Debbie Knight

An open letter to those whose lab rotations are not going well

In observation on October 21, 2011 at 11:08 am

One of the perks of using is that it gives its bloggers information about how people find their blog. One of those parameters is what words  were used in Internet searches to find a specific blog post.

Yesterday one of those searches was “lab rotation not going well” which linked this person to my post called “The Dance: The Graduate Student and the Lab Rotation.” I will admit this post was probably not all that helpful to this particular seeker, but his or her search inspired me to write what I wish they would have found on my blog yesterday. Here is my response.

Dear “Lab Rotation Not Going Well,”

I realize you found my blog by accident when you typed “lab rotation not going well” into the Google search box.

And I realize that you probably won’t revisit my blog to see if I’ve posted anything new on this topic.

But let me tell you that your search touched me. I felt a deep sadness that you are not having the best experience during your rotation.

But all is not lost: think about all you are learning from this experience.

First, you’ve found out that it’s not a good fit with the researcher (a future mentor), his research, and you. That’s an important thing to learn during a rotation – you’re testing the waters to see if you can handle this mentor and the research project while you’re in graduate school. You’ve only committed to work in the lab for a few weeks and you can choose whether you’d like to join the lab should you be invited. You can escape this situation.

That’s great news!

I’ve known graduate students who have discovered long after they committed to their dissertation work that they are absolutely miserable in their mentor’s lab. At this stage in their graduate pursuits, they have few options. While a handful of students chose to stick it out, many have dropped out of their graduate program altogether or opted to get a master’s degree rather than a doctoral degree. It’s sad to see, but it happens.

So, you are way ahead of the curve!

Second, you obviously had some hope this rotation would work out well for you because you recognize it’s not going well. That hope may be there for several reasons. Perhaps the research focus is your favorite subject. Perhaps the research is cutting edge and exciting. Perhaps the researcher is famous and hitching your wagon to his star would help you advance career-wise. Perhaps you’re having a hard time connecting with the person you’ve been assigned to work with. In any case, it’s obviously not going well or you wouldn’t have performed your Internet search. Again, the good news is: there are other labs and researchers out there!

While I can’t begin to devine your specific situation from those five little words in your Internet search, I think I need to remind you that there are two people in this “dance”: the researcher and you.

An obvious place to start looking for reasons why this dance isn’t going so well is YOU. Ask yourself (and be completely honest here) what you can do to turn this around.

  • Is there something you’re not doing? Should you be doing more?
  • Are you not showing interest in the research? This one is the biggest deciding factor I look for when I’m working with a rotation student.
  • Are you just showing up just when you have to? Are you staying in the lab? This shows lack of motivation on your part.
  • Are you talking excessively to your friends? This goes back to the first point: should you be doing more than just talking to your friends while you’re in the lab?
  • Are you on the computer playing games or searching the Internet? These are big turn-offs for a researcher because if you’re doing this now, what will you do once you’ve been invited to join the lab? The researcher wants someone who will be a hard worker and who productive.
  • Have you read enough journal articles on the research topic that you’re not asking too basic of questions? While there’s theoretically no such thing as a stupid question, if you ask the similar questions every day, you’re being stupid.
  • Are you taking notes when you’re taught how to do a procedure in the lab? Nothing frustrates me more than if a trainer has to show you how to do something more than once. I’m not saying you have to get everything on the first round (especially if it’s a complicated technique), but you should retain some of what you learned – and the notes help you not waste the trainer’s time reviewing what you should already know.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, lots of them! It shows that you’re interested, that you’re curious and willing to learn, and that you’re thinking about the research.

If you’re doing an experiment and it doesn’t work, think about what you did and what you might have forgotten to do. Then think about how to improve your performance of the experiment next time. Show that you’re more than a pair of hands, show that you’re actually thinking about what you’re doing in the lab.

Talk to the people working in the lab. Ask a seasoned graduate student in the lab for advice. Maybe even talk to the researcher to help you understand his expectations and how you might live up to them.

You should know that you are not the first graduate student to have a less-than-ideal experience during a lab rotation.

There’s the old saying “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” meaning make the best of a bad situation. Keep your eyes and ears open, learn as much as you can about the research and the techniques going on in the lab. You might not stay in this lab for your graduate work, but you might be able to apply what you’ve learned to another lab rotation and deeply impress that researcher. Do the best you can with what you’re given and something unexpected and wonderful might come out of it.

If things are truly miserable and you feel you cannot finish your current rotation, you might approach another researcher about doing a mid-term lab rotation. I’ve seen a few students do this and it’s worked really well for them. Also, you can talk to your first-year adviser or graduate program director to further explore your options.

I wish you well in your endeavors!

And hopefully this advice will help you on your journey, wherever it may take you.


Debbie Knight


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