Learning rotation dynamics: how to really understand a lab

If you are in a PhD program with rotations, your goal is to (fairly quickly) experience, participate in, and evaluate a lab culture. The goal is to find a compatible lab that will be your major training environment for the next 5 years: a very tall order, especially since you might not have had a job at the same place for that long before. You’re likely doing 3-4 rotations in less than a year, which means you are changing labs right when you begin to get comfortable. How can you efficiently evaluate a lab to be sure you pick the best fit in the end?

Before the rotation

I’ve previously published many posts that cover how to pick a rotation lab, including seeking advice from people around you (students and faculty). Take these suggestions seriously; an 8-12 week rotation can seem like an eternity if you’re in the wrong environment. Before reading on, you should check these out these posts:

I also have two posts about how to be successful during a summer undergraduate experience. While you should be working at a higher level as a graduate student, there is some helpful information in here too!

While you’re in the lab

You’ve picked a lab that looks great from the outside and now that you’re in, you should give some serious attention to what I call “lab philosophy”. Your lab work isn’t just about the experiments you will perform. It is also about the culture of the lab, how projects are developed and publications are written, how others interact, and how social the lab is. You should feel out the lab both by seeing how the members interact with each other and with you. There are several things to consider about the lab that go deeper than just each member’s personality. Really evaluate the philosophy of the PI and the lab culture. Ask these questions both internally and externally and see if the answers mesh with the style you’d like.

  • How are students’ projects developed? Does the faculty member help them develop ideas or is the student independent from the get go? Does this change as a student become senior in the lab? Is a whole project planned out for the student or are they given freedom to explore the aspects of the project that stick out to them personally? Different students want different levels of guidance and make sure the lab lets you explore as much (or little) as you’d like to.
  • How are stories actually written up for communication? Is there one lead author who does the majority of the writing or does each author contribute his/her own section? Does the PI help write the first draft or is he/she an editor later in the process? Similarly, are students part of the PI’s grant writing process and do they help with publication reviews? These may be good training opportunities if you’d like to be in academia yourself, or it could potentially be a bit of a distraction of the PI relies too heavily on the members of the lab. How do these duties fit with your goals (keeping in mind that your goals might change)?
  • What experimental feedback are you getting from your PI? Don’t pay attention only to the tone of the feedback, but also the depth of suggestions. Some like to be extremely in tune with the details of students’ projects and offer very specific advice. Other faculty might contribute more general advice, allowing you to be more independent in your assessments. Consider the level of detail the PI discussed with you during this time in their lab.
  • How often do you see and meet with the PI? Is this similar to current thesis students? Will you have scheduled meetings and/or is there an open door policy? You may work better with a scheduled meeting if you like a deadline and like to know when to be prepared, or you may be the type of worker that wants to work on something until you’re ready to discuss it.
  • More deeply, when you communicate with your mentor, do you have a real conversation where you both contribute ideas and you understand each other’s perspective? This is probably not something you can evaluate until you are far into your rotation after you’ve produced your own data and ideas about your project. This sort of deep, scientific conversation is difficult to navigate at first, but knowing if you think about science the same way will absolutely help you determine if you will approach projects and troubleshooting similarly.
  • Is the lab a social culture and/or a scientific culture? You may want a lab where you make friends that you keep for a lifetime. That is great! However, more important than this should be your desire to find a lab where you feel supported scientifically. By “support”, I don’t necessarily mean comfortable. You should feel like your lab mates are your sounding board for ideas, your partners in your troubleshooting battles, your data analysis challengers, and your cheerleaders for your accomplishments. In an ideal world, this should be an environment where you all push each other to be the best scientist, and if you happen to be friends too, then perfect! Pay attention to the conversations around you. Are they scientific in nature? Are you welcomed in to some of the conversations if you ask a question?

One thing I’d like to make clear here is that your evaluation of the lab philosophy is very individual and may vary over time. What you think you want may actually be different from what you need. You might think that you are an independent worker but then realize through a rotation that you actually have a lot of questions that you want to discuss frequently. You might think you want a social lab but then realize that you actually feel like you have a difficult time balancing social and science chat. Because of this, you should keep an open mind throughout the length of a rotation to see how your philosophy develops as you are experiencing the culture. Finally, what might work for you may be completely different from someone else. Just because you loved a lab doesn’t mean others will and just because you couldn’t wait until the next rotation doesn’t mean a lab won’t work for anyone. Try not to be judgmental of a lab’s training environment or quality of science simply because it didn’t fit your personality.

Overall, be sure you have a strong feeling about how the lab will work for you as a thesis environment by the time you leave the rotation. For a busy faculty member, it is possible that he/she may not be able to focus on you as much as a rotation student as he/she would if you actually joined the lab. Be acutely aware of how often current students meet with faculty to be the best guide. Alternatively, a lab might be very warm and inviting to rotation students when this is not the normal dynamic of the lab. If you’d like an easier relationship with the PI as a thesis student, look for warning signs and try not to assume that you’ll be the different, special student if other lab members have a difficult relationship with the PI. If you’d like your PI to be more of a challenging driver, be sure you have the grit to manage this.

Exploring a lab is not just about understanding your project and seeing if you get along with the PI. Make sure you have uncovered the lab philosophy and that you fit well so you’ll be happy with it in the long-haul.

One thought on “Learning rotation dynamics: how to really understand a lab

  1. Pingback: Knowing nothing: keeping an open mind – Materials & Methods

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