Picking a thesis lab is a lot like dating

The lab where you do your graduate school thesis work is where you will be spending about 5 years of your life (or longer depending on your project, sometimes shorter). Whether you do it faster or slower, it is still many, many years of your life. Even more, this experience will be essential to prepare you for your career and so where you do your thesis really has implications for the rest of your life. It does not necessarily define it, but it sure is a lot better to get into a lab where you will be able to get the most out of the experience so that you can be productive and well-prepared to hit the ground running in your career.

Basically, it’s a pretty big decision. Just as big of a decision as picking a significant other, only you’re on a time frame. In my program, we are required to rotate in labs to get a better feel of them, sort of like casually dating a few people before picking someone to go steady with. Each rotation lasts five weeks. At the end of these 15 weeks, we must then go to a professor and join their lab. Let’s just say, I now understand truly why people say that they’re dating grad school and it’s not just about the time commitment.

Say you see a cute looking guy/gal at a party or in class or somewhere in public…

During our orientation, we had three days where faculty gave talks about their research so that we could figure out whose research interested us. We were just an audience for the professor; they had no idea who any of us were or who out of us were interested in their lab just as you would never know someone was checking you out (unless they’re pretty obvious about it).

…and you find out their name, so naturally, you look them up on Facebook…

Schools generally list their faculty on their websites so you can look them up and read a snippet about their research. Additionally, they often list their notable papers that you can then find online and read more about their research. This gives you background information on their work and helps you figure out if you’re truly interested in their research topic. Depending on how much information they have online, you can find out other things like what kind of awards they’ve received, the size of their lab, and the kind of journals where they tend to publish.

…you think you like what you see and so you decide to make a move…

Not all professors require it (they often mentioned it in their talks), but it is a good idea to send an e-mail to those professors you would like to rotate with to introduce yourself, explain that you’re interested in their work and why you are interested (which is where doing background research about their work can come in handy), and possibly argue why you would be a good addition to their lab. If you would like to be so forward, you can then ask if they would like to meet and discuss the possibility of rotating in their lab and what projects are available for rotation students. It’s kind of like asking someone on a date.

…Wow, they said yes! Now you actually have to go on that date…

So the professor said they would love to meet with you, cool! You meet them in their office (usually) and they try to get to know a little more about you – what your previous research experience has been, what you want your future research to be, why you want to be in their lab (often more in depth about the things you wrote in your e-mail). Then they tell you about their research (which can get lengthy as professors LOVE to talk about their work… I usually set aside an hour or so when I meet with a professor). Perhaps you both really like each other after these discussions and it progresses to actually rotating in their lab, then you get on the topic of rotation projects. Yay!

Since there are so many students in my class and our interests may overlap, just because there is mutual interest between student and professor doesn’t mean that you’ll get to rotate with them. We list our top six preferences for professors and a committee then goes through to optimize our placement so that everyone gets the highest choice possible – say six people list one person as their first choice but that person is only taking one student at a time, five of those people will not be getting their
top choice. If a professor REALLY likes you, they can increase your chances by giving input to the committee that they’d really like to have you as a student.

…You understand that the person may be putting on an act, so you try to find out more about them from people that know them…

Grad students are likely to tell you the honest truth about the lab. They understand what you are going through having gone through it themselves and so they generally are willing to tell you straight up what is good and bad about the lab. Maybe the professor seems really nice when you meet them but has been known to actually scream at his students (true story, glad I found that out before I put him as one of my top choices). Obviously he’s not going to tell you that he does that but the grad students definitely will.

…as you’re not in a steady/exclusive relationship yet, you can go ahead and flirt with other people and you take full advantage of the opportunity…

No matter how much you want to join a particular lab, it is in your best interest to talk to many professors to really find your best fit. Whether their lab becomes one of the three where you rotate or not, they can still be a good connection for possibly being on your thesis committee (a group of professors that oversee your progress and ultimately decide when you can graduate with a PhD), teaching a class that you TA for, or teaching a class that you actually take. You may feel like a player, but it’s okay because the professors are likely talking to more students than they’ll be taking into their lab too.

