How do I back-out of a verbal agreement to work in a graduate school lab rotation?
May 8, 2006 11:47 AM   Subscribe

I recently got into a graduate school program which would fund me for the next 5 years. The thing is, in the first year I am expected to do lab rotations (3 in total), and I talked with a professor about seriously wanting to join hs group rather enthusiastically without consulting others first.

And now it turns out that everyone from an undergraduate who has worked under him to other professors have said that it is a bad idea to work for this particular professor. However, I have already said a few months ago that I would be commited to work with him, even forgoing my lab rotations because he is an old-school sort of professor who does not want lab rotations (compared to the younger professors who insist upon it). He seemed like a nice person at first glance, but he travels a lot and will probably not be available most of the time for advising etc., and his lab is quite commercial-based. However, a graduate student who works under him and another professor says that he is an old-fashioned type of professor who pushes students but does not teach skills fundamental to a future academic career, such as finding interesting research problems. I should have seen that as a red flag. Also, his post-doc is reputed to be quite cranky as well. It is the end of the semester after finals already, and I am confused as to whether I should email a follow up saying that I don't want to do it anymore (though I don't know how to do so without being rude!), just follow through with it for 1 semester (as his lab is quite established, though known to be a "factory lab" where the graduate students learn to do individual pieces of grunt work), or just disappear as regards to communication with him.
In the future, I would like to keep my options open as to whether to stay in academia or go into industry. This professor did ask up front whether I would be into industry (which his lab would provide good training for), but I did not realize that this would mean burning the academic bridge, so to speak. Hence, any advice would be appreciated regarding the most tactful way to communicate with the professor regarding my backing out. My last email to this professor was approximately a month ago. Also, I will need to find another professor to work under for the next semester. I'm not sure whether I'm being too late though, as the semester starts in August. Does anyone have any experiences regarding lab rotations in general, especially in the neuroscience area? (And what is considered a "cutting-edge" lab/direction of research?) Thank you very much for your help, it is very appreciated! Please email me at my throwaway email: if you require more information.
posted by anonymous to Education (9 answers total)
I actually got into a lab I really wanted to without rotations (neuroscience, even).

If you can find another lab that you are enthusiastic about - either email or meet with this PI and tell him that you got really excited about X and Dr. Y is willing to take you on for X1 project and that that is what you're planning on doing.

If his lab is such a factory, they probably won't mind unless they've set up a financial account for you, bought new equipment, or otherwise invested time/resources in you. Don't worry about it unduly. Good luck!
posted by porpoise at 12:17 PM on May 8, 2006

This isn't a huge deal. You should rotate with him if you think there's a chance you'll want to work with him, but if you're obligated (or expected?) to do 3 rotations anyway you should do so. It is not at all unreasonable or unprecedented to say, after those other two rotatons: "I'm sorry that I'm not going to be able to work with you; I have found that this other lab is a better fit for my interests."

If you think he's anti-rotation in general and you'd rather not work with him at all, I say just tell him that you've decided you're interested in doing work with the aforementioned Dr. Y. Do so politely, but don't be afraid to be firm if Dr. Notsonice gets uppity about it.

The worst that can happen is that Professor Notsonice is grumpy towards you for a while; this is not the end of the world, as he will have no power over you ever again.

Also, now is a good time to confirm your fall rotation, but not too late by any means.

As an aside, if his name rhymes with Dodger Ben then definitely don't do it. </guesses>
posted by metaculpa at 12:25 PM on May 8, 2006

well, certainly don't just drop off the face of the earth and pretend like you never said anything to him. you should speak to him face-to-face and say you spoke to soon, are having second thoughts. don't let him push you around, either - if the department's policy is that you're encouraged to try working in different groups without having to commit to one, then you should do that (if it's what you want.) if he's so unacommodating as to say "you cannot do that with me" then i'd suggest looking elsewhere.

some further thoughts in no particular order:

- you and your supervisor (and the group) ought to have at least some interpersonal chemistry. if you don't get along, you're going to be miserable.

- i don't think that working in a group with industry connections at all excludes you from an academic career. these days (at least in my field, not neuroscience, so i am assuming things here) there is a LOT of overlap and cross-pollination between academia and industry.

