Seeking comfort in the discomfort: How to approach your first year

Today I will be starting a blog post series on the challenges and rewards of starting a new PhD program. I hope to write every couple of weeks, so keep an eye out for the links below to become active!

  • Balancing coursework and lab work: the breadth and the depth
  • Learning rotation dynamics: how to really understand a lab
  • Knowing nothing: keeping an open mind
  • Managing your position: where do you stand in your class

As a primer, Science just published and advice column with thoughts from upper-level graduate students. It is a great start to these important topics!

The basics of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

Admission into most biomedical PhD programs come with tuition coverage and a stipend. However, as a young scientist, you have the opportunity to fund yourself by obtaining your own competitive fellowship. Writing for your own funding at this stage is a great training opportunity, and receiving a fellowship can make you a more attractive candidate for graduate program admission or for postdoctoral positions. Read on for an introduction to the most broad fellowship for prospective and early graduate students, the NSF GRFP.

Continue reading “The basics of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program”

Expectations vs reality: the first year

Before starting graduate school, you probably have an idea of what you will be studying or what the program will be like. In this post, learn about how the first year of Vanderbilt’s biomedical graduate program was different from and similar to students’ expectations.

 

Did you have an idea of which general department or program you would want to join before you arrived at Vanderbilt? Why or why not?

Yes, I was pretty sure that I would join neuroscience. In fact, Vanderbilt was the only umbrella program I applied to. Every other program I applied to was direct-admit to a neuroscience department/program. I was a neuroscience major in undergrad and wanted to continue in the field.
-Jacob Ruden

Yes, I was pretty sure I wanted to do human genetics as it aligned with my interests and I liked everyone I’d ever met who was associated with that program.
-Laura Colbran

Yes, I thought I might join Microbiology and Immunology because Immunology was my experience before and it was this research that most interested me. I considered going to other graduate schools where I had applied directly to Immunology programs but I chose Vanderbilt out of fear that I did not want to be stuck in Immunology and had options to do something else. However, after rotations at Vanderbilt I felt most strongly about immunology. I think at the end of the day your interests are what you are already familiar with.
-Shawna McLetchie

I knew I wanted to join a lab that related to Cancer biology, due to personal interests and being limited to what I have previously been exposed to before joining Vanderbilt.
-Salma Omer

Before I came to Vanderbilt I knew I wanted to join Pharmacology. I honestly joined a larger class to have more opportunities for friends. No one wants an 8-person department where they don’t like 6 people. I wanted to join Pharmacology because I was interested in a department where the core drive was translational research, where training was applicable to any discipline, and to prepare me for a career in industry. I also just really enjoy a pharmacological approach to hypothesis testing.
-Chris Hofmann

Did you end up joining this department or program? Why or why not?

I did join neuroscience, because this program is the best fit both for my project and the lab I ended up joining.
-Jacob Ruden

No, however I did join an immunology lab. I am going through the Cancer department instead of Microbiology and Immunology. I will have to take some of M&I’s coursework because it is pertinent to me.
-Shawna McLetchie

Yes I did. My interests didn’t change appreciably in my first year and I continued to be impressed by the genetics community.
-Laura Colbran

I ended up gearing away from Cancer Biology due to interests in other labs and projects. I ended up joining a Neuroscience lab with a main focus in Ion transporters using electrophysiology. If you would have asked me a year ago today whether I would be interested in Neuroscience I would have answered with a definite no! I learned to be optimistic and kind of let my curiosity have a say in my academic interests.
-Salma Omer

I did end up joining Pharmacology as I planned. I had looked into other departments but none really interested me as much. As a very goal driven researcher, pharm was the department for me.
-Chris Hofmann

Did you have an idea of what lab you wanted to join before you arrived at Vanderbilt? Why or why not?

