August 2013

How to find the right lab rotation

Some of you reading this will be starting graduate school this coming fall. Congratulations! You are just beginning what will be one of the most difficult and rewarding processes of your life. Those of you going into Ph.D. programs likely will do rotations in various labs during your first year before settling into the lab where you will do your thesis research. Choosing this laboratory is extremely important, as you will end up spending more time with these people than your family, and establishing good working conditions is critical to finishing your dissertation in a timely fashion.
 
Here is some advice that I wish I had gotten before embarking on the laboratory rotation selection process that will help with yours:
 
Find a rotation lab before the semester starts.
It is important to have a first rotation arranged well before the semester begins. Depending on the size of your institution and area of interest, it may be difficult to get spots with popular labs unless you arrange it over the summer. Otherwise you may find yourself in a position where you have to take a rotation in a lab that is not appropriate for you.
 
Find a lab with funding.
The funding situation in academia under the current economic climate is less than ideal. Many labs are struggling to maintain consistent funding as budgets remain static or are outright decreased. This directly affects how many students an investigator can take on. Try to find a group with a good funding history and current funding if at all possible. (See sidebar below.)

How to broach the funding issue with prospective PIs

Right now, federal funding for scientific research in the United States is at a disheartening all-time low and may remain that way for some time. For new graduate students, this poses potentially significant issues, as joining a laboratory depends largely on it having the funding to support your thesis research. Put simply, less funding means fewer resources to support graduate students. You don’t want to end up in a lab with a poor funding situation, as the principal investigator may have to shut down his or her research program if the funding situation does not improve.
 
So how do you politely ask a PI whose lab interests you whether he or she has enough funding to support you? This can be an awkward exchange, as it is usually frowned upon simply to say, in an e-mail to someone you have not yet met, “Hi. Do you have funding?”
 
To broach the subject tactfully, you can ask indirectly about the funding situation by burying it a few lines into your introductory e-mail. After a few lines of introducing yourself and explaining your interest in a lab rotation with this person, you can segue into the topic of funding. A simple statement, such as “If you have the space to take on a student, I would enjoy speaking with you further about rotation options,” will let the PI know, without being uncomfortably direct, that you are aware of funding limitations in taking on new students.
 
However, if during the course of your rotations you find that you have a few labs with funding to choose from, don’t be afraid to do a rotation in a lab that can’t take you for financial reasons. You can use these as opportunities to learn new and interesting techniques that you can take with you through the rest of your graduate experience.

Talk to lab members other than the principal investigator.
You will be spending most of your time with the day-to-day members and not the PI. Ask the research assistants, other graduate students and postdocs what the lab is like and try to get their input as well. Ask about the lab-management style: Is the PI a micromanager or very hands-off? What conditions do you work well in? You cannot discount how important it is to work well with your lab mates. While you may not become the best of friends, a relationship built on mutual respect will get you through graduate research without too much pain.
 
Read at least one recent publication from the group.
This is a good way to get familiar with recent work from the lab as well as the common techniques used by the group. This is also a good starting point for meeting with different investigators, as you will be familiar with their work and better able to discuss your rotation options and potential projects within the lab.
 
Read the grant.
Really. Just read it. It is a long and boring document, but it is the heart of the modern academic research group. What the lab wants and needs to accomplish for funding purposes is all right there in the grant and provides an invaluable guide to what you will be doing in a group. Reading the grant can clarify the aims of a lab and give a very clear picture if the research is in your area of interest and appropriate for your thesis research. It’s also a valuable experience if you’ve never read a successful grant before and are unfamiliar with the format.
 
With these basic guidelines in mind, you should be able to find multiple labs that will be good fits for you personally and support your thesis research. Good luck, and happy hunting!
 
This article was reprinted with permission from gradhacker.org. 

K.D. ShivesK.D. Shives (microbematters@gmail.com) is pursuing a Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center and blogs at kdshives.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/kdshives.

 

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