Rotations: the beginning and soon, the end

For those just tuning in, let’s backup. What’s a rotation? This is when first year graduate students “try” a lab by spending about a month in 3 to 4 different ones. You either have your own mini-project to complete or help out on a current grad student/post-doc’s research. It’s your chance (and the lab’s chance) to see if you fit in with the research goals of the lab and if you’d be happy working there for 5+ years.
How to choose rotations? Well you picked the school you’re at, didn’t you? So you should already have a list of professors you’re interested in working with. This list may only be 3 or 4 long so you’ve already got rotations chosen! My problem: My list was over 30 people long. That doesn’t fit into 3-4 rotations so well. So to select only a few: 1. I made sure they were actually taking new students. 2. I did more research and figured out not only the overall research the lab does, but the techniques they commonly use. You have to like the research, the people, and the stuff you’re going to have to do every day. 3. I went to the orientation talks given by professors. You can tell a lot about a person based on how they give a presentation. 4. I asked around. Current grad students are very open about what different labs are like and how happy they are (or are not) in their labs.
But here’s the hitch. Even after all of this, you may still rotate in a lab that 2 weeks in, you want OUT! This is actually not that uncommon and I’ve heard a lot of complaints from the first years. So how do you peace out from a lab early without burning any bridges? Honestly… there’s only one way and it takes a lot of guts. Most people just stick it out, wasting their and the professor’s time. The only way to do it is to sit down with the PI and explain your reasons for wanting to leave. The research wasn’t what I thought it would be. I just don’t fit in with the other lab members. I need an advisor that’s more/less involved in my research than you tend to be. These are all good reasons the PI will accept; you just have to have the courage to say them and not be pressured into “trying for another week.”
Don’t make the mistake I’ve seen. Staying in a lab you know you don’t want to join will only make you unhappy. Trust me.
I’m currently gearing up to choose my permanent PhD lab at the end of the month –gulp- I thought I knew what I wanted but now… I don’t know. It’s a lot harder to make the decision than I’d imagined. I love, love, love the research in lab A and I love, love, love the people and vibe of lab B. Not to say that lab A is full of awful people or lab B has bad research; that’s not the case. It’s just that I see myself very happy (though maybe a little less productive) in lab B because it has this social aspect that would make being in lab every day, all day, all year fun! It might end up being that way in lab A after I get to know everyone better but I just can’t predict that now.
I’m also coming down to the age old question of advisor type. One is super hands off and I’d probably be trained by current lab members, not the PI. The other is super hands on, in lab a lot and directly involved in the research. Which do I want? I don’t know. But I’d better figure it out soon.

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