key aspect of graduate training in those departments that require them beyond just “picking a lab” for your thesis research. In my department, we absolutely refuse to waive this requirement. And, frankly, I’d be concerned about a department that was willing to waive such a requirement at the behest of some faculty member insisting that they absolutely know that such-and-so grad student will join their lab and there is no need for rotations, because it suggests that the department is willing to put the demands of its faculty members ahead of the training of its grad students.

Comments

  1. says

    The most creative and productive scientists can get excited about almost *any* area of science, and the people who assert that there is only one thing that interests them and that they could ever be interested in can be limited in their capacities.

    Very true. One of my profs once said “There are no trivial questions, regardless of the area of science, as long as you are working at the area’s cutting edge.”

  2. says

    I came from a grad school system in which you select your advisor and thesis topic before you even apply and where you start work on your thesis on day one, so I would probably argue that it depends on the individual. But then again, I had already done a post-grad honours year that consisted of independent research and a thesis in addition to the several years I spent working in medical labs before starting my PhD so I guess that was a series of rotations for me. Hmmm … I don’t think my comment has proved anything.

  3. says

    Well said, CPP. Lab rotations should be mandatory. I was one of those grad students who thought they knew from day one what topic they would work on and which lab they would choose. Boy was I wrong and I am glad I had lab rotations to help me realize this. The lab I was initially interested in turned out to do poor science and the grad students took forever to leave and produced no papers. I chose to stay in a different lab that had a completely different interest and I had never even considered this lab from the beginning. If it wasn’t for lab rotations, I would have missed out on a great opportunity for sure.

  4. juniorprof says

    I went to a dept for my PhD thinking that I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my scientific life and exactly the lab I was going to do it in. My rotation in that lab was a complete and utter disaster. If it wasn’t for rotations I likely would have left the dept and gone to fashion design school.
    Forward 10+ years to the dept where I am TT faculty and we will not allow exceptions to the rotation rule for any grad student admitted to the PhD program. Not doing rotations is and will always be a terrible idea.

  5. says

    My program didn’t have rotations, but we were not allowed into a group until the second semester of grad school. While there was no formal lab work in the first semester, we were required to attend a convoluted series of interviews, seminars, and lab sit-ins. A little strange, and quite annoying if you had a list narrowed down (as you still had to go through at least 10 groups).

    I suspect retention rates in certain groups would certainly improve if real rotations were implemented.

  6. userj says

    blah blah blah, “great experiences” blah blah “invaluable techniques” blah blah “really getting to know your PI”… yes I had the same opinion as physio from day one and was super pumped about rotatinos. I would spout this stuff off all the time to the students in my dept that didn’t do rotations (we have a dual admissions system where some labs will take students directly and some will rotate).

    However, now that I know many grad students in my dept that have done very well without rotations I’m less dogmatic about the idea that “EVERYONE” should do them.

    Did I really “make connections” that helped my career and I wouldn’t have otherwise made? No. I have made more and stronger connections by interactions with non rotating grad students and faculty than I ever did while rotating. Did I learn techniques that I otherwise wouldn’t have learned? No. I learned some techniques, but manyI won’t use again and those I will I could have learned as needed just like the bajillion other things I have learned since my first year.

    That said I still immensely enjoyed my rotations, and as I wasn’t a very focused student, it was definitely a good idea to check out the labs and see where my interest actually was. In addition, I got to know each PI enough to figure out whether or not they were CRAZY before joining their lab (sorry but recruitment weekend doesn’t cut it). Plus I got some exposure to the literature in fields related to mine. However, I feel if one is a focused student, one should be able to bypass rotations. In our dept. this is done sort of under the table – students who don’t want to rotate are accepted through a different department or sub department that doens’t require rotations.

  7. Anonymous says

    Oy, Physioprof. What does this say about all the general biology departments out there that don’t have rotations and only accept students who have chosen (and been chosen by) their advisors? Do we all suck then?

    My department periodically talks about enacting rotations, but we are all spread far too thinly to pull it off. For one, the students would end up doing rotations in completely different fields. And that’s ignoring the deadwood. I suspect this model that only works for large, well funded, homogenous (yes, that’s right) departments.