I knew that I wanted to join a neurodegenerative or psychiatric disease-focused lab, but many labs at Vanderbilt fit this description. My most interesting classes in undergrad focused on these categories of diseases, and I knew that I wanted to be in a lab that studied one/some of them in some capacity.
-Jacob Ruden

I did have an idea which lab I wanted to join, although I was prepared to be convinced otherwise. I did a summer internship with this lab during undergrad and knew it was a good fit.
-Laura Colbran

I had no idea. I came in pretty open-minded and knew of a handful of people’s research but didn’t feel committed to any of them. I kept my mind open.
-Shawna McLetchie

No I had no idea of what lab I wanted to join before arriving at Vanderbilt. I didn’t push the idea because I didn’t want to make any decisions based on website/paper appearance alone. I wanted to physically get a feel for the lab.
-Salma Omer

I had no idea what lab I wanted to join before I came here. I had looked into a few but I don’t think I knew what I really needed out of graduate education until I got into doing real graduate style work during my classes and rotations.
-Chris Hofmann

Did you end up joining that lab? Why or why not?

Yes, I ended up joining a lab focused on aging and Alzheimer’s Disease, because I had a productive and fulfilling rotation in this lab!
-Jacob Ruden

I did join that lab, although it was a close call between that one and another I rotated in. I liked both PIs and groups, and the scientific questions they ask are closely related. The biggest deciding factor ended up being the techniques used in the labs- I decided I’d rather be with other dry lab people rather than being the only one.
-Laura Colbran

I joined a lab that I heard about from my previous mentor at my previous institution sometime during the second rotation. She had been on a study section with him in Maryland.
-Shawna McLetchie

Now that you’ve been through it, do you think the umbrella-style of graduate program (broad foundational coursework, flexibility to rotate among all programs, socially you’re with a large fraction of all first year biomed grad students) was good for you?  Why or why not?

YES! IGP teaches you how to design experiments and problem solve in a way that a direct-admit program would not be able to. Also, I now know and am friends with grad students in other departments/programs that I was never likely to meet without being in IGP.
-Jacob Ruden

I thought the umbrella program was good. Even though I ended up staying with computation genetics labs in rotations, I appreciated having the option to do otherwise as it made me sure about my final decision. I also think having the broader knowledge given by the first-year courses will make me a better scientist.
-Laura Colbran

Yes because now I feel more confident about choosing the interest that I already had (Immunology). The umbrella-style allowed me to rotate in other departments and therefore I don’t feel the need regret/look back on whether or not I was being too narrow minded in the beginning. Sometimes I think it would be nicer to get more immunology earlier and not dwell on certain cellular processes in Bioreg that seemed irrelevant to me. However, I think it was good to get the exposure early on. Socially it was good being with mostly first years. Things are always easier when you have peers. With certain modules in the spring semester, it was especially nice to have peers to work together on the same projects.
-Shawna McLetchie

Yes, definitely. I rotated in completely different lab focuses and departments throughout my IGP year and that would have not been the case had I been a direct admit. I am extremely happy with the decision I made of joining the current lab I am in and that would have not been the case if I was set in stone in joining the Cancer Biology Department (which is a great department, my interests just ended up lying elsewhere)
-Salma Omer

Coming into an umbrella program when you have a background in a department you know you want to join will be somewhat academically repetitive. A lot of the information you have seen before but it is taught in a different way and tested in a different way that give it more meaning. The flexibility to rotate in multiple departments and labs is fantastic. IGP means you are not limited to potential PIs by department and that’s a huge advantage. Socially, I think its also good to have a larger group of people to meet and hangout with that can relate to you through shared experience. I think I would have gotten bored with a smaller group.
-Chris Hofmann

How was your first year different from what you expected in the following areas: academically, scientifically (i.e. rotations), and socially?

Academically – The subject matter and topics covered was a lot more specific and narrow than I expected. It was different from undergrad in this way. Faculty tend to teach on very specific topics which mostly bias their particular area of research (Including using their own publications as required/recommended reading). As far as level of difficulty, the course work was as expected.
Scientifically (i.e. rotations) – The variability from lab to lab was different than I expected. Not all are good for people who have no experience. Some are more fast paced or slow paced. Some give you a protocol and some expect you to look up the details online and figure it out on your own. I didn’t expect training from lab to lab could vary so much.
Socially – It is a lot more social than I expected. I am an older student and didn’t expect to make very many friends. However, since it is such a big class and we have many different classes and groups that come together it is a lot easier to find someone you have something in common with and maintain these friendships.
-Shawna McLetchie