…the stars align and you start regularly dating a person…

The committee takes the list of six preferences from each student and works their magic to satisfy the students and professors to the best of their abilities (a HUGE challenge). Voila! For the next five weeks you will be in a certain professor’s lab.

…you keep the fire alive in the relationship…

Nothing is set in stone yet, so you need to continually show that you would be a good addition to the lab – a good mate. As a rotation student (and later as a permanent member of a lab), it is important to show interest in the work. The professor/grad students may give you papers to read and discuss with them. You can even go beyond that and find more papers related to those given to you. You also do lab work and try to be as productive as possible. You work long hours to show your dedication. You just generally try to act as a student who will be a good contributor to the professor’s research goals (and if you’re genuinely interested in the lab, all of this just comes naturally!)

…you get to know their friends and hang out with them…

It’s always important to be able to get along with your significant other’s friends and of course have their approval. In grad school, this is important too. You try to get to know the graduate students that are already in the lab to see if you’d get along as coworkers. The social dynamics of the lab can sometimes make or break your experience. These people can potentially help you adjust to the lab and learn the methods related to your work, and potentially collaborate with you on your projects.

…finally, you decide to get serious and become exclusive – you have your match!

After three rotations in different labs, you approach the professor you want to advise you on your thesis work and ask to join their lab. Assuming that they haven’t already had others approach them and so there are still positions available, they may say yes and you then have your thesis lab! Sometimes others get to the professor first and they fill the available spots in their lab so you’re out of luck there. You then approach your second choice. If all three of your rotations are either incompatible with your personality/research interests/work ethic, you may not get into any of your rotation labs. There is an option to do an extra rotation during winter break, but this is a last resort. Ultimately, the program will do its best to get you matched to a lab.

Say the person you ended up with isn’t the best (maybe you didn’t find out everything you should have before making a decision). There is still an option to break it off and go steady with someone else.

I have heard a few cases where students joined a thesis lab and a few months later joined a different lab (even a case where this happened a few years into the thesis.) It’s not optimal as it sets you back but it can be done. In fact it’s better to start over after a little while than be in misery for your whole thesis or risk not being able to complete it.

This is what myself and the rest of my peers are going through this fall. We are currently awaiting the placement for our second rotation. Starting on December 9, we will be able to officially join a lab (happy birthday to me!)


Hanna is a MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois and an aspiring physician scientist who aims to specialize in hepatobiliary cancers. She is also passionate about teaching, leadership, and advocacy. The energy she once used to pep up crowds as a college marching band member is now directed toward exciting and educating others about science and medicine, especially through her tweets at @MDPhDToBe and her blog at www.mdphdtobe.com.

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Posted in Graduate School
3 comments on “Picking a thesis lab is a lot like dating
  1. johnbennett70 says:

    Hello Hanna:
    What a great story and a great blog! Sounds like you are going to be a medical superstar! I want you to stay in touch with me, John Bennett MD, creator and administrator of InternetMedicine.com, a website dedicated to the wonderful digital happenings in medicine now.

    One of the digital things is this blog, where I am able to communicate with a stranger from Minnesota from my desktop! Now how great is that! And I foresee that some day “Internet Medicine” will be a specialty.
    There’s are some other Med Students I am keeping tabs on; one is Roheet Kakaday MD, from Oregon, also a bioengineer, who will most likely redesign the EMR! And lots of other.
    You will be at one of the best research for digital happenings in the world! Wow.
    anyways, keep in touch

    John Bennett MD
    Miami, Florida

    oh, also another website, maybe it will help you


    • mdphdtobe says:

      Thanks, John! I’m so glad you found my blog! The use of the internet to connect to others especially relating to medicine is an amazing thing and I agree that it will some day become a much more popular occurrence, perhaps enough to become a specialty. Regardless, I think it is an excellent resource to enhance medical education. I also follow Roheet on twitter as well as many other medical students, feel free to find them from my list of followers (although it may be decently lengthy). I like to hope that those medical students like Roheet and myself who keep well-written blogs will have an advantage in this technological world by having practice connecting to others regardless of their position on the globe and expressing our ideas in a way that both entertains and educates. I will definitely check out your website! Thanks again for the note!

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