August 21, 2010
Samia has a guest post up from an anonymous grad student who just passed the qualifying exam after only the first year of grad school, and who managed this accomplishment by somehow getting permission from the department to not do the required first-year lab rotations and starting immediately in the lab of the thesis advisor. On the basis of this experience, the anonymous grad student takes the position of strongly advocating this approach of foregoing lab rotations, even in departments that nominally require them.
This is absolutely fucken horrible advice.
While it may end up working out for you that you had decided on your exact field as an undergrad and refused to entertain the possibility of doing lab rotations as a first-year, there are a number of downsides to this approach that you seem to be unaware of, and which make it poor as a matter of general advice to others.
First, while there are some people who have known since undergrad *exactly* what they are interested in scientifically, feeling this way before starting grad school–and even as a first year–is almost always an illusion. Most people think they know exactly what they want to work on because that is what they were exposed to as undergrads and it got them very, very excited. That doesn’t mean that something else one is completely unaware of might not get them even *more* excited. The most creative and productive scientists can get excited about almost *any* area of science, and the people who assert that there is only one thing that interests them and that they could ever be interested in can be limited in their capacities.
Second, even if after your lab rotations you realize that you really already did know what you want to work on for your PhD, if they were selected wisely, your lab rotations will have provided you with a broader appreciation for the technical and conceptual range of approaches available in your field. Ideas or techniques you were exposed to in labs that you ultimately don’t join can end up providing key elements to your thesis research.
Third, even if after your lab rotations you realize that you really already did know what you want to work on for your PhD, the personal and professional connections you will have made in the labs you end up not joining–both with the PIs and with other trainees in those labs–can end up being absolutely invaluable to you. Examples of this include realizing that one of those other PIs would turn out to be a great member of your thesis committee, that one of those other trainees could be a great collaborator, that one of the other PIs might turn out to be a key advocate for you if your own PI needs some nudging about one thing or another, and that one of those other PIs might have connections at other institutions that could be useful in your future training as a post-doc.
To summarize, there are *many* reasons why lab rotations are considered a key aspect of graduate training in those departments that require them beyond just “picking a lab” for your thesis research. In my department, we absolutely refuse to waive this requirement. And, frankly, I’d be concerned about a department that was willing to waive such a requirement at the behest of some faculty member insisting that they absolutely know that such-and-so grad student will join their lab and there is no need for rotations, because it suggests that the department is willing to put the demands of its faculty members ahead of the training of its grad students.