experience what it’s like to work in the lab! The tricky part about
rotations is picking the labs you want to test-drive. I suggest you
talk to the faculty involved with each lab and base your decision on
which projects are available. I encourage you to see your rotations
as a chance to try something completely different. I knew that I
was going to join a lab that used nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy as an investigative tool, but even so, I chose a rotation in
a crystallography lab, just to expose myself to the technique and
expand my toolbox.
There can be a couple of downsides of lab rotations. They tend
to delay when you eventually join your thesis lab, so it might take
you a little longer to get your degree. Also, it can be taxing to start
over in a new lab multiple times during your first year. However,
the most important thing is that you walk away with a sense of
what it would be like to join a particular lab. Here’s some advice
my thesis advisor gave me: The success of your rotation is based on
whether you learned something … not whether your science worked.
Quick decision — Some depart-
ments do not offer rotations. In
such situations, try narrowing
down the list of potential
thesis labs to a manage-
able level. To do so, chat
with the faculty and
students to pinpoint
which ones sound the
most promising based
on available positions
and projects— don’t
be afraid to talk
about these choices
more than once!
yourself to regularly attending the group meetings of the lab you
choose. This will help you discover how the students interact on a
professional level, and also give you a sense of your future working
Regardless of how quickly you must choose a lab, the key
things to focus on are the science being done and the lab dynamic.
Research is not an easy undertaking, so find a group that suits
the kind of supportive or competitive environment that helps
you thrive. Do you get along with the PI, and are your conversations about your project productive? Is the PI a micromanager, or
extremely hands-off? Does the group have sufficient funding?
Does the PI have tenure, or is she or he at least confident that tenure will soon come? Are you being offered interesting projects? Are
the students in the lab happy? These are some key questions to ask
yourself while you are rotating, or to ask other students if you are
just visiting the lab.
First-year trial period
Graduate school is tough — and the first year is definitely one of
the hardest. For most, it will involve adjusting to living in a new city
with new people, in addition to becoming comfortable in a more
rigorous academic environment. Do your best to get to know your
department, but also get to know your new home outside of lab.
Being happy with where you moved can keep you in good spirits
when the academics wear you down!
Also, don’t assume that graduating from college means you
have to start fresh with a totally new set of friends and colleagues.
Keeping in touch with people who know you and support you
can help you tackle even the toughest days. This might come as a
surprise, but my undergraduate research advisor at the University
of San Diego is the person who helped me keep things in perspective during my first year. The fact that she had been through what
I was experiencing and knew me so well made her an invaluable
part of my support system. The point is, don’t be afraid to reach
out to people you know if you need some guidance and support.
I honestly think that the best way to survive your first year of
graduate school is to view it as an opportunity for you to figure
out where your life is headed. Making an adjustment this big
takes time, so give yourself the full year to truly experience the
change and discover if graduate school is the right place for you.
Grad school is something you really have to experience first-hand
to get a sense if it is right for you. I think my undergraduate PI
said it best when she told me before I moved, “You might dis-
cover that you made the perfect choice, but if you don’t, remem-
ber that there is no shame in deciding that your life should take a
So take a deep breath, get set, and start tackling one hurdle
at a time!
Shannen Lee Cravens is a second-year graduate student in
the molecular biophysics program at the Johns Hopkins
University School of Medicine.
www.acs.org/undergrad • inChemistry