  8. jc says

    I was in depts that did and didn’t have rotations, so I’ve seen a bunch of scenarios. One woman was forced to rotate in the labs of two jerks because she was in the hospital when everyone else signed up “for the good lab” rotations that year. This did not go well, she dropped out the next year. The good labs get swamped with students wanting to be there, and then the PIs have to fight them off with sticks. Dept chairs force the deadwood to have rotating students, and I was one of those who got stuck with a twit who I also had to TA for. He taught a class where he literally did a song and dance at the start of every lecture, he called it his own interpretative dance of the lecture for the day. I spent the first few lectures just sitting there, stunned, as he flapped his arms and ran up and down the aisles like a loon, and then I stopped going. He retired the following year, thank maud. Another student chose her advisor up front and had a project planned out, did rotations, and realized her chosen advisor wasn’t so hot, so she switched to another lab that was a better fit for her and she’s been really successful there.

    Rotations are good for students who don’t have masters degrees going into the phd, or for students who didn’t do an undergraduate thesis/independent research project. I chose my phd advisor after I spent the summer before working in their lab, and I already had the project laid out and started went I arrived the next year. There wasn’t anyone else in the dept that I would have worked with, and no where else could I have done the project I wanted to do with the level of support I had.

    I also think the size of the dept makes a difference in how rotations work. If there’s alot of students and few professors to rotate around, it could get ugly. It also depends on the caliber of the faculty – a bunch of landmines to avoid makes it really hard for the students and places the burden on everyone’s fave profs. I’ve even seen postdocs rotate labs which makes it hard to keep long-term projects going because of the uprooting all over the place and the deadlines to get done by semester’s end.

  9. says

    The fact that some departments suck ass and some PIs suck ass has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of rotations. And in no way is it necessary that a department/program be “homogeneous” for a rotation system to work. All it requires is that the faculty not view the grad student applicant pool primarily as a source of indentured servants, and that the grad student applicant pool itself be reasonably open-minded.

    Graduate programs that have convinced themselves that rotation systems are “unnecessary”, “unwieldy”, “waste of time”, etc, truly are inferior to those that require rotations. And I will repeat: those programs that allow rotations, but permit opting out, value the convenience of their faculty more than they do the education of their students: if you think that they permit opting out because of the *students* desires, you are fucken kidding yourself.

  10. says

    As someone from a field where rotations don’t commonly happen, can I ask how the incoming students are funded during their first year when they do rotations? Do they all have department fellowships, or the faculty put in the money into a common pot for rotations, or is it TA-ships, or something else?

    We often talk about introducing something akin to rotations, but it’s unclear how to fund the new flock of students (the department is not swimming in money, and it’s a public school). Currently, you have to commit to fund a student sight unseen (especially international ones, where at best you go by emails and a couple of phone calls), and it’s not ideal for either the student of the advisor because sometimes things don’t work out and it’s a waste of time and money for everyone.

  11. jc says

    Some students don’t care about the “graduate program”, we go there to work with a PI on a specific project. Others do care about the “graduate program” and go to work in a specialized area that the program has a strength in. When students opt into a particular program within a larger discipline, say the specialty in marine ecology for a PhD in biology, they automatically get put into rotations with the marine ecology faculty. Only so many students are admitted for the program so the depts can keep the rotations as a benefit to everyone rather than a servant line.

    “All it requires is that the faculty not view the grad student applicant pool primarily as a source of indentured servants”: too bad this is the rule, and not the exception from my experience.

    To answer GMP below, the way rotations worked in my case is that the student rotates in the same lab that the prof needs TAs for. So I attended lectures, graded papers, proctored exams, and did study sessions for the prof whose lab I was in that semester. The first year students basically get assigned to whoever’s left, because the second year people get to choose before the summer who they want to rotate with in the fall. The TAing is usually the large intro classes.

  12. says

    “blah blah blah, “great experiences” blah blah “invaluable techniques” blah blah “”

    You can’t blah blah experience and technique, I don’t care if you are talking about science or cutting hair. Those are two things everyone needs in anything they plan to do well.

  13. says

    My rotations were a huge fuckin’ waste of my time. 6 fuckin’ months I’ll never fuckin’ recover. I knew what I wanted going in and I was right, to the tune of 8 papers including a first author paper in a top-3 journal that is still heavily cited a decade on.

