Are rotations really worth it?

I think a rotation is kind of like a trial marriage, without the most fun bits. Or maybe because of that, and the power relationships, a trial adoption is more like it. Some students start graduate school really certain of what they want to work on. But what if they change their mind? Are there not other cool projects at their university? Where is the sweet spot between lab culture and what you are interested in? In some universities, particularly in ecology and evolution, grad students are so independent that it doesn’t much matter whose student they are. But this is increasingly rare.

I used to think that rotations were for learning techniques and picking a lab. More recently I see professors protect themselves and their permanent people by not opening up the hard stuff to rotators. So if a rotation is just for picking a lab, then you should only rotate in labs with openings, where you might be interested. And perhaps just long enough to see if the fit is good. But better is the perspective of a rotating first year grad student, Trey Scott. He clearly saw more value than I would have guessed in his rotation with us. Read on in his words:a23b0302-7

Reflection on Rotation

A new rotation student is often inundated with new ideas, expectations, and responsibilities soon after entering the lab. In these circumstances, it is easy to become overly entangled with a project. Once this has happened, a rotation student can lose track of the purpose of a rotation. After a rotation has ended, the purposes of a rotation should be reexamined to assess fit, new knowledge, and methods to become a better scientist.

The primary purpose of a rotation is to examine fit, both with the other people in a lab and with the questions and science that the people engage in. Identifying the social fit of a lab should be easy after even a short rotation. A new student needs to know whether they get along with the other lab members, whether they can get work done, and whether they will receive adequate guidance.

The question of intellectual fit is harder to answer, especially when a rotation student is new to research. Based on my limited experience with gauging intellectual fit, I can offer two suggestions for assessing intellectual fit. The first is to think about what you want to learn more about. Do the questions that you find yourself asking mirror those that are being asked in the lab? As an example, I find myself asking questions about why and how organisms interact. In the case of Burkholderia and Dictyostelium, how are costs and benefits being distributed that allow the interaction to persist? The second is to identify what you enjoy thinking about. For example, I spend much of my time thinking about factors that influence social behavior. According to inclusive fitness theory, relatedness plays an important role in the evolution of social behavior. I am comfortable in an environment where this theoretical framework is operating in the background. This fact would be evidence for intellectual fit with a lab that also works with these theoretical underpinnings. Identifying fit with interests and questions of a lab should be the primary emphasis of a rotation.

Fit should ultimately determine where a rotation student ends up. However, rotations can also serve as an opportunity to learn techniques and background knowledge. Before my first rotation, I had experience with basic microbiology and genetic techniques. However, through my rotation, I was able to improve my old skills by learning new ways to extract DNA and run larger gels. Additionally, I learned new skills like aligning DNA sequences with BLAST, isolating Dictyostelids from soil samples, and analyzing ecological diversity. While being involved with a lab group, you are exposed to the research that others in the lab are doing and the background research that current research is based on. Exposure to this information can help assess fit and augment a new student’s intellectual growth. While not necessarily the primary purpose for a rotation, the new knowledge gained while rotating is important to reflect on and assess.

Finally, an often-overlooked purpose of rotations is to become a better scientist. The purpose of graduate school is to become a competent scientist. This process can begin with the first rotation. While doing a rotation and after a rotation has been completed, it is important to reflect on ways to improve your science. I know that I tend to keep a lot of my thoughts to myself under the false assumption that I will remember the thoughts later. This behavior has manifested itself in a lab notebook that is less detailed than it should ideally be. However, I have identified that this is an area that I need to improve. Because the next rotation is similar to a do-over, I can brainstorm ways to improve my lab notebook and implement them. In this way, rotation students can improve their science by carefully thinking through your skillset after a rotation has been completed.

Rotations can be a tumultuous time for new graduate students. However, they can serve important purposes. The primary purpose of a rotation should be to identify a lab that fits you intellectual interests. But rotations can also serve to expose students to new ways of doing science and be a source for self-reflectively improving their current way of doing science. By assessing more than fit, graduate students can get the most out of their rotations.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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