Have a killer rotation

Rotations are meant for you to find your best lab match. Well, it’s a 2-sided coin…the lab is also trying to find their best student match. Showing your critical thinking skills, hard work, and engaging personality is important for you and for the lab. What should you be doing to put your best foot forward to make a strong impression?

How were the expectations of you during the rotation explained?

STUDENTS

The general expectations were laid out by the IGP, not by the individual PIs. My rotations had the following general formula: the PI explained the project, the PI “assigned” me to a graduate student, the PI and/or the graduate student gave me papers to read, and I learned from the student while trying to do the experiments the PI was asking for. If needed, any specific expectations were laid out at each state.
-Lorena Infante

They weren’t always. Each rotation was completely different. Some PIs were very forthcoming, others never mentioned expectations. Sometimes the students would convey expectations. Honestly, labs are trying to get a feel for if the rotation student is a good fit for the lab and will help move the lab forward.
-Erin Breland

In almost every case, we talked about the project I would work on and then set goals. In one of my rotations, we didn’t really talk about projects until after I did a lot of reading and then came up with some ideas on my own. Expectations will depend on the PI and what is most important to them, ie technical training and productivity during your rotation or a fundamental conceptual understanding of what the lab is working on.
-Jessica Tumolo

What did you learn during your rotations that was unexpected?

STUDENTS

The only thing that I was a little surprised by was how different some labs can be from each other. I was in a lab where everyone was in by 8am each morning, and I was also in a lab that when I’d arrive by 9 or 9:30, I’d be the first one in. Another example is the level of order or disorder between labs. Different labs have different cultures, and it’s important to find one where you’ll fit in.
-Lorena Infante

How different labs are. Every lab is different. Lab meetings and the way they are run as well as how often you meet with your PI individually are very important to consider.
-Gabrielle Rushing

How to overcome seemingly really awkward situations- its always awkward being a guest in a lab that you aren’t used to, but I had to learn to get over that pretty quickly if I was going to get anything out of my rotations
-Monika Murphy

Please provide your best advice for rotating students:

FACULTY

Be engaged not only in your own project but what other people in the lab are doing. If you have down time, read papers from the lab and ask the PI or other lab members about the papers. Ask what other lab members are working on and if you can watch and learn. Don’t leave too early unless you have a test. Ask questions in lab meetings.
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

Rotations are like extended speed-dating. You are trying to find a lot about each other in a relatively short time! On the lab’s side, the lab is trying to gauge the following: (1) Is this student fitting the current personality of the lab? – This is key for the scientific family to thrive. Remember, you will be spending a good amount of time with these folks. (2) Is the student driven and enjoying their science endeavor? (3) How does the rotation student handle scientific failure (cloning did not work, cultures do not grow etc). -Resilience and the ability to contribute is key (4) Is the rotation student a good lab citizen? -Helping to maintain the lab and following the lab etiquette is key to show that you are trying and want to be part of the team
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

Work hard. Be there as much as possible. Ask questions and volunteer ideas. Prove your worth.
-Dr. David Samuels

STUDENTS

Showing up on time, and prepared. Not hesitating to ask for clarification. Keeping good notes Write down where basic things are in the lab, because you will forget. Not being too nervous to enjoy learning new things. Form a good working relationship with your mentor.
-Rose Follis

Take notes and provide critical analysis and suggestions if things do not work, ask what the PI expects on a weekly basis, asking for feedback halfway through (what can you improve on etc. so that you have time to fix it), be present in the lab when the PI is (don’t leave before them, don’t show up after them with the exception of class time), be friendly and go to lunch with some lab members to get their perspective. Suggest an experiment that the PI hasn’t introduced yet.
-Gabrielle Rushing

Do go out of your way to talk to different lab members. Get a sense of who they are because you might be seeing them daily for the next 4.5 years. Additionally, imagine yourself coming to this lab for the next 4.5 years, do you think you’ll be glad to come to work each day? Why or why not? Don’t choose a lab full of people who will make your life miserable.
-Cara Schornak

ASK QUESTIONS! There is nothing worse than a rotation student who constantly messes things up and creates dangerous situations just because they were too embarrassed to clarify what to do with the person mentoring them (or anyone in the lab). On the flip side, there is nothing better than a rotation student that asks lots of questions about the project, the lab, the experiment, etc. Its also a good way to break the ice and start conversations with the graduate students
-Monika Murphy

 

How to ask what you want to know while choosing a rotation

Conversations with important faculty as a freshly-arrived first year graduate student can seem intimidating and awkward. Throw into this mix the fact that you are both sizing each other up when discussing a possible rotation. As a new student, how do you find out the information you are seeking without coming across as pushy or needy? Get some advice from faculty and students who navigate this best at Vanderbilt.

