Lab Rotation in Grad School: Full Explanation and Tips

By: Manuel Carmona Pichardo. Manuel explores how lab rotations work in a cohort-based graduate program.

Cat in a Lab

For aspiring scientists and researchers, ergo grad students, choosing the right lab to join is one, if not the most, important decision you must make. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the process and gather as much information as possible to find the lab and advisor that best fits your academic and career goals. Thus, this blog aims to explain how lab rotations work, allowing you to make a more informed decision when choosing a lab.

Let’s start with the study program. There are two main models that graduate programs are based on, either professor or cohort-based. In the first model, you must contact and coordinate with a professor to join their research group. In the second model, you directly apply to the graduate program and join a cohort. After entering the cohort, you choose a lab to join through lab rotations. The primary focus of this blog is on the cohort model. However, most tips will still be helpful when looking for a research group to join in a professor-based program.

What is lab rotation?

Lab rotation involves students spending short periods, usually a few weeks, in different research labs under the guidance of other principal investigators (PIs). During these rotations, students can learn about various research projects, experience different lab cultures, and work with diverse research teams. It is also an excellent opportunity to meet the rest of the lab members and experience the group dynamics and environment that exist in the lab.

Benefits of lab rotation:

  • Exploration and Exposure 

Lab rotations offer you a chance to explore multiple research areas and methodologies. This exposure can be especially beneficial for those still determining their research interests or wanting to explore interdisciplinary work. It can open your eyes to different ways of doing research, including other opportunities you didn’t consider before, and allow you to learn new skills that might be helpful in the future, even if you don’t ultimately join a particular lab.

  • Firsthand knowledge of the lab

Hearing a story from someone will never match experiencing it yourself. While rotating in a lab, you can experience the lab's working dynamics, management style, and research environment. This information is vital for visualizing if you would fit and thrive with this lab dynamic before joining the lab. 

Also, you’ll get a direct taste of the research that’s done in this lab. Reading about a lab cannot match seeing what is done in the lab. Maybe something that looked interesting and fun is not what you expected once you do it, and vice versa.

  • Networking Opportunities 

Working in different labs allows students to build a strong network of mentors and peers from various research backgrounds. Even if you don’t join a lab, the people you meet there will still be valuable throughout your graduate studies and career.

Challenges and Considerations:

While lab rotations offer numerous benefits, there are also some challenges and considerations to be mindful of:

  • Time Management

Balancing multiple lab rotations with coursework and other responsibilities can be demanding. Good time management skills are essential to make the most of this experience.

  • Integration 

It can take time for you and other rotating students to integrate fully into a lab and contribute substantially to ongoing projects. Thus, some rotations may fall short of achieving significant research progress.

  • Decision-making Pressure 

Some students may feel overwhelmed when choosing an advisor, especially if they have enjoyed multiple rotations. Patience and thoughtful consideration are essential to make the best decision for you.

The lab rotating process:

  • How to rotate in a lab

There is no established procedure to rotate with a professor, and all groups work differently, but most students follow these guidelines. The first step is to contact the PI or, in some cases, the lab manager, and let them know you are interested in rotating in their lab. This can be done through email or by showing up in person at their office or lab. There are some cases, especially with professors that travel a lot, where it will be easier to get in touch with the students of the group and ask them about rotating in that group, and in most cases, they’ll explain to you how to start the process for that lab.

  • Start the lab rotation

In most cases, you’ll first meet with the PI to discuss your interests and the research being conducted in the lab. Afterward, you’ll typically be assigned to follow and learn from a lab member working on a project you’re interested in. In other cases, you’re not assigned to any students, and you’re free to roam and shadow all the students in the lab. In this case, you are responsible for talking to the students about their work and asking if you can observe how they work. This is also an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself fully in all that the lab offers.

  • Finishing a rotation

Once the rotation is over – approx. three weeks – you’ll have to report your experience during this rotation. This is not a lab report but more about what you learned, why you would like to join that lab, and how you would fit in that group. It is essential to point out that professors will have access to this report, so even if the lab was not of your liking, try to be respectful. 

Finally, once the entire rotation process is over and all rotations have been performed, you’ll have to send the department a list of three labs you would be keen on joining (ordered from most to least), and the department will proceed to assign you to a lab. 

  • The lab assignment

The department will receive the three choices from all the students in the cohort, and the assignment process will start. Here, the department will try to assign everyone their preferred choice. However, there might be some cases in which more students are interested in a lab than spaces available for joining that lab. In these cases, the professor will receive a list of all the students interested in the lab, and they will decide which students to take. It’s important to notice that the list doesn’t specify if you selected that professor as your first or last choice, so everyone has an even chance of being selected. Thus, in some cases, students can be assigned to their second or third choice.

Tips for a better lab rotation experience

  • Take rotations seriously: PIs and fellow grad students care about their group and dynamic. If you don’t show up or don’t show interest, your chances of joining that lab will be slim.
  • Shadow as many students as possible: In research groups, students work on different projects and areas of the field. Learning from everyone will allow you to find something that catches your interest and experience all that's being done in the lab.
  • Ask as many questions as possible: This is your chance to get to know as much as possible from the lab and the PI. It would be best to ask all students since their lab experiences might differ. Furthermore, the information you hear from the students might differ from what you hear from the PI. It’s also important to know as much as possible about the lab culture and the people working there before making a decision.
  • Show interest and continue to show yourself if you like a lab: This one is tricky because of the time constraints. If you like a lab, try to spend as much time in that lab as you can without compromising the rest of your work and other rotations. Show up to group meetings, keep talking with the students and PI, and show interest.
  • Don’t stress about finishing a project: Rotations are short and are an opportunity to learn and grasp a bit about the research that’s been done in the lab. No one is expecting you to finish anything in three weeks.
  • Don’t make enemies over a lab: I understand that it will feel like a competition during the process, especially if several students are interested in the same lab and spots are limited. However, your cohort is the group that will experience a similar journey as you during graduate school. It's important to keep those relationships for the next 4-5 years. I recommend focusing that time and energy on ensuring your interest is noted and that your other lab choices are also good than fighting and potentially making enemies over something you don’t have control over.
  • Talk to the PI before submitting your choices: Once rotations are over and you have a preferred lab, talk privately with the PI. During this meeting, express your intentions in choosing this lab as your top option. Some professors will tell you directly if they will take you or hint you  should “check other options.” Whichever the case, it will give you valuable information about the order of preferred labs you’re about to submit. 

I hope this blog has been helpful and allows you to understand the lab rotation process and how it can help you make a more informed decision and, ultimately, will enable you to join the best lab for you.