Rotations – a bit about biology PhD program and research lab structure

I’m in the first semester of my first year, which for typical biology PhDs means I’m currently doing rotations. This means I spend a few weeks in a few different labs before I choose the lab I’ll be doing my thesis project in, which for PhD programs in the sciences, is typically 4-6 years long. Choosing a lab is therefore a huge decision; it determines your boss and mentor, your coworkers, and your day-to-day tasks for a long time, not to mention your training as a good scientist.

First, a bit about lab structure: a lab is run by a Principal Investigator (PI). They’re basically the boss, and they’re also the teacher for the students and employees in their lab (depending on the PI, they may be different combinations of boss/teacher). Labs usually have a couple of graduate students (I’ve heard numbers ranging from 0 to 20, though fewer than 10 is much more common). Then there are two common types of employees: lab technicians and Post Docs. Lab technicians are typically people with a bachelor’s degree who do a lot of the support work to keep everything in the lab running smoothly (like making reagents, ordering supplies, and maintaining equipment are common). Post Docs (Post Doctoral Fellows) are people who have gotten their PhDs and are working as more independent scientists, but don’t have their own lab yet and are working under the guidance of the PI. This is a very common position for people to get right out of grad school and is considered an important stepping stone before starting their own lab. Finally, it’s common for labs to have undergraduates working part time (often for school credit) or over summers or school breaks to learn the basics of lab research and get experience.

Now a bit more about rotations. Biology PhD programs are unusual in that most have rotations. With other research-based PhD programs (physics, chemistry, and outside the sciences like history, literature, etc), it’s more common to go to a specific program at a specific university to work with a specific person. People will decide beforehand what type of research they want to pursue, find someone doing that, and apply to a program specifically to work with them. Then when they start their program, they begin working with that person right away. While this does happen in biology, it’s very common to instead do rotations.

So I applied to my program with a list of about 15 faculty members (PIs) whose research sounded interesting to me. When I got here, we listened to short talks from all the faculty who were interested in taking students. We then talked to a few, and eventually picked three to work with for a few weeks each. In my program, each rotation is 4 weeks. It’s much more common for programs to have 7 week, or even 10 week, rotations. So I get to spend a month each in three different labs. Then I can choose which lab to join with better knowledge of really important things like

  • if I get along with the PI and if their mentoring style works for me. For instance I don’t want someone checking in with me all the time. I like to work much more independently, but be able to ask for help when I need it. Some people prefer to work with someone who can work side-by-side with them a lot more. Other people have other preferences. But rotations can basically be a test run to see how you like your boss (if only all jobs had this!).
  • if you get along with the rest of the lab members. These are people you will be spending at least several years with, so hopefully they’re people you like! Also is it the type of lab where everyone talks to one another all the time, or where they work independently and stay focused? I like to hear what other people are doing and bounce ideas off people. But some people get distracted by that and prefer to work in a more quiet, focused environment. Neither is better or worse, but you have to make sure it works for you.
  • if you enjoy the day-to-day work. In my first rotation, I was cultural spinal cord neurons. This meant that at least once a week (sometimes two or more times), I would be dissecting out spinal cords from frog embryos. At risk of sounding creepy, I like doing that sort of work. I’ve always been an arts and crafts person, and I just like working with my hands on detailed projects. Some people would hate that. Meanwhile I never liked chemistry labs (sorry, chemist friends!) because you can’t really see anything. (There’s a reason I’m in a cell/molecular biology program. We get some of the prettiest pictures! I know, I know, I’m in it for the discovering the unknown and improving people’s lives parts too, but I do really like the pretty pictures.)
  • if you think the research is interesting and important. It’s hard to get out of bed every day for 5+ years if you think what you’re doing is boring or useless.

I just finished my first rotation on Friday (which is why I haven’t posted in a few days. Friday was super busy!). It went really well, and I enjoyed it a lot. But now I’m switching gears entirely starting tomorrow! Well, not entirely entirely. I’m still studying the cytoskeleton in neurons. But this lab looks at things from a biochemistry (instead of more cell biology) perspective (so understanding things based on protein structure and a slightly smaller scale; though really biochemistry and cell biology overlap a lot and have more in common than not). Also I’ll be working in fruit flies! This is the first time I’ll be working with flies, and I’m excited, but also a little nervous that I’ll hate it (I’m not a huge fan of flying bugs in general). But there are some really cool things about using fruit flies for research: we know a lot about them so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to get a lot done; they’re so small you can put a whole developing larvae under the microscope and still be able to see tons of details in real time and in a living organism; and they’re really easy and cheap to keep and take care of!

*Cytoskeleton=rigid structure of actin and microtubules that gives cells shape, provides organization, and acts as a transport system in the cell.
Neuron=brain cells that send electrical signals and are the basis of all your thoughts and feelings. When people say “brain cell”, this is the one they’re talking about, though there are actually other types of cells in your brain.

Also I know biology can be really confusing at first just because there are so many terms. And I’ve been using them for long enough that it’s hard for me to know what terms people are familiar with and which ones people don’t know. So if I ever use a word you don’t know the meaning of, definitely ask!


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