What are important features about a lab that a student should ask about during a rotation conversation?

FACULTY

1. Expectations
2. Graduate student training experiences and current trainees
4. Ability to commit to taking a student this year
-Dr. Bill Tansey

1. How accessible is the PI?
2. Do you have opportunities to go to meetings?
3. What is the funding situation?
4. What are the PIs expectations for work hours, vacation, weekly conference?
5. How much input do students have in their own projects?
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

1. Mentoring Style – This is KEY!!
2. Mentor-Student degree of interaction
3. Opportunity to write (grants. papers etc)
4. Project availability
5. Funding and how many students is the lab planning to recruit this year
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

 

STUDENTS

1. Mentoring style- how often do students meet with mentor, are there group lab meetings and how are these run
2. Expectations- How many papers will I need to publish? How is data production handled (i.e. how often do you need to give your PI a completed figure)
3. Time in lab- is everyone always there at 8AM? etc.
4. Funding- If you and the PI both enjoyed the rotation, can the PI fund you?
5. Projects- Will you be working on a current student’s project? Or have your own? Would this be your thesis project if you ended up joining?
6. Collaborating labs- how many? how often do they meet? how much input would they have on your project?
-Gabrielle Rushing

1. Ask the faculty to tell you about their mentoring style to get a feel if they will be a hands-off or micromanaging PI.
2. Ask the faculty to tell you about the available rotation projects to make sure that you can look forward to doing that for the next 8 weeks.
3. Sometimes the lab’s webpage is outdated. Make sure they are still working on what you think they are working on.
4. Ask about a typical lab day to get a sense of what hours people work.
5. Do ask the faculty what expectations they have for you, especially in terms of time commitment
-Cara Schornak

1. Funding for research/taking new students next year
2. Projects available
3. Mentoring mentality
4. Willingness to try new techniques/challenge dogma
5. Flexibility with life circumstances/mental health
-Wyatt McDonnell

 

How can first year students ask difficult questions? Any tips on specific questions?

FACULTY

Be upfront. Beating around the bush leads to confusion and potential problems later on.

-Dr. Bill Tansey

If there is a key question, be sure and ask it. However, how you ask the question can be just as important for getting a valid answer as the question itself. Ask the question as part of a conversation not as if it was an interrogation of the faculty member.
-Dr. Jay Jerome

You can phrase questions strategically. For example, instead of flat-out asking: DO YOU HAVE MONEY?, you can gain the same information by asking: “What will determine how many students you get this year?” and “I am very interested in learning the grant writing process. Do your students participate in that? What is your funding strategy?”
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

 

STUDENTS

Students must look out for their own interest/future first and foremost. It may be difficult to initiate those conversations but if they should be handled professionally and delicately. Start with speaking with students or program directors if it is not easy to have those conversations with the PI initially.
-Erin Breland

I think it is important to be blunt about most things. They are busy and don’t want to have to try and decipher what you are asking.
-Lisa Poole

With confidence and delicacy. Make sure you don’t dive in with the money and stability questions. The research questions should come first.
-Teddy van Opstal

In my opinion its easier to talk to students about some things than it is PIs. For example, I wouldn’t ask a PI if I was expected to work weekends, but I found members of the lab to be very honest and frank when I had questions like this.
-Jessica Tumolo

 

What were you asked during your rotation conversations?

FACULTY

What is my mentoring style? How many students do you currently have? How many have you trained? Where are they now? What are the working hours you expect? When will we meet?
-Dr. Bill Tansey

How many years do students take to finish? What is your mentoring style? What are your expectations from a student? What do your current students want to be? – I think this is a key question and I love getting it. I am a big supporter of all careers powered by a PhD, not just academia. You need to know this in your PI so that you can freely develop into the future scientist you want to be!
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

STUDENTS

Which rotation I could do, previous research experience, interests in the field, how I work best, strengths and weaknesses etc.
-Gabrielle Rushing

The faculty members usually asked me about my research interests and why I was interested in their lab given my overall research interests. Be prepared for some faculty to ask you how much you know about their research.
-Cara Schornak

Why this lab, what papers have you read, tell me about your background, what are you looking for in a mentor and lab, what would you like to do for a project or for a thesis
-Wyatt McDonnell

How to make your rotation options list

You are brand new at a fantastic university filled with terrific faculty and you are tasked with finding the four in which you choose to rotate. This seems like a daunting task to attempt while you are still getting settled in a new place. At Vandy, we have both our “open lab list”, the list of our faculty accepting students this year, as well as departmental poster sessions at the beginning of the year. Still, how do you narrow a list of hundreds of faculty members down? Listen to these tips from both faculty and students to stay focused on the goal of finding the perfect thesis mentor.