Academically – I didn’t realize how intense FOCUS would be and it was a bit of a rude awakening once I started the 1st couple classes. I would warn the future class that do not take the first FOCUS class lightly, they (FOCUS leaders) will rip you apart.
Scientifically (i.e. rotations) – I didn’t expect rotations to be so completely different from one another. Every lab has its own environment and personality, and you have to make sure you get a feel for the lab for the 1st few days to understand what the environment is like. I realized you might not ever understand the lab environment and personality, and that is ok (it might be them and not you necessarily). Some rotations will completely take you in and teach you everything you ever need to know as far as lab techniques go. Others, leave it up to you to figure out your own project and kind of leave you on the back burner as a rotation student.
Socially – Vanderbilt does a great job recruiting students and it was really easy getting to know people in my class. My social life wasn’t limited to just my IGP class because the BRET office paired me up with an IGPal who is an upper classmen and to my luck, she turned out to be a phenomenal person who I am still good friends with. I was also able to make friends throughout my rotations and still occasionally hang out with a lab manager from a lab I didn’t end up joining.
-Salma Omer

First year was similar to what I was expecting. Everyone comes from a different background and so Bioreg was a nice class to get people on the same page. People also came in with all different skill sets they could bring to rotations. Overall, PIs did not expect you to have much background in a particular area but expect you to be self sufficient enough to work to figure it out. I had a few years of experience so I expected the level of self-motivation needed. What I did not expect was how difficult it would be to get up and running in a new lab and produce in only 8 weeks.
Socially, groups seem to come and go but level out by the end of the year.
-Chris Hofmann

How to pick your thesis lab after rotations

You’ve probably heard a million times that the most important decision you will make in your scientific career is your thesis lab choice. Some consider this choice analogous to a marriage. Unlike most marriage decisions, you don’t have years of “dating” to decide if a lab is right for you, so what should you consider when making this choice? Hear from students and thesis lab mentors on how to make this decision.

In your opinion, what is the most important consideration a student should have when joining a lab and why?

FACULTY

I think there are two critical important considerations and each should get equal weight. Is the research of interest to you and is your personality compatible with the people in the lab (and particularly the PI). You will spend a lot of time in the laboratory and if you feel out of place or do not like the research, you will be miserable. In contrast, if you enjoy the environment and the research the long hours will not seem like a burden.
-Dr. Jay Jerome

The most important thing in my opinion is the personality match of the mentor and the student. The student needs to be self-aware and determine what sort of mentor they need to best suit their personality and mentoring needs. This is secondary to the project in my opinion.
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

STUDENTS

The mentorship by the PI. The PI’s interactions with you are very critical to being a successful PhD student. Does the PI set aside individual meetings with you on a regular basis? Are they available to answer questions and give feedback? etc.
-Gabrielle Rushing

The most important thing is to make sure that you like the lab’s research subject, since you’ll be working on it for the next 3-5 years. If you’re simply “meh” about a subject (but maybe you really like the PI), that lab is not for you.
-Lorena Infante

A PI who supports their members is the most important. Everyone has bumpy parts of the grad career. The point is that you are learning and transitioning into being able to handle everything that doing science requires. A good PI knows how to address your unique challenges in a supportive way. Rather than blaming you for shortcomings, the PI should help you overcome them.
-Becky Adams

What are some other important considerations that should not be ignored?

FACULTY

How productive are the people in the laboratory.
-Dr. Jay Jerome

1. PI’s available funding for the next few years
2. how long it has taken previous students to finish in that lab
3. opportunities to attend and present at meetings
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

STUDENTS

1. Fellow lab mates- you are with each other more time than you are at home. Make sure you get along with them!
2. Working with animals- If the lab does work with animals, is this something you can handle?
3. Funding- Does your PI have the funds to support you for the next few years?
-Gabrielle Rushing

1. The lab’s atmosphere (competitive, friendly, sterile/stoic, etc.)
2. Your relationship with your PI, including how often you’ll interact with him/her
3. The ratio of time to graduation to papers published. Animal work will take longer than cell work, which will take longer than in vitro work; you need to be ok with the experimental time frames for your chosen lab.
-Lorena InfanteThe PI should not be selfish and should encourage students to explore their interests as appropriate.
-Becky Adams

After the rotations, was it clear to you which lab/student was the best match for you?

