Choosing a Research Rotation

Choosing my first research rotation was really difficult. After my acceptance, I was invited back to the school to meet with researchers with whom I was interested in working. The problem was that it was hard to tell who I could work with and who I would want to work with. As is the case with many schools, the websites are not updated frequently, so I would come across a name and then google it, only to find they had left the school 3 years ago. Of course, I had looked at the lists of research faculty in my areas of interest when applying, so I went back to that list and narrowed it down to 6 faculty that I sent to the program director.

My interests range from the broad to the specific, so finding a list of 6 people with whom I could imagine working was not too hard. I knew I wanted to look at substance abuse and/or trauma and mental illness. I also knew that I wanted to work with humans, not animal models. At my school, this narrowed the list considerably.

But the real problem was that I didn’t really know what to look for. Much of the advice I had been given was that what mattered wasn’t so much the mentor’s focus topic, but their mentoring ability and having good history with other students. Of course, that sort of information is not too easy to find online. There is no “rate your professor” website for PhD supervisors (interesting idea though!).

wrong decision
A pretty accurate depiction of how I felt when decided who I wanted to meet with. Source

I sent the 6 names to my program director who chose 3 of them for me to meet during my visit. He told me that he chose those 3 based on their availability and feedback he received from previous students.

Once again, I wasn’t sure what to do in these meetings. I brought a copy of my C.V. for each faculty member. On Twitter, I asked current PhD students and post-docs how to prepare and what to ask during the meeting. The primary response was that it was important to make sure that the P.I. and I would be able to communicate well and that their mentoring style was right for me. I asked another P.I. I knew who told me the most important thing was making the potential supervisor like me as a person – that I should look up their hobbies and try and relate to them; in essence, I was auditioning for them. After all the (sometimes conflicting!) advice, I was decidedly nervous for my meetings!

The meetings themselves were vastly different.

  • Potential Supervisor (P.S.)* 1 and I talked at length for nearly the full time, getting a little lost in a couple of places. I felt that he was genuinely interested and that he seriously engaged with me on my previous neuroethics work despite not having an ethics background himself. He also shared his ideas of mentoring and how he mentors his students. I came away from that meeting very excited about doing a research rotation.
  • P.S. 2 was very interesting, but I was put off by the “test” questions he seemed to ask about my work. It was simply his style, which did not seem to be fundamentally aggressive or mean, but it did not really “gel” with my own style.
  • P.S. 3 talked a lot about things people were doing wrong in the field and how I shouldn’t also do things wrong. (Naturally, he was more specific and it was not an altogether unhelpful conversation, but the specifics don’t matter here). My main problem was that he was espousing what was his opinion as fact. His research was also a lot more computational that I was hoping for.

I am sure you can tell which was my favorite. Not only was the interaction the most pleasant (and educational), but his research was the most aligned with my interests. My biggest piece of advice (given what little I know now) is to choose someone who appears to respect (or at least be willing to listen to) your opinions and ideas, and learn about their mentoring style (which means asking if you must). And, of course, pick an area that actually interests you!

Read my upcoming blog on research rotation 1 to read how it went with P.S. 1!

* Despite not being an anonymous blog, I will try to respect the privacy of others I write about in whatever way I can.

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