Stanford Biosciences student reviewing data on a computer

Choosing Your Rotations

Define your research interests

Start by asking what level of thinking appeals to you most: organisms, cells, molecules, medical, etc. While great research entails adjusting to the questions and the biology, you should center your research where you are most excited and interested. Happy and passionate scientists are most creative and apply themselves the hardest! The following steps will help you define your research interests:

  • Find papers published by each faculty member who interests you, and consider the following points:

    • Read (at least) a few recent papers. Reviewing articles can give you a sense of a field and its progress, but they cannot substitute for reading actual research papers and seeing how the science is done.
    • The currency of scientific knowledge is scientific literature. While faculty profiles and lab websites provide a good starting point, you must read research papers to develop as a scientist.
    • You may not understand everything in the papers, but do your best to become familiar with the publications!
    • Although you can't read every paper by every potential advisor, note what topics are covered in recent papers.
  • The areas that appeal to you most are often the ones with which you are most familiar. Do not limit yourself based on your previous experience, or even based on what you now understand. Graduate school is a great time to branch out!
  • Don't be afraid to rotate in a lab whose research interests or techniques do not match your background. Indeed, most research breakthroughs come from applying knowledge from one area to another. Many of the most successful researchers started in another field.
  • Remember that you are not expected to know anything yet. What matters is what you accomplish, what you learn, and who you become by the end of graduate school. So you need to be open about what you don't know and willing to ask questions.

Identify prospective labs

  • Identify several faculty members (approx. 5-6) that interest you. Spend time learning about their research and mentorship style. While you use the following resources to research labs, you should also be reading broadly to see which Stanford faculty might overlap with your emerging interests:

  • Use your rotations to evaluate how you feel in the lab: Does the research engage you? Do you like your advisor's style? Do you work well in the lab's environment? Make sure you interact with your advisor enough to gauge if the lab is a fit for you. Also, make sure you are asking the difficult questions now—it is better to discover now that it will not be a fit than to find out after you join, or to never feel comfortable asking. Be respectful as you ask these questions; difficult questions are a part of life and a great test for establishing a mentor-mentee relationship.
  • Keep an open mind! Recognize that you may be biased by current knowledge. Just because you do not understand something now does not mean that it is not right for you.
  • Faculty members who you choose to work with do not need to be in your Home Program; you can and should look broadly.

Choose the right advisor for you

  • Self-evaluate:

    "Think about what you need from an advisor beyond his or her research expertise. Do you want someone hands-off? Someone to keep you on task? Someone who doesn't mind when you take courses for your enrichment or professional development?" -Holly Moeller, Biology

    • What is the right balance of positive and critical feedback that you need for motivation and scientific development?
    • How self-directed are you? How much direction do you need from your advisor?
    • What mix of technical and big-picture advice works for you?
    • When you disagree with someone, what response leads to productive discussions?
    • Do you want an advisor, a role model, or both? Since your advisor won't fulfill all of these roles, we encourage you to seek additional mentors beyond your advisor.
    • What characteristics do you need in an advisor to readily accept and openly discuss her or his advice? Although separating personal and professional perspectives is often emphasized, most people find it difficult to accept professional advice from someone they don't respect personally.
  • Self-evaluate:

    "Try out labs where the PIs' mentorship styles are different [e.g., hands-off or hands-on, etc.] to make sure what you think you need is actually what you need." -Molly Lowndes, Cancer Biology

    • There is no one-size-fits-all mentoring style. Additionally, as you develop, your mentoring needs will change. How flexible is your prospective advisor in mentoring style? How open is she or he to individual feedback about her or his mentoring style?
    • What you think you need and what you actually need might differ. Again, try different styles—a certain mentoring style may work better than you thought it would. Discuss mentoring style with your first-year advisor and prospective advisors.
    • Did you pick an advisor for the person that you want to be or for the person that you are?
  • Talk with EVERYONE

    1. Current lab members
    2. Former lab members—Where are they? What are they doing? How did their training help them get where they are?
    3. Technical staff
    4. Former rotation students who did not join the lab
    5. Professors in the department
    6. Other students/postdocs in the department
    7. Remember, everyone is different, but you also can find some general truth in common experiences.
  • Talk with your potential advisor

    1. Make sure you can communicate with this person. Is there open two-way communication?
    2. Do you feel comfortable saying to your advisor, "I don't understand?" When you say you don't understand, are her or his subsequent explanations clear and helpful?
    3. When you say, "I disagree," does this spark interesting discussion?

Find the right lab environment

  • Lab dynamics

    "If there are red flags about the lab, don't expect that your experience will be the exception. Meet with lab members outside of lab, and ask direct questions about their experience so that you know what to expect when you join." -Molly Lowndes, Cancer Biology

    • Is the work environment cooperative or competitive?
    • Do lab members communicate effectively with each other?
    • Is interaction at work mostly social or mostly professional?
    • When you disagree with someone, what response leads to productive discussions?
    • Does the lab environment create or pose obstacles to you applying yourself? Is it an environment that encourages and motivates you to do what is needed to succeed as a scientist?
  • Lab history

    • What is the average time to graduation?
    • What do students do after graduation?
    • Are former students happy with their training and experiences?
  • Lab management

    • Does the lab have adequate resources for your tenure there?
    • How well does the PI resolve conflicts between lab members?
    • Do interesting results get published in a timely manner?
    • How much independence is given in designing research projects?
    • Do all members of the lab receive equal attention?
  • Talk with EVERYONE

    "Talk to many students and postdocs in the thesis lab you're thinking of joining. Make sure you ask them about the PI's mentorship style and the strengths of the lab as well as the weaknesses." -Lauren Chircus, Chemical and Systems Biology

    • Your potential advisor
    • Potential faculty mentors
    • Lab members, past and present
    • Technical staff
    • Former rotation students who did not join the lab
    • Professors in the department
    • Other students/postdocs in the department
  • Lab selection resources
Maya BenBarak

"Push your limits and try something you didn't come in wanting to do. It may change the course of your scientific career—it definitely changed mine!"

—Maya BenBarak, Immunology

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