Advice and Guidance for Graduate Students: How to Rotate

A PhD rotation is like buying a car. You can have the upper hand if you’re a well-informed buyer. Test drive your rotation lab, look past the shiny paint, and read the fine print before you sign. This is a guide to get you the best bang for your buck, the greatest investment of your time, and the most mileage out of your mentorship. This is a guide on how to not be a fool.

Importance: Research interest < funding << mentorship.

Research Interest

This is the least important because 1) you’ll find many things interesting, 2) your interests will change, 3) any research can be made interesting, and 4) you can change fields during a postdoc. More importantly and often forgotten under “research interests” are the “techniques used,” the day-to-day labor. Observe and make sure you’ll be comfortable working long-term with the variety of techniques. Look not only at what a lab is researching but also at how they’re doing that research.

Questions to Ask: What field do you want to be working in? What type of busy work do prefer? Do you have any physical, emotional, or ethical limitations?

Funding

You have the right as a rotation student to ask whether or not your PI will have funding for your PhD*. Know that 1) some PIs see rotating students as free labor, and will let you rotate without letting you join, and 2) financial issues during a PhD will surely hinder your success. Talk about funding and rotation expectations before you commit to a rotation to avoid wasting valuable time. Here are some things your potential rotation PI might say:

Green Flag: They tell you explicitly that they can cover your tuition/stipend/supplies. Great, but keep in mind that regardless of how much money your PI has, you should always expect to be asked to find your own funding. It helps the lab economically. It helps you professionally.

Yellow Flag: They tell you explicitly that funding is tight. At least they’re being honest! Proceed with caution, knowing that you’ll have to work hard to get your own funding or teach part-time.

Red Flag: They deflect the question (ex. “we’ll figure it out” or “don’t worry about that right now”) or get offended, indicating that they’re in an unstable/insecure funding situation. If they’re not being honest, then they are prioritizing their need for labor before acknowledging whether or not they can support a student. They are putting your PhD at risk, right from the start. This inconsiderate mentor will not have your best interest in mind.

Questions to Ask: What do you want out of this rotation? Are you okay with finding your own funding or teaching? What might your potential rotation PI’s reaction towards your question indicate?

*If your PhD program doesn’t have systems in place for protecting students, suggest to the administrators the implementation of a rotation agreement contract that requires a funding discussion. Here’s a great starting point from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Mentorship

Common & detrimental mindsets:

“The recommendation letter from Dr. Mean & Prestigious will make it worthwhile.” No, it won’t be. A PhD is tedious and time-consuming. Without a supportive environment & adequate mentorship, you’d just be making it harder on yourself. Save yourself the trouble. Get training from Dr. Nice & Good to Students. You will leave graduate school happier, better trained, and not as jaded. You can always have Dr. Mean & Prestigious during your postdoc.

“I can impress them, because I’m great.” It’s not that you’re not great… it’s that a bad mentor will only see the bad, regardless of how great you are.

“I don’t need mentorship. I just need funding and a cool project.” Why relinquish an essential part of your graduate education right from the start? Don’t rip yourself off. Not only does every graduate student need mentorship… every graduate student deserves mentorship. You can get money through grants and teaching, you can find ways to make your project interesting, but you can’t get back the time lost in a bad PhD.

“I can handle it and tough it out.” About half of students experience episodes of depression during graduate school. It is impossible to compartmentalize your professional and emotional well-being. Your mental state will affect your productivity. Your successes and failures in the lab will affect you emotionally. A good mentor is so critically important, because they will prevent you from chasing the rabbit down the rabbit hole. They will pick you up through the multitude of failures that you are sure to endure and see you through until you succeed. They will understand the emotional toll of experiments gone awry, and turn the negative consequences into positive, learning experiences.

Keep in mind that you don’t really know someone until you see them at their worst. Those moments, and how people work through them, show the true quality of a relationship. Find out by talking to…

1. Current lab members.

Green Flag: They all say positive things. Still, ask them to dig deep for complaints. If they really have to nitpick, that’s a great sign.

Yellow Flag: You get mixed reviews. Determine for yourself which qualities are deal breakers. For common complaints such as “mentor isn’t around much,” or “mentor hovers and micromanages,” consider whether or not these are specific for the individual or a common theme across the lab. Different mentorship styles suit different people, but the same complaint from multiple lab members indicates the PI may not be receptive to suggestions for improvement. Ask about past incidences and the mentor’s style of conflict resolution.

Red Flag: You get political or negative responses. Heed their warning. Surprisingly, many students will still join a lab while being fully cognizant that the mentor is horrible. Whatever is enticing you to join the lab, a cool project or promises of ample funding or the potential for a recommendation letter with a prestigious PI, is not worth it. Your project will not be cool when you need, but can’t find, help. No amount of funding can buy you a successful dissertation. A bad mentor will never write a good recommendation letter.

2. Previous lab members.

Green Flag: All positives. Great! Where are they now? Academia? Industry? Government? This will also tell you how supportive the mentor is for alternative careers and professional development.

Yellow Flag: They’re content, but not exuberant. Follow-up by seeing if those concerns were addressed post hoc (ex. funding used to be an issue, but not anymore, or mentor was new to mentoring but has greatly improved since). Do you see a positive or negative trend over time?

Red Flag: They all say bad things. Be aware of the difference between those who graduated and those who left prior to graduating. If you’re going to commit to a mentorship, you should know if the mentor is crazy or if their exes were crazy. How many previous graduate students exist? How many left before graduating? Did they leave for personal reasons or because of unresolved mentorship conflict? Get info from all possible sources for an accurate sense of the situation and eliminate biased story-telling.

Questions to Ask: How often would you like to meet with your PI? Does the mentor set and communicate realistic expectations? Does the demographic of the lab suggest any implicit or explicit biases? Are lab members treated like colleagues or according to a hierarchy? What is the general mentality for participation in extracurricular activities and professional development opportunities?

Concluding Remarks

A mentor with poor management skills will cause you emotional distress and detract from your productivity. Conflicts inevitably arise when the personality of scientists come in all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. You will never do science in isolation, especially since science needs disagreement to be pushed forward. Prevention is the best form of conflict resolution, so thoroughly examine all of the history and specifications of your potential partner-in-science during the test drive. Though the endowment of guidance, wisdom, and support are foundational to the apprenticeship that is graduate school, it is up to you to ensure that you get the training you rightfully deserve.

I am the experienced fool. Have questions, need advice, or want to share an experience? Tweet me!

P.S. Two resources similar to RateMyProfessor.com, but for PhD advisors: GradPI & Scismic.