in praise of (lab) rotation

I did my PhD in psychology, but in a department that had close ties and collaborations with neuroscience. One of the interesting things about psychology and neuroscience programs is that they seem to have quite different graduate training models, even in cases where the area of research substantively overlaps (e.g., in cognitive neuroscience). In psychology, there seem two be two general models (at least, at American and Canadian universities; I’m not really familiar with other systems). One is that graduate students are accepted into a specific lab and have ties to a specific advisor (or advisors); the other, more common at large state schools, is that graduate students are accepted into the program (or an area within the program) as a whole, and are then given the (relative) freedom to find an advisor they want to work with. There are pros and cons to either model: the former ensures that every student has a place in someone’s lab from the very beginning of training, so that no one falls through the cracks; but the downside is that beginning students often aren’t sure exactly what they want to work on, and there are occasional (and sometimes acrimonious) mentor-mentee divorces. The latter gives students more freedom to explore their research interests, but can make it more difficult for students to secure funding, and has more of a sink-or-swim flavor (i.e., there’s less institutional support for students).

Both of these models differ quite a bit from what I take to be the most common neuroscience model, which is that students spend all or part of their first year doing a series of rotations through various labs–usually for about 2 months at a time. The idea is to expose students to a variety of different lines of research so that they get a better sense of what people in different areas are doing, and can make a more informed judgment about what research they’d like to pursue. And there are obviously other benefits too: faculty get to evaluate students on a trial basis before making a long-term commitment, and conversely, students get to see the internal workings of the lab and have more contact with the lab head before signing on.

I’ve always thought the rotation model makes a lot of sense, and wonder why more psychology programs don’t try to implement one. I can’t complain about my own training, in that I had a really great experience on both personal and professional levels in the labs I worked in; but I recognize that this was almost entirely due to dumb luck. I didn’t really do my homework very well before entering graduate school, and I could easily have landed in a department or lab I didn’t mesh well with, and spent the next few years miserable and unproductive. I’ll freely admit that I was unusually clueless going into grad school (that’s a post for another time), but I think no matter how much research you do, there’s just no way to know for sure how well you’ll do in a particular lab until you’ve spent some time in it. And most first-year graduate students have kind of fickle interests anyway; it’s hard to know when you’re 22 or 23 exactly what problem you want to spend the rest of your life (or at least the next 4 – 7 years) working on. Having people do rotations in multiple labs seems like an ideal way to maximize the odds of students (and faculty) ending up in happy, productive working relationships.

A question, then, for people who’ve had experience on the administrative side of psychology (or neuroscience) departments: what keeps us from applying a rotation model in psychology too? Are there major disadvantages I’m missing? Is the problem one of financial support? Do we think that psychology students come into graduate programs with more focused interests? Or is it just a matter of convention? Inquiring minds (or at least one of them) want to know…

One thought on “in praise of (lab) rotation”

  1. Very interesting.

    In Britain, there is no such thing as rotation at the PhD level. You apply to work in a lab and then you work there for 3 years (or 4 years, increasingly nowadays).

    Like you, I lucked out and picked a great lab for my PhD but I know other people who, although they had no way of knowing in advance, ended up in horrible situations and either hated their PhD years or only survived by switching labs. So I’ve always seen the American system as a better one.

    One thing that is happening in the UK is that you get Masters courses, which include rotations, and then automatic progression to a PhD, generally in the lab you liked best out of your rotations. this seems a good system but it’s only happening on a small scale.

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