In the US graduate school system, students do “research rotations” in two or more labs to get a feel for the research and lab environment before committing to one lab for their thesis research. For big schools, it can be hard to know where to start when choosing rotation labs. Here are a few tips from my experience:
- Decide what factors are most important to you: size of the lab? amount of funding? a good boss? an interesting research topic? Choose rotation lab candidates based on your most important criteria, and be aware of what other factors you may have to give up, in order to get what you want.
- Make sure that the PI has sufficient funding to take you on as a student. It’s awkward to ask about funding, but you need to make sure that the lab is a legitimate option. I’ve known too many grad students who spent three months in a rotation lab, only to find out that the PI was not willing to take them on full-time, due to funding issues.
- Ask about specific projects or who you will be working with. For a rotation to be useful, you need to be engaged in the work of the lab and develop relationships with the people in it. If the PI does not have a plan for your time in the lab, this can indicate inexperience, disorganization, or at worst, neglect. The PI’s attitude towards this request will give you a good idea of how much supervision you can expect as a full-time student in the lab.
- Use your contacts to get the “inside story” on a lab you’re interested in. Ask your fellow students about their experience in the lab, or if they’ve heard any gossip about it. Other people in the department or on the same hall will have a sense of whether or not the people in the lab are satisfied with their jobs, even if they don’t know anything specific about the working environment. Read between the lines, too, when you talk to current lab members: rarely will someone give you an outright negative review of their current lab, but you can learn a lot from what they don’t say.
What suggestions do you have for choosing a good rotation lab?