    Fuck that rotation bullshit.

  14. says

    I knew what I wanted going in and I was right, to the tune of 8 papers including a first author paper in a top-3 journal that is still heavily cited a decade on.

    This is a complete non sequitur.

    As has already been pointed out, the fact that you ended up doing your thesis in the lab you thought you were going to ahead of time has nothing to do with whether the rotations were useful or not. And the number of papers you published as a grad student and how heavily cited they may be has fuck-all to do with whether you were “right” to join your particular thesis lab, in terms of preparing you for a future career as an independent scientist.

    Perhaps you were just an obstinate fuck, whose close-mindedness prevented you from gaining anything from your required rotations. Just out of curiosity, what is your current role in the scientific enterprise?

  15. arrzey says

    All those saying “I didn’t rotate and it worked fine for me” are missing PP’s point: you don’t know what you missed. And, if you think your rotations were a colossal waste of time, you failed the exercise. It is your responsibility to get something out of your time.

    As a prof – I want my peeps to rotate, I want them to CHOOSE my lab, and understand that it is DIFFERENT from other labs.

    A good student/scientist/prof will find the science in any good lab exciting. But there are other small things that you cannot know except by working there. There are different PI styles (do you care if your mentor is a Big Dog and gone 50% of the time? Do you care if your mentor is a new prof and the lab is thee & s/he?). Choosing a lab without rotations is like an arranged marriage – some may work by chance, but only if both parties buy into the myth.

  16. says

    CPP is right, the rotations are intrinsically worth their fucking weight in gold. It not only helped me to pick a lab that I wanted to stay in, but it exposed me to fields of work that I would never have really learned much about. Not only that, I got to see how different labs operated, mentoring styles of different PIs, and I got to make connections for future mentoring outside of my PI.

  17. says

    My university’s school of medicine is funding my first year and my second year will be funded by an NIH training grant. After that, things are up to my PI and myself. I will not be required to TA (though I may still choose to). I attend a public school.

  18. ginger says

    What about SuperTechs? When and where I was a tech, I knew a bunch of SuperTechs who decided to go to grad school at their SuperTech institution. For the most part, these people were not going to be learning lots of new techniques from the other labs, and they were already familiar with who else was around, and what they were doing.
    Some of them stayed in their original lab and some of them didn’t, but I think all of them would have benefited from being able to choose whether to do rotations (our institution’s programs pretty much all had mandatory rotations) because the ones who didn’t stay in their lab uniformly knew where they wanted to be. They already knew the PI styles and the research projects and the funding.

  19. Col says

    It’s my impression that lab rotations are an American peculiarity. The majority of grad students in the world do very well without them. Seems to me this is certainly far from “absolutely fucken horrible advice”. Perhaps good for some, or at least not bad, but absolutely not a necessity in my opinion.

  20. anon says

    The head of the grad program where I was thought that lab rotations were a fucking waste of time and eliminated them. He expected students to graduate within no more than 5 years. Most of us were successful at that; most students also published many papers (10+ for some).

    There are advantages and disadvantages to both strategies. In my experience in this program, I did manage to collaborate with two other labs by my own initiative, learned new techniques, and published with both labs.

    What would be a measure of what students who do not rotate are missing? The bottom line for getting funding and ultimately a job is productivity. No agency that I’m aware of gives a fuck about how many rotations a prospective fellowship recipient did, but rather how many publications they have. Is there any way to determine productivity and graduation time in non-rotating vs rotating students? Give me numbers, and maybe I’ll be convinced of something.

  21. says

    I actually do think that rotations are a good idea for many, probably most, students. But rotations aren’t done in a lot of other countries, and indeed in a lot of other disciplines in this country, and the world does not end.

    The blanket requirement for rotations is quite stupid. And I *do* know what I’m missing: six unrecoverable months of my very finite life.

  22. says

    “All those saying “I didn’t rotate and it worked fine for me” are missing PP’s point: you don’t know what you missed. And, if you think your rotations were a colossal waste of time, you failed the exercise.”

    Hogwash. Most rotations don’t yield anything useful, because in most cases 10 weeks (while taking classes, another peeve of mine), is not enough to get most projects really rolling, especially when the techniques are challenging and/or unfamiliar.