FACULTY

I sit everyone in my lab down and we talk about it. It is a group decision. I want to take someone who will gel well with the other lab members. Someone who has shown general interest in all projects going on in the lab and has interacted well with the others in the lab, as well as asked questions in lab meetings, gets priority.
-Dr. Jay Jerome

I poll every member of my lab for their opinions on rotation students. I won’t take anyone, ever, that the lab cannot get along with, or who are disruptive. Then, I blend this with my own opinion of the student before making a decision.
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

I do not have a formula for picking students. The biggest thing for me is passion for the science and the ability to handle the current momentum of the lab. When I host students I make it a point not to look at their grades but to observe them in the lab and see how they do at the bench, in their ability to explain and present their findings and in their ability to interact with others. If the student fits that well, then that is my student!
-Dr. David Samuels

STUDENTS

Yes.
-Gabrielle Rushing

At the end, it was clear that 2 out of my 4 rotation labs were not for me. The remaining two were very different labs but I could see myself fitting in both of them. Since I really liked the science in both labs, it came down to a choice between the atmosphere, the PI’s mentoring style, and the experimental time frame of the experiments.
-Lorena Infante

YES. I got along well with everyone, and I knew I was surrounded by smart people. That is how I knew it was a good fit.
-Becky Adams

Was your choice the one you expected at the beginning?

FACULTY

No, it is not always clear at the beginning.
-Dr. Jay Jerome

For driven students with good personalities, yes. Disappointments are sometimes harder to predict from the onset.
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

Not always
-Dr. David Samuels

STUDENTS

No.
-Gabrielle Rushing

No. I was dead-set on choosing the lab I rotated in first, but I ended up joining my 3rd rotation lab. I still believe I would have enjoyed the 1st lab and would have done well, but I am happy with the choice I made. As a note, I compromised by asking the PI of the lab I didn’t join to be on my committee (and he accepted).
-Lorena Infante

It was my first rotation, so all subsequent rotations had to live up to the amazingness of my first. But I didn’t come to Vandy expecting to join this lab. A faculty member suggested that I rotate in my thesis lab. Suggestions are extremely important.
-Becky Adams

Did you get your first choice for your thesis lab? Why or why not?

STUDENTS

Yes.
-Gabrielle Rushing

Yes. I put in a full-day’s work each day, even when I had IGP classes to attend. This ensured that I had plenty of data to show my PI and that he and the rest of the lab had a good impression of me.
-Lorena Infante

Yes. I made a good impression by working hard and showing thought and eagerness to learn.
-Becky Adams

Resources can make the difference in your graduate career

When picking the best graduate school, you should absolutely pick a program that has fantastic scientific training. However, at the same time, there are so many peripheral resources that can make all of the difference in your career. While considering graduate programs, you should ask about these resources. Learn how the Office of Career Development, IMSD program, and Program in Molecular Medicine at Vanderbilt have made a difference to our students.
Continue reading “Resources can make the difference in your graduate career”

Real Struggles while transitioning to graduate school (and how to overcome them)

Each student faces their own unique challenges in their transition to grad school; however, one of the things that can make it worse is thinking that you are alone. Hear from our students about how the navigated this transition, what challenges they faced, and most importantly, how they overcame them.

What was your biggest challenge and what resources did you use to overcome it? What advice would you like to give to students making this transition?

Getting back in to a rigorous class schedule was daunting after being out of school for 3 years. Seeing a test for the first time in that long is scary. You get back in the swing of things very quickly.
Everything is new coming to grad school. New people, place, classes, learning style, balancing work and class, rotations, the list goes on. Take it in stride and enjoy figuring out what you like and don’t like. Know coming in that school will surprise you and stress you and there are times you want to break. Everyone feels that way. It is important to be comfortable with feeling stupid because you will constantly and that’s OK! Know that it will be difficult and it won’t be as difficult.
-Chris Hofmann

