K.D. Shives is pursuing a PhD in Microbiology at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. She can be found blogging about current topics in microbiology at kdshives.com and on twitter @kdshives.
So you’ve found a lab that you like- wonderful! Hopefully you are interested in the research and fit well into the established lab personalities. However, depending on your program, you will only have a limited amount of time to work in this lab before you have to either move on to another or make a decision as to where you will be working for you dissertation. Selection of your dissertation lab is a very important cornerstone to your graduate school experience and will determine the bulk of what you learn during your education. However, these can also become stressful situations as you try to navigate new roles and balance laboratory work with academics, teaching responsibilities and a personal life. After going through my own difficult rotation process that involved an extra summer rotation during prelims to find a lab, I learned many things that I wished I knew starting out. Here are a few points help to make the most of the rotation experience while maintaining your sanity:
You are not expected to know everything right off the bat, so ask questions and be observant. This is as true for students coming in straight from undergraduate studies as it is for those who may have spent a few years as research assistants before attending graduate school. Each lab is unique in its approach to identifying questions and the techniques that are utilized to answer them. Many of these techniques will be foreign to you so use this as a learning experience and try to enjoy the freedom of making mistakes. A lot of graduate school is comprised of 90% failure leading to 10% success, so don’t feel that you can’t ask questions or seek out help when starting out. Don’t be intimidated, and ask for the help that you need; it is much better than not asking for it and making mistakes that can use up valuable time and resources. Most of the people that you will be working with have been through a similar process and have valuable advice to give, so make the most of them.
You are not necessarily required to finish the rotation project that you are given. Don’t let yourself get into the trap where you must absolutely finish your project in the lab at all costs, only to end up neglecting coursework. This can be extremely enticing if the head of the lab implies that your rotation project will end up on a published paper with potential authorship for you. While it is tempting to reach for a publication credit, you need to take the time necessary to pass your classes and stay off of academic probation, which may mean scaling back time spent in the lab. This brings me to my next point…
It is your responsibility to balance class, lab, and free time. The challenge of balancing your different professional and personal obligations goes hand-in-hand with getting the most from a rotation. Set a schedule involving a combination of lab work, class time, study time and personal space that works for you and try to stick to it. This approach can help you get a lot of little things done at regular intervals during a rotation that add up to a full project, and is much less stressful than putting off lab work until the very end. This is especially true for students in the hard sciences, where living experiments cannot be rushed and you may find yourself living in the lab during your final weeks trying to finish everything that was put off in the past.
Take some time to figure out your most productive hours and use them for getting things done in the lab. For me that meant tackling most of my lab work between 7am and noon and weekend mornings when I had no distractions and was still focused on the task at hand. For you it may mean working from 4pm to midnight or the standard 9-5. The point is to find the times when you work the best and take advantage of your own natural rhythm; it is much easier to work with yourself than to fight against it.
Try removing as many distractions as possible from the lab so that you can focus fully on the tasks at hand. Installing a web-browser add-on that will limit your access to time-wasting websites while engaged in lab work can help to keep out unnecessary distractions. I’ve used LeechBlock for the last year and it has helped immensely with my productivity. Avoiding these common internet time-sinks can free up a surprising amount of time depending upon your habits that you can utilize to productive ends (for more anti-distraction apps, click here).
Hopefully these ideas allow you to enjoy your rotation become much less stressful. It’s a chance to learn the lab culture before you have to make a final decision. Enjoy the chance to explore your different options before settling down into a final thesis lab. While graduate school can be an overwhelming experience at times, it is also full of great learning opportunities and rotations are a big part of the first-year learning experience. So make to enjoy these moments while you can!
Do you have any tips for making the most out of your lab rotation? Let us know in the comments below.
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