  23. says

    ..and other departments are small / collegial enough that you get all the collaboration, shared technique, cross mentoring and all that crap even without rotations.

    Vastly overblown, as usual PP.

    With that said, I trained in a non-rotating department. I now would favor enforced rotations in the first year, were I ever to be voting on how a grad program is to function for most of the reasons outlined by PP. Not that there are guarantees on either side, but because it seems to me that you are getting the best *chance* of an enhanced training outcome for more people that way. Doing it structurally instead of depending on the host labs being good and the graduate students being experimentally / scientifically gregarious.

    the length of time in grad school thing is a red herring. stay on top of the real problem. If rotations are a good thing and a learning experience then they should be accepted by the committees convened by the students in that department as contributing towards the PhD. It should not be viewed as a throwaway year just because the rotations do not result in publications.

  24. Kaija says

    My PhD department did not do rotations…students applied to potential PIs who issued recruitment invitations and students started in the PIs lab from day 1. This was allegedly for productivity AND because the department had a ridiculously large course credit hours requirement that meant 2+ years of coursework in addition to “fulltime” research (the course reqs have thankfully been lowered significantly).

    However, I came in under an NIH training grant umbrella program that had students take one year of core coursework and do lab rotations. Then, at the end of the 1st year, the student chose a lab/PI and became affliated with the department in which the PI’s lab resided. I enjoyed the rotations and got a lot out of just being able to be a curious “science tourist” who got to play around and learn a bunch of stuff and talk candidly and extensively with all of the other people in the lab and thus gained a ton of valuable science/institutional/personal savvy. It was stated upfront that we were not expected to start/finish/produce a project during our rotations but to explore, learn, network, get info to make an informed decision at the end of the rotations.

    Also, the same NIH training grant that supported students in their first year also continued through the second year, which made it an attractive deal for both students and PIs.

  25. Sxydocma1 says

    In my department, rotations lasted an entire semester. It was great to have such a long time to really get into a lab and be able to spend more time than other students in other departments in a lab. Although I knew which lab I wanted to join, I used the opportunity to learn some other techniques that I knew my thesis advisor would not be able to teach me – molecular biology and yeast 2-hybrid screening. It was an integral experience to my training and development as a scientist and helped me learn to work in different lab environments with different people and PIs with very styles.

    I think rotations are very important. My department funded us until we decided on a lab at which point, our advisor took over.

  26. says

    You guessed wrong. The rest of the post attempted to support what I quoted. That is why I quoted what I did, and commented on it, rather than combing through the post and doing a line by line critique.

    Yeesh.

  27. icee says

    I pretty much knew who I wanted to be my grad advisor for from the time I was a freshman undergrad. Prof X and I communicated quite a bit (and met) over the intervening years. I moved to my grad U exclusively to work for Prof X, but also felt reassured that there were other people doing interesting work there. They don’t do rotations, but another prof helped me get a fellowship to do 3 first-year rotations as a special arrangement, which I enjoyed. Of course, I joined Prof X’s lab and worked there for a year (!) before I realized it was a bad match. I switched to Prof Z’s lab and have never regretted it; it’s as close to perfect as it gets now.

    So – even when you’re very clever, and know exactly who you want as your advisor, and get to know them, etc., before joining the lab – you never know when things will go south. I might have been okay sticking in Prof X’s lab, but it might have exploded horribly. Thankfully, I’ll never find out! If I hadn’t done a rotation with Prof Z, I would never have switched labs, and I’d probably be miserable. It can be hard to get to know a PI/trainee well in one semester, let alone over the phone!

    Also, some disciplines require skills that you can’t know if you have or not until you give it a really good shot. For example, as an undergrad I worked in a lab where every grad student had to do extremely delicate microdissection. Some rotating grad students just didn’t have the hands for this and the PI was grateful that he was able to know who might be a good fit or not before they joined the lab.

    In the long run, my rotations/lab switch didn’t add any time to my grad school, and as we all know, bad arrangements can really draw out the grad years in a number of ways. YAY ROTATIONS!

  28. Anonymous says

    Not like an arranged marriage. More like falling in love with your first love and having it work out.

    It does happen from time to time.

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