College was hard, so grad school wasn’t that much worse. Overall, my college career seemed like I was climbing up a mountain that got progressively steeper. Grad school was just another segment. Steeper, yes, but considering that I’d been steadily climbing for years, not insurmountable. In general, I feel lucky because I feel like I got really great training in undergrad (reading scientific papers, thinking critically, proposing alternative methods, questioning results, etc.).
Put in the work. It might be tough, but it’ll be worth it, not only when you get good grades, but when you get put on a training grant, and, most importantly, when you realize that the things that you learned in class can be applied to your rotations (and maybe ultimately to your lab choice). Don’t leave things to the last minute. Make sure to pay attention in class, and talk to the lecturers if you have any questions.
-Lorena Infante

I lived in dorms all 4 years of undergrad, so learning to live as an adult (look for an apartment, pay bills, learn to cook, etc.) was the hardest part. I was a bit clueless on a lot of things. I would consider myself a very independent person, so I took it upon myself to buy cookbooks and ask friends and family for easy recipes they’d recommend. On the paying bills and apartment hunting front, my current roommate helped a lot. She’s in the IGP program but worked in industry for a few years before coming to Vandy so she had a lot of “real life” experience. I never thought to contact anyone at Vandy for help/advice because I knew there were people in my life that could direct me (and I’m a bit stubborn so I wanted to learn and figure it out on my own). If I wasn’t surrounded by people who knew what they were doing, I would have felt 100% comfortable asking anyone in the BRET office or students I’d been in contact with for help.
Give yourself time! You’ll figure it out eventually. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.
-Andy Perreault

When I first arrived at Vanderbilt, I felt prepared, especially for rotations and the wet lab aspect of graduate school. I had taken time off and worked full time in a laboratory, so I was coming in with multiple publications and confidence regarding my laboratory skills. I would say I was most nervous about the coursework; it had been two years since I had taken a class or had homework or exams. The first semester was busy, but definitely manageable. There was less of an emphasis on grades than I was used to in undergrad and I found that if I reviewed lectures every week I could stay on top of the work.
Ultimately, I think the hardest challenge was deciding who to rotate with. When I first arrived at Vanderbilt, I had a very clear idea of three people I wanted to rotate with when I arrived, none of who were taking students during the first rotation. I met with eight PIs before the first rotation and started to put together what I prioritized most. I had previously been in a large laboratory with a “big name” PI, and didn’t think that wasn’t the environment that I wanted to conduct my graduate studies in. I am very basic science oriented and wanted to be working at the cellular/molecular level.  I also was very set on Neuroscience and thought that I wanted to be working with mice. Basically, my ideas of the “perfect” lab were very limited. During my first rotation, I met with both Beth and Carolyn to get more ideas of potential PIs, as well as go through Carolyn’s giant binder of where everyone has ever rotated. I came out with a pretty awesome list… not all cellular/molecular neuroscientists who worked in mice, but all awesome mentors. I’ve now realized that I can get excited about most any scientific problem and I am basing my decision of which lab to join based on the mentor (and I have rotated in flies, c. elegans, mice, and humans!)
Meet with Beth and Carolyn if your unsure or worried about anything.
-Sierra Palumbos

I moved to Nashville well before classes started to start a summer rotation and give myself time to adjust to a new setting (as well as to begin receiving that beautiful stipend, as I was quite broke upon graduation from undergrad). However, this plan seems to have backfired somewhat, as no other students were around yet, so I was alone in a new city and still very broke, as my paycheck took a while to arrive. Together, this likely is what contributed to my, ah, challenging move. Because the mental health resources at my undergraduate university were far from stellar, I was hesitant to investigate Vandy’s resources, though I knew they were available, and found a therapist and psychiatrist off campus. When both of those providers proved to be awful, I decided I might as well give Vandy’s PCC a shot, as it is free after all. I’m glad to say that they have been AMAZING and I’m feeling better. But not all credit for my improvement goes to mental health professionals–I feel that the greatest factor goes to my discovery of my love for dance and I can be found almost every evening at a dance studio. Not only does Vandy have a wonderful rec center and dance program, but the surrounding Nashville area also has all sorts of opportunities for dance, fitness (rock climbing, anyone?), and arts. Some ray of good can be found in my experiences, too. Despite struggling, I have survived my first year of grad school at a top university–with decent grades!–which has done a lot to increase my confidence in my own intelligence and fortitude.
My advice would be to revel in any moments of that mythical “free time” but make sure you do something other than lie in bed, ostensibly catching up on sleep. As cliche as it may sound, find something you’re passionate about!
-Sarah Poliquin