- being a graduate student is to some extent all about doing grunt work and churning out publication quanta. this will be more or less true in pretty much any group.

- you sound unsure of yourself. if this is true and you want a good deal of direction and guidance, you may not want someone who's a hands-off sort of supervisor. someone willing to hold your hand can be good for your situation.

- older and established does not necessarily mean "better". older scientists often get stuck in ruts and old modes of thought. most scientists do their best work between the ages of 30-45. depending on the people, it might be better to join a young, dynamic group that will be making waves while you're in it, not someone on the declining end of a career.

- summer is a great time to shop around. some people might be out of town or on leave, but lots of faculty (especially the younger, more motivated sort) will be around during the summer to focus on research.

- if you don't know what it is you want to do, just go to the library and pick up a bunch of journals. flip through them and write down what sort of stuff catches your interest. look for patterns and try to figure out who in your department is working in those areas. also, don't worry about what's "hot". there's a metric fuckton of bullshit hype in the research air these days. do what interests you.

posted by sergeant sandwich at 12:37 PM on May 8, 2006

The graduate program is paying your salary, not the old dude that's stressing you out. Chill out, you'll have lots of options with a program paying your salary rather than a specific PI. You amount to free labor for whoever you decide to work for. That's your upper hand in the negotiating process at this point. Realize that if the old dude wants your free/reduced price labor for 5 years, he may have to wait for you to finish a few rotations.

Your situation is pretty similar to mine when I started grad school. I did my rotations despite the protest of my 'well established, eager to have me' mentor, and then came back and joined his lab. It was a good choice -- both doing the rotations and joining the lab I ultimately graduated from.
posted by u2604ab at 1:19 PM on May 8, 2006

If you don't get along with your advisor (and I don't mean buddy-buddy, I mean if you are physically afraid to be in the same room with this person because of serious interpersonal differences) then your 5 years of grad school might end up being two years of hell and a Masters. Trust me - I know far too many people who burned out despite huge efforts to make it with PIs who were just difficult if not impossible to work with. The kicker is that it depends on you and your goals. In the same labs, others ended up with doctorates, careers and loads of good publications. If you have misgivings now, before you've done anything at all, step back and reconsider while you have a chance.

On the other hand, if you can at least do a rotation with this guy, the worst case scenario is that you spend a few months figuring out that your initial misgivings were well-founded. OTOH you may discover that you really do like the lab. If you must back out, try to do it politely - he may not be your PI, but he might just well come to your talks and ask difficult questions if you piss him off.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:31 PM on May 8, 2006

It's really not a big deal - grad students change their minds all the time (I'm a post-doc in a neuroscience program). I've never known a faculty member to get more than a little frustrated when a student has opted out.

(this is the whole reason why lab rotations are good things! so you can sort out what you really want to do!)
posted by gaspode at 2:07 PM on May 8, 2006

The MOST important thing to do in grad school is to look out for yourself. Otherwise you are fucked. If you are even fleetingly considering going into a known bad situation and possibly screwing up your career prospects to avoid a single uncomfortable conversation you are really fucked. You need to figure out how to deal with this stuff and fast, because it only gets worse.

I don't say this to be mean, I say it as someone who went back to grad school after several years of consulting and was shocked by how the students were treated. And by how they allowed themselves to be treated.

Listen to the wise folks here, keep your options open know your rights and don't be a flake and this will work out fine.
posted by fshgrl at 5:33 PM on May 8, 2006

Yeah, I'd say something similar to all the others. I've been in grad school since 1998 (two masters degrees, currently on my PhD) so I have seen everything that could possibly happen to a grad student. My best advice - do something about a bad situation as soon as you know (like you have) rather than quietly wait it out and see if it'll get better. Just tell the prof. that you would like to do rotations (since you're coming straight from an undergrad and would like to broaden your interests before starting focused research). That way you don't burn the bridge. If after three rotations you decide that you want to work with him, do that.

Also, remember, its never too late to leave a bad situation. My Masters advisor screwed me over a year and a half into the program. My committee, with whom I had a really good relationship, bailed me out. So its VERY IMPORTANT for you to develop