5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Rotations

By Ellen Woon

Rotations. We spend our entire first year of graduate school rotating through laboratories of interest to find our home for the next years. It’s daunting – the idea of emailing a PI we’ve idealized in our minds as the scientist who does the coolest work and asking them if they can take us on as a rotation student. Then, if they do take us on, we worry about a myriad of situations. What if I don’t like the lab? If I don’t like it, what do I do? How do I ask if the lab has funding? How do I know if this lab is right for me? How many papers do I have to read before I understand what my project is on? As you settle in to your new life as an Emory graduate student, here are a few tips that may make the rotation process a little easier:

1.     Time management is key, and it’s especially helpful during this first year of graduate school. Much of the curriculum you will need to complete will take place during your first and second years. During the first year, you’ll have to transition to the post-college life and maybe even a new city! On top of that, you’ll have your first-year classes. Then, just to top it all off, you’ll have your research rotations.

Remember: even though rotations are an integral component of your first year, they are not meant to suck up all of your time. At this point in your academic career, most of your time should be geared towards classes and studying, with rotation work weaving its way into your schedule wherever it can fit. Being able to manage your time efficiently will do wonders for you throughout graduate school. Be sure to touch base with your rotation advisor to ensure they know you’ll need ample time to study for an exam or to complete coursework. I planned blocks of time into my schedule to study during my first year and would talk to my rotation advisor a few days prior to let him or her know that I’d be in the library over the next few days. Planning ahead and communicating helped a heavily-packed schedule feel less hectic overall. 

2.     Don’t be afraid to talk to multiple PIs before deciding on your rotations. Rotations are intended for you to explore where you ultimately want to conduct your graduate research. The minimum number of rotations required for your program is not necessarily equivalent to the number of PIs you can reach out to (AKA three rotations doesn’t mean you can only talk to three PIs!).

When deciding on your rotations, it might be a good idea to create a list of labs in which you are interested. From there, you can email each PI and explain who you are, your past research experience, and why you might be interested in their specific field. This information should ideally help them identify potential projects for you. A great way to sign off each email is to offer to set up a meeting to discuss mutual interests.

Having an in-person meeting with the PI is a great opportunity for you to get a glimpse into the PI's personality, a piece of information which may or may not influence your decision to rotate with them. This is also a great time to ask if the PI if they are accepting new members in the academic year. Depending on funding and lab space, the answer may not be set in stone, but it is an important factor to consider when deciding on other potential rotations. You may even get the chance to meet current members of that lab who can answer more questions about how the lab functions day-to-day or what it’s like to balance the research with coursework.

Once the meeting is said and done, don’t feel pressured to immediately decide if you’ll be rotating or not. When I was going through this process, I didn’t finalize my decision until I had met with all four PIs I was interested in working with. I narrowed down my rotations from there, knowing that I wanted to have at least one rotation in a field with which I was completely unfamiliar. Entering graduate school, I carried over experience from my undergraduate research in behavioral neuroscience. I decided that for my first rotation, going out of my comfort zone meant diving into computational neuroscience. My other two rotations were then focused in behavioral neuroscience. I loved challenging myself to think in different ways when learning computational concepts, and finding what interests you during your rotations is ultimately what is important.

3.    Productivity comes in different flavors. You most likely won’t earn authorship on a paper in each rotation. That’s okay! Rotations are long enough to get a feel for the lab environment, the techniques, and the community, but just short enough that it makes it difficult to accumulate enough data for an authorship-worthy contribution.

It’s important to remember that productivity is all relative; it’s up to you to define it for yourself. If you’re rotating in a lab and learning an unfamiliar technique, then mastering that technique may be your definition of productive for that rotation. During my computational rotation, I challenged myself to become familiar with the world of coding. This was a completely new topic for me, and I set the goal for myself that the rotation would be all about learning coding basics. Even though I worked with previously analyzed data sets and generated no new findings, I was productive in the sense that I learned how to code (and learned that it was really challenging for me!)

On the other hand, if you’re rotating in a lab that uses methodologies with which you have experience, you may define productive as maximizing the amount of data you can collect for that project. My remaining rotations in the behavioral neuroscience labs were productive in the sense that I was able to generate new findings for those labs. I was familiar with the behavioral assays and comfortable with animal handling, so I was able to make a more significant contribution to their research efforts. 


4.     You are not expected to be an expert. It is important when you join a new lab to recognize and acknowledge your limitations, and to ask for help when you need it. If you’re completely new to a field, like I was with computational neuroscience, you might struggle initially with understanding new concepts, and you will have an endless amount of questions. Even if you have experience in the field, it’s likely that a lab uses different techniques or procedures than those with which you may be familiar. Ask questions when you have them!

Depending on your program, rotation lengths may differ. It’s important to note, though, that there is no expectation for you to be an expert by the end of that period. 

5.     You might not like the lab you’re rotating in, and that’s okay! I cannot emphasize this enough. One lab setting does not fit all. This applies to the mentorship style of the PI and the lab environment itself. Some PIs mentor in a “hands-off” manner, working remotely or only coming in on certain days of the week. These PIs may rely on post-docs or more senior graduate students to train junior students. On the other hand, some PIs may operate in a more “hands-on” manner, in the building 95% of the time or casually passing through the lab when they get the chance. While they might rely on post-docs and senior students to train incoming students, they may also be directly involved with providing training and mentorship. 

Then, there’s the lab environment, made up of the interactions between the PI, post-docs, graduate students, and potentially undergraduate students. Here are some things that I considered during my rotations to evaluate the lab environments: Is there a good balance between people working and socializing? Is it a fun work environment (i.e. are people happy)? Is there enough lab space to accommodate all lab members? Could I see myself working alongside everyone every day? 

Finally, you should also consider how you would be spending your time in lab, should you join. If you really dislike a particular assay that you would be expected to use every day or if you find yourself not entirely interested in the research topic, then it is possible that the lab isn’t for you. You might think you will enjoy something until you actually do it. Rotations give you the chance to change your mind. 

You may only be five days into your rotation when you realize that it’s not a good fit, whether it be due to mentorship style, lab members, environment, techniques, research topic, or something else. This happens more often than you may think, and it’s completely okay. Think about it this way: it’s way better to realize you aren’t a good fit when you’re rotating versus realizing it two years after you’ve joined.

Although you may decide that you won’t be joining a lab, it’s important to stay committed to the project assigned to you for the duration of your rotation and to remain respectful. Maintaining a professional relationship with rotation advisors is beneficial for a few reasons: 1) you might open the door for potential collaborations on future projects, 2) you may secure letter writers for upcoming grants/fellowships and 3) you might end up with one or more of them on you committee. Finishing your rotations on a high note is extremely advantageous in the long run.

Your first year of graduate school is demanding, to say the least. The light at the end of the tunnel is knowing that once rotations finish, you can officially join a lab. It’s completely normal to feel uneasy when beginning your rotations, but remember, each one of us has been through it and has found a home. The opportunity to experience different types of research in diverse lab environments helps students to determine what mentorship they may need throughout their graduate studies, to hone in on the techniques and topics that spark their curiosity, and, ultimately, to identify the best lab for them to finish out their degrees. At worst, you walk away from your rotation having learned a few new techniques (as well as a few things about yourself) and at best, you’ve found your research home.