I earned a Liberal Arts degree so I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of scientific background knowledge. The first year can seem overwhelming but just keep swimming. It will be ok!
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Live close to campus if you can because it makes your life a lot easier. Don’t live alone, but explore the people of the city. I personally have had a lot of luck finding fun roommates that aren’t in the program. It’s nice to get away from science when you are at home.
-Christian Marks

It was really hard for me to come to terms with being “average” meaning not getting the highest grade on tests. I think what really helped was being in the umbrella program of IGP. Obviously with this multidisciplinary program you get people that majored in fields other than you (some people came in with a microbiology background or immunology, or genetics whereas I came in with a biochemistry background). When I started becoming friends with others in the program, none of them had the same background as me and, as a result, we all had tests that we did better than everyone else while there were ones that we struggled some because it was new. So I think realizing that it was illogical to get the best grade in every single subject when we blow through entire undergraduate majors in about 2 weeks really helped me to stop stressing and enjoy grad school more. In the end, I did better in some areas and not as well in others so I came out about average, which wasn’t too bad. I think the program they have built for the IGP really helped me move past this a lot faster than if I were in a program focused on one specific field.
Take time to relax and take a breath. It’s hard but don’t let it consume your life.
-Lisa Poole

Joining a large university from a small liberal arts college – you have to be ready to join a big team, and to be fully engaged in grad school instead of split over a lot of different things.
Realizing that your full attention is now based on your profession and what you love (instead of being split over several minors, reading that doesn’t relate to biology, and trying to retain new knowledge not related to your field) was something that Vanderbilt handled really well. I was the “expert” on my project in college because I’d developed it from the ground up with my PI and had handled everything; getting used to the idea that I was part of a team and was working on one cog of a much bigger research machine took adjustment. Having IMPACT and FOCUS seminars weekly really helped drive home the importance of the transition, and allowed our class to give each tips on what was working to make those adjustments easier, not to mention that being immersed in a literature reading course really makes you start to pay attention to new scientific literature in a completely different fashion (who’d have thought that you’d actually willingly sign up for weekly table of contents emails?). Having older grad students and faculty begin to mentor you immediately makes all the difference in the world, and it was clear before classes even started that Vanderbilt excels in that area.
-Wyatt McDonnell

I think it was challenging coming into graduate school with less lab experience than others who took gap years to work in other labs or industry. It was also difficult coming in as a non-science liberal arts major, and so I’ve had an enormous learning curve for many scientific subjects. I’d have to say that I really just put a lot of hard work into studying for Bioregulation I, I did independent background research on subjects with which I was less familiar, and I wasn’t afraid to ask my peers and mentors a lot of questions. I definitely feel that Focus was tremendously helpful for learning how to read papers, learning standard assays for a broad range of subjects, and learning how to analyze presented data.
Do your best, and keep working hard.
-Claire Strothman

How to find grad school housing

We provide two different resources for incoming students to find housing. The first is our “off campus referral service”, which includes a roommate search tool  and the second is a Google map with where current students live. We hope that students find this helpful but our students use many resources! Read below to find what was most helpful.

What resources did you use to find your grad school housing?

The potential roommate listing. Craigslist. Nashville guides for neighborhood descriptions.
-Rose Follis

I used websites, such as Apartments.com and Zillow to find apartments/houses that were in the desired area and price range.
-Andy Perreault

I moved into a sublet for 2 months (that I found on Craigslist) so that I could figure out the city and decide on where I wanted to live. This was a great decision!
-Leslie Roteta

I flew out to Nashville in early June to look for housing. We used Zillow, HotPads and Craigslist.
-Erin Breland

I purchased a condo… a real estate agent
-Sierra Palumbos

I met two girls on my interview weekend that I ended up rooming with. We came here for a weekend and found a place.
-Christian Marks

I visited in May before starting the program and drove around nearby neighborhoods for most of the weekend. It was surprising how many apartments were just advertised through a sign in the front yard.
-Teddy van Opstal

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