 

In your opinion, what is the best way to discover labs of interest at Vanderbilt?

FACULTY

1. go to the poster sessions at the beginning of the year
2. use search terms for things you are interested in and find faculty who do research in that area
3. talk to people in the labs you are interested in
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

Talk to more senior peers during orientation. Do a web search using research area terms and Vanderbilt. Go to the faculty accepting students link
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

 

Read the papers from the lab, attend seminars from the lab members
-Dr. David Samuels

 

STUDENTS

1. Use the IGP-provided list of 100+ faculty who are accepting students
2. Go to department websites and scan the faculty- sometimes faculty will not be listed in the IGP list, but are actually accepting students.
-Lorena Infante

1. Ask the BRET office staff if they know anyone who fits your research interests
2. Attend the departmental introductions and poster sessions
3. Ask older graduate students if they know any faculty that fit your research interests
-Cara Schornak

1. talk to seasoned graduate students – they know lab set ups/atmosphere
2. talk to PIs, a lot, even if you don’t rotate with them it’s good networking
3. go to the lab websites
-Teddy van Opstal

What are the top things students should consider when picking a lab?

 

FACULTY

1. History of training graduate students
2. The opinions of people working in the lab about the training environment
3. Scientific importance and impact of the work
-Dr. Bill Tansey

1. Do you think you will get along with your mentor
2. Is the lab productive and members work together
3. Is the topic of interest to you
-Dr. Jay Jerome

1. Do I like this scientific family?
2. Do the students and post-docs already in there have papers?
3. Do I like the research?
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

 

STUDENTS

1. MENTOR (style, reputation, expectations of students etc)
2. Techniques used in lab (i.e. multiple techniques vs. one, how difficult are they, will you need to create new tools)
3. Project/Topic- If you are not passionate about the work, it will show
-Gabrielle Rushing

1. Do you enjoy the people in the lab? If you answered no, pick a different lab.
2. Are you expanding your skill set
3. Is the PI known as a good mentor? Word of mouth travels quickly, just ask other graduate students.
-Christian Marks

1. Vibe- are you comfortable in the lab?
2. Can you see yourself being happy there and wanting to come into work every day
3. Project- are you interested in the work in the lab and passionate about it
-Monika Murphy

 

What is the best way for a student to set up a meeting with a faculty member?

 

FACULTY

send a nice, professional email introducing yourself and ask to set up an in-person meeting
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

Email the faculty member, most are very receptive
-Dr. Jay Jerome

Email the professor. Engage some of the students in the faculty member’s lab and introduce your self. Express your interest. The students will let the faculty member know. Email the faculty
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

 

STUDENTS

Email them. State your purpose, your interest, and a few meeting options.
-Lorena Infante

Talk to the faculty members at the poster sessions. Ask them at the poster session if you can meet with them to discuss their research further. Then email them that same day to follow up on scheduling that meeting.
-Cara Schornak

In person introduction at a poster session if possible, with a follow-up email; otherwise an email including your CV, how you found out about their research, an interesting paper of theirs you read, and why you’d like to work with them.
-Wyatt McDonnell

 

Who else should students talk to before finalizing a faculty member as a rotation choice?

FACULTY

Students ahead of them who have rotated in the same lab or are permanent members of that lab.
-Dr. Bill Tansey

Other students.   Carolyn/Beth.   Other faculty members they are interested in to see if there are rotation scheduling conflicts (for e.g. some PIs may only accept rotations for 2/4 semesters)
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

Other students in the lab
-Dr. David Samuels

STUDENTS

Talk to the PIs themselves. Ask them about funding and about thesis project ideas. Talk to some kind of mentor. Try talking to Jim Patton from the IGP, or Linda Sealy or Roger Chalkley from IMSD. Alternatively, your IMPACT mentor and/or your IMPACT peers. Talk to previous students; make sure they’d recommend joining the lab. Talk to other students considering joining the same lab(s) as you. Are your pros-cons the same?
-Lorena Infante

Current and past students from the lab. Rotation students who joined and didn’t join have valuable opinions and insight. But it’s also important to take what they say and make your own conclusions.
-Andy Perreault

Prior students that have rotated in the faculty member’s lab or are currently in their lab. If you choose Vanderbilt, Carolyn Berry has a huge book that contains each student that rotated in a faculty member’s lab!
-Jacob Ruden

Navigating the First Year

The first year of graduate school can be challenging: you’re in a new place, with new people, and you are trying new labs. Get advice for how to get the most of this year from our faculty and students.

  1. Seeking comfort in the discomfort
  2. Expectations vs Reality
  3. Rotation Lab List
  4. Asking Rotation Questions
  5. Have a Killer Rotation
  6. Overcoming transition challenges
  7. Pick your thesis lab
  8. The NSF GRFP

Getting into a Biomed Grad School

Are you thinking about applying to grad school? Do you want the inside scoop on how to pick the best one? Check out our blog posts written by our admissions faculty and successful students on how to best approach your graduate school application and choice.

  1. The Biomedical grad school application timeline
  2. Assembling your application
  3. Interviews
  4. Choosing the Best School

My favorite off-but-near-campus venue

Have you had a long week at the bench and need a great lunch or dinner break? You don’t have to go far off of campus to “get away”! Check out some of our faculty and student’s favorite spots that you can walk to from campus.

What is your favorite just-off-campus venue and why?

Taco Mamacita- it has the weirdest but tastiest tacos. TGI Friday’s or Chili’s- both are really tasty and you can get deals. Great margaritas at Chili’s. San Antonio Texas Co. (SATCo)- great place for lunch or dinner, and really cheap. Mellow Mushroom- really good pizzas and fun trivia on Monday nights.
-Lorena Infante

I like Mcdoogles because its fast and low key. The food is fantastic!
-Chris Hofmann

Kay Bobs. Great food and craft draft beers (2 for 1 on Saturday!)
-Gabrielle Rushing

21st Avenue S has a cute little cafe that’s about a 10 min walk south of campus. It’s called Provence Breads & Cafe. They sell pretty little desserts that are a nice treat for you or a friend.
-Cara Schornak

Sportsman’s our Friday night happy-hour go to.
-Christian Marks

Hattie B’s – its some of the best hot chicken in Nashville and there;s nothing better than some hot chicken and a beer after a long week.
-Monika Murphy

I love Kay-bobs. They have 2 for 1 on Tuesdays and Saturdays and the food is so good. It’s a great place for happy hour to meet up with friends.
-Lisa Poole

Winners for drinks and karaoke on Friday and Saturday, Blue Bar for dancing, and Hattie B’s for guilty pleasure chicken on 19th.
-Wyatt McDonnell

Fido. It has incredible cuisine ranging from diner classics to truly gourmet specials, in addition to amazing coffee and a respectable beer selection- there’s definitely something for everyone.
-Claire Strothman

the Dog House – Italian Beef sandwich reminds me of Chicago
-Dr. Bill Valentine

Taziki’s is a nice Greek restaurant close to campus.
-Dr. Tim Cover

O’sake Japanese Restaurant Elliston Pl Nashville, TN 37203   The people are very nice and their Sushi is great
-Dr. Christine Konradi

Bricktops-Classy with good food; and Patterson House-feels like you are in another place in time
-Dr. Michelle Grundy

Jacksons for the burgers & Go-Go sushi because I am a sushi addict.
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

Local Nashville attractions you can’t miss

If you’ve been to Nashville, you’ve probably visited the Parthenon or a honkey-tonk bar, but you haven’t seen all that Nashville has to offer! Make sure you get to visit some of our faculty and student’s favorite Nashville locals.

What is your single favorite, but unique, attraction here and why?

The Warner parks, because they are great for calming walks.
-Rose Follis

Percy Warner Park/ Cheekwood Botanical Gardens (same area of town). The gardens are beautiful and the park is huge and great for exercise.
-Gabrielle Rushing

I like that Nashville is not that far away from some really interesting state and national parks. I love camping and canoeing, so I’m excited to explore some of the multiple parks that are only an hour from Nashville. You can definitely afford a day trip to a peaceful scenic park even though you’re a busy grad student. Additionally, Nashville is only about 3.5 hours from the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
-Cara Schornak

Going to the Predators and Sounds games is pretty affordable and always a lot of fun!
-Christian Marks

Radnor Lake- it is so close to the city but so peaceful and beautiful- and good for a quick hike
-Monika Murphy

I really like the drive-in movie theater in Watertown (about 45 minutes outside Nashville). It brings back childhood memories and its 2 movies for $7 a person!
-Lisa Poole

12 South neighborhood and Sevier park. I like the area because they have nice shops and restaurants and it’s just pleasant to walk around on a nice day. Sevier park is also very pretty and you can buy a popsicle to eat as you walk through it.
-Teddy van Opstal

The Hermitage Cafe – classic 1960s pricing on 24/7/late night diner food. A classic dive/hole in the wall, and well worth every trip.
-Wyatt McDonnell

The Ryman. It’s a beautiful historic building, and the concerts held there are incredible.
-Claire Strothman

Franklin Theatre it’s a great place for music and movies
-Dr. Bill Valentine

Acme Feed and Seed. Can often catch really good music, inexpensive and good food in a historically interesting building.
-Dr. Todd Graham

Bicentennial Mall and Farmer’s Market because of the great historical aspects, the beautiful view of the capitol, and the great food!
-Dr. Maureen Gannon