One of the unexpected joys of my PhD program was the rotations. Before choosing a thesis lab, I did 3 8-week rotations with three different groups, with no pressure to join or commit to a lab before all 3 were complete. While I am glad to be in a lab for real and making real (albeit glacial) progress towards graduation, there are some things I will miss about being a rotation student – and some things I won’t.
During my rotations, I was lucky to have rotated with three great labs, and I would have been happy as a thesis student in any of these labs. But rotations have some major underlying stressors. For the most part, a lab’s expectations of a rotation student are pretty limited. You’re only there for 8 weeks, and (especially in Bioengineering and other fairly broad disciplines) you’ll probably be learning several new techniques that you’ll need to be trained in before you can be independent. That being said, if you don’t do something to stand out and impress the lab, they won’t be super excited about you joining.
During my rotations, I of course tried to get into labs’ good graces, and but it was hard to know what to do. Working hard and befriending labmates are obviously necessary, but I found that navigating my relationship with the PI, figuring out how much time I should be spending in lab, balancing lab work and class work, and sleuthing out the lab’s inner secrets (money, dynamics, goals, vibes, etc.) were tricky, especially at first.
Nonetheless, I found the rotation process of we-are-having-fun-and-doing-science-but-secretly-I-am-making-judgements-about-your-group-while-you-all-are-making-judgements-about-me to be eerily familiar. It reminded me of my days in undergrad during sorority rush. While rush is not identical at every school, the basic premise is that over the course of 3-7 evenings, you meet with all the sorority chapters at your campus back-to-back for hour-long “parties” that consist of standing around and talking. To further explore into the similarities between rotations and sorority rush, I have highlighted several key points in the following table.
*Now I’m trying to come up with a TSwift parody about my thesis lab. “I’ve got a blank [TLC] plate baby – where’s my product?” Not quite…
**Definitely broke something really expensive during one of my rotations. It was a software bug waiting to bite anyone, but it bit me and it was so stressful.
In conclusion, I would say that sorority rush gets a B- and rotations get an A. Still, they are definitely both grades that you get in intro weeder classes: interesting and fun but more stressful than they should be, and mostly you’re just excited to pass and move on to the next step. Which, for me, is a PhD! And if a B- rush experience led to an A+ sorority experience, will an A rotation experience mean an A+++++ thesis experience? Probably not, but I’m excited to see what’s next!