Switching labs is, optimally, disruptive. On September 3, 2019, the very beginning of my second year at MIT, my PhD program director called me into his office to explain that I needed to switch labs because one of my co-advisors was a research fellow, not a tenure-track professor, and the other presently lacked resources to advise me alone. Though he had approved this arrangement three weeks before, new information had convinced him that my research risked being disrupted by the ending of my co-advisor's fellowship in August 2020. Of the other four labs in which I had rotated during my first year, I had enjoyed two enough to consider joining, but neither PI had deemed me a sufficiently good fit to offer me a position. My program director now revealed why: I had not socialized well with the members of either lab. Because my PhD program could afford to fund me for only six more weeks, I would need to begin a seventh month-long lab rotation within a week. And in the event that I was unable to join that lab, my program director regretted that I would have no choice but to withdraw from MIT.
I had been wondering whose lab I would join ever since I’d applied to graduate school nearly two years before. My undergraduate PI was fairly senior and hands-off, so I wanted to experience working with someone whose mentorship was more hands-on, though not micromanagerial . Following some of the copious good advice published on choosing a PhD advisor, I skimmed the profiles of over one hundred MIT professors, considered any lab that involved analyzing large biological data sets, and listed over a dozen that most interested me. Then, over many lunches, I chatted with PhD students from many of those labs and narrowed the list to about four faculty whose students most praised their scientific prowess and generosity in mentoring. Two were first-year PIs; just one had tenure.
My PhD program requires all first-year students to rotate in three labs, four to six weeks per rotation. I moved to Cambridge in July 2018 to begin an extra summer lab rotation. The PI gave me my own computational project unfamiliar to most of the lab members. I spent most of my time working alone, since many lab members were also traveling recreationally or to conferences. This was the case for two of my next three rotations, from October to April. In each lab, I talked often with the PI about my research and sometimes sought help from the technicians, students, and postdocs. However, I shied away from bothering the lab members about non-scientific matters and focused on my research so that I could learn about the scientific field and accomplish enough to demonstrate competence. I socialized mainly at each lab's sporadic socials. In my fourth rotation, I became fascinated with the research and thought I got along well with the PI, so I asked her if I could join. She told me that, unfortunately, I wasn’t a sufficiently good fit for her to offer me a position. The next week, I asked the same question to the PI I had rotated with in November, and I got the same response. It was the end of April, and I had no lab to join.
I reached out to another PI with whom I had met a few times; he agreed to let me begin my fifth rotation with him during May. Also in his first year, this PI’s trainees included a technician and three UROPs; again, the PI suggested a computational project that was outside of everyone's specialty and on which I worked mostly alone. After presenting my results in June, I asked the PI if I could join. He said he had just accepted two other PhD students and didn’t have the bandwidth to advise me. But then, to my delight, he proposed a new research project for me to work on under the co-advisorship of himself and a research fellow who ran a lab in the same building.
I began my sixth rotation with this fellow in July. Just one week later, she pulled me aside and told me I needed to ask people for help much more than I had been doing, and that she had specifically instructed the members of her lab to prioritize helping me over their own projects. Only with her explicit feedback did I manage to ask people for help. The environment of her lab was, among those I had rotated in, the best suited for me to interact with other lab members. I was doing exclusively bench work, and coming from a computational biology background, I needed to ask everyone to help me find materials and teach me protocols with which I had little familiarity. Her lab members ate lunch together nearly every day, which gave me a chance to learn about their personal lives. Most importantly, they also used Slack frequently, half for science and half for humor, which gave me a platform to both ask for help and crack jokes without feeling too intrusive. They could have ignored my messages had they wanted to; instead, they laughed at my puns and helped me troubleshoot my gels. Moreover, because the research was about structural biology, the field I had studied in undergrad, I had the strongest scientific background to work in this lab relative to the others in which I’d rotated.
By the end of August, I had become friendly with everyone in the fellow’s lab. She agreed to co-advise me. The professor also agreed to co-advise me and was willing to fully advise me after the fellow got a tenure-track professorship and left. But when my program director learned that many previous MIT PhD students advised by research fellows had needed to change labs or universities when their PIs’ fellowships had ended, he understandably asked me to find a new lab immediately: such a change would be much more disruptive during my third or fourth year than at the beginning of my second year. His concern was warranted, but I was devastated.
The fellow contacted one of her collaborators, who interviewed me and agreed to let me rotate. During this rotation, my seventh, I worked on a project in the wet lab with a fourth-year PhD student, and I took the opportunity to socialize as we waited for tubes to centrifuge and reactions to incubate. I asked many of the other trainees about their hobbies, organized a board game and dinner night, and even joined them on a Cider Donut run: four miles in pouring rain. Meanwhile, I completed my rotation project and presented the findings to my PI, who said he thought I was a great fit for the lab and that he'd heard positive feedback from his trainees as well, so he let me join on October 9, 2019, six days before the funding from my program would expire. My career at MIT was safe.
Unfortunately, I am not the only student who has encountered difficulties in joining a lab. I know of two former PhD students who, in similar circumstances, did need to withdraw from MIT, and three who came close. While some circumstances are beyond students' control, I hope that a few pieces of advice may help others, especially first-years interested in very new labs:
- The first few students in a lab will likely determine whether or not the PI receives tenure, so some new faculty only accept students who already have relevant research experience and get along very well with everyone in the lab. Do not rotate only with new faculty.
- Postdocs and senior PhD students can teach you just as much, if not more, than faculty.
- Make a meaningful connection, socially and scientifically, with at least one lab member besides the PI. If you are as shy as I am, Slack or an equivalent may help break the ice.
- Bring in and share food, especially homemade baked goods if possible: it never hurts!
And finally, rotating in a lab can be––and ideally is––fun. The rotations in which I was most scientifically productive were my sixth and seventh; they were also the ones I enjoyed the most because I not only worked on my projects but also participated in many social events. By communicating well with other members of the lab, I learned about important problems to work on and gained more motivation to work, so that the time I did spend doing research was more productive and rewarding.