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. How do projects get decided?
2. What are the expectations for grad students in the long term or the short term (how much you should publish, how many hours you should be there, etc.)?
3. How often do grad students see the PI?
4. Are they hands on or hands off?
5. What conferences might you go to in this lab someday?
-Brad Davidson

1. It is important to ask about whether you will be working with a member in the lab or whether you will be working independently and reporting to the PI directly.
2. It is also important to know what their expectations of you are, including attendance at lab meetings and any presentations you may have to give.
-Sara Kassel

1. How many hours Do You expect of a rotation student?
2. What techniques will I be using?
3. Is this a potential thesis project?
4. Who will I be working with?
5. What is the history of this project?
-Noah Bradley

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

I think running your question and phrasing by either another student or someone in the BRET office who can help you is a good step.
-Abbie Neininger

Don’t be pushy or gauche, but still get the question across by being straightforward. Most PI’s will understand these difficult questions are on most students’ minds, and will be forthcoming in answering. If they’re not, that could be another good thing to consider. You should ideally feel comfortable and be able to talk to your PI about anything, including difficult conversations.
-Slavi Goleva

You need to ask about funding, but don’t be so direct about it. Ask if any grants have been written recently or on this project.
-Noah Bradley

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

Usually a bit about my background (really in order to talk about projects). Why I was interested in the lab, what I wanted to get out of it. Some also asked how much interaction I wanted to have with each PI (which is a good sign).
-Steven Walker

What are you interested in? What do you see yourself doing with your PhD? How would you say you work, more collaboratively or independently?
-Grace Morales

I was asked a lot about my skills, what I wanted to learn, what project in specific I was interested in, and what my long-term goals were. I definitely needed to come into a rotation conversation prepared about what the lab studies and what I wanted to do.
-Abigail Neininger

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