The UCSD Bioengineering department has a rotation program to help incoming MS (Plan I, thesis-based MS) and PhD students choose an advisor. Since this is a decision that will affect the rest of your career, and it can be tough to know what to look for while rotating, the Bioengineering Graduate Society (BEGS) has compiled some answers to frequently asked questions about how to make the most of your rotations.
What is the rotation program?
A "rotation" is approximately one quarter long research experience in a professor's lab to determine whether the lab and student are a good match before the student commits to the research lab for his or her thesis/dissertation research. Rotations are optional but highly recommended. Each rotation timeline and availability is generally decided by the PI.
Technically only incoming PhD students can do “official” rotations, i.e. sign up for rotation units in the course BENG 298L. MS (Plan I, thesis-based MS) students can do “unofficial” rotations; they cannot sign up for BENG 298L, but they can test out a lab with a PI’s permission and sign up for research units in BENG 299. Besides what units you enroll in, the rest of this advice is mostly applicable for both “official” and “unofficial” rotations.
Who can do a rotation?
All incoming PhD and MS (Plan I, thesis-based MS) students can do a rotation, even if you entered UCSD with a different professor in mind. Upon a PI's approval for a rotation, PhD students enroll in BENG 298L for a rotation. (Once a PhD student commits to a lab, the student should enroll in BENG 299 units.)
MS students who want to do an “unofficial” rotation, i.e. test out lab fit, can sign up for BENG 299, which is the same course they will sign up for once they commit to a lab.
For PhD Students
PhD students can rotate with up to four labs (fall, winter, spring, and summer after your first year). You can also rotate with the same lab more than once.
For MS Students
There is no official limit on the number of “unofficial” rotations an MS student can do. However, considering the degree time limit of 7 quarters, it is recommended that MS students find their lab by the end of the summer after their first year. However, MS students interested in transitioning into the PhD might need to do more “unofficial” rotations than recommended in order to find a PI that will fund their transition into the PhD. You can even do an “unofficial” rotation in a lab without signing up for research units. To find out more about MS to PhD Transitioning, please see our MS to PhD Transition Guide.
Who can I rotate with?
You are not limited to rotating in labs of professors in the Bioengineering department. Usually, only the Bioengineering professors and department affiliated professors show up on the WebReg choices for sections for BENG 299. If the professors you would like to rotate with are not listed when you try to register for your research units, contact Vanessa. If you end up choosing a professor outside the department as your advisor, you will need to find a faculty member with a main appointment in the Bioengineering department to be your co-advisor.
How can you set up a rotation?
Simply email the PI, and if they don’t respond, feel free to follow up with them in one week. If they are teaching a course, you can meet with them after class to speak to them (this is ok even if you aren’t taking the class). PI’s that present during the Wednesday seminar series are typically recruiting students, so you can speak to them after the talk or email them. Save them the extra email by attaching your CV to the email. Make sure to proofread your email to them.
What should my goals be during a rotation?
The main goal for each rotation should be to get a sense of how well you fit with your professor and your labmates. Having a good relationship with your professor and labmates is one of the most critical factors to your success in your PhD program.
It can be helpful to think about how the lab’s research directions line up with your career goals. Specifically, consider whether the skills you will be learning in this lab will be helpful for finding a future job in academia/industry and look into what types of jobs that the lab alumni have moved on to.
Finally, while it is important that you are interested in the research performed in the lab, mentorship/personality fit is often more important to grad student success. If you do not get along with your advisor, the PhD/MS will be a difficult process no matter how interesting the research is. On the other hand, if you get along well with your advisor, you can almost always work together to develop a research project that you’re interested in.
If you are an MS thesis student thinking of transitioning into the PhD, please look at the MS to PhD Transition guide for more tips. You might feel more pressure to be productive during your rotation to convince a PI to fund your transition into the PhD.
How do I balance coursework and research during the first year?
Coursework is an essential part of preparing you for the qualifying exam that PhD students will have to take at the end of their first year. You will need to choose three courses to specialize in for that qualifying exam, and at least two of them must be engineering-oriented. For the foreseeable future, Transport Phenomena and Biomechanics are two of the most tested subjects, so a strong understanding of both of those courses will be beneficial. In general, your third quarter (spring quarter) will be the most coursework intensive, so it is recommended to make the most out of your rotations in the fall and winter quarters. At a minimum, having a regular presence in the lab is highly advisable because it helps form a positive impression among lab members and the PI. Although coursework can give a broad overview of a particular field or strengthen weaknesses, learning the cutting edge concepts and research directions of the particular field of interest will ultimately be the most helpful in defining your MS or PhD thesis.
Who can I rotate with?
You are not limited to rotating in labs of professors in the Bioengineering department. Usually, only the Bioengineering professors and department affiliated professors show up on the WebReg choices for sections for BENG 299. If the professors you would like to rotate with are not listed when you try to register for your research units, contact Jan or Vanessa. If you end up choosing a professor outside the department as your advisor, you will need to find a faculty member with a main appointment in the Bioengineering department to be your co-advisor.
What questions should I ask a professor to get a sense of their mentorship style?
Ask the PI about their preferred mentorship style. Some professors will naturally be more hands-on and will be involved in planning experiments and analyzing data, while other professors (typically with larger labs) will be less hands-on. For advisors that are less hands-on, ask if there are lab members (typically postdocs or senior grad students) who can act as mentors for newer students and with whom you can regularly meet with one-on-one. Make sure that you will be able to get the mentorship you need, as it is one of the keys to grad student success.
Ask the PI about what the expectations for a grad student in the lab are. Different professors have different expectations for their students, and it is important to make sure those expectations line up with what you want out of your research experience.
What questions should I ask the graduate students in the lab to get a sense of the PI's mentorship style?
Ask again about the professor’s mentorship style, as it is helpful to also get the grad students’ perspective. See if the grad students feel like they are getting the support they need to succeed in grad school, and whether that is through the professor or through postdocs or more senior grad students. Some PIs will mentor their students with a variety of styles more suited to what each student needs. Generally, this is a good indication that the PI can adjust their mentorship style to fit your needs with the different phases of your PhD. However, some PIs are not as agile.
Ask the grad students in the lab how the professor prefers to communicate. The reality is that some professors will be more blunt, and some will be more sensitive, and having a mentor that communicates in a way that you prefer can be very helpful over the course of a PhD.
Ask about how the professor responds to failure. For example, whether or not the advisor will help students troubleshoot failed experiments, or whether the professor has a tendency to react negatively.
Ask what their experience has been with work/life balance, specifically things like taking vacations or family events. Also, ask about what the expectations for working hours in the lab are.
Where can I go if I have more questions?
BEGS hosts events and panels centered around mentorship, so keep an eye out for email announcements and subscribe to our calendar! You can also just pop into any BEGS social event and ask around for advice. Feel free to contact the mentorship chair.
If you have enrollment/degree progress related questions, contact Vanessa.