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?


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



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 Sometimes the lab’s webpage is outdated.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?


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 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?


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


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

Agree? Disagree? We'd love to hear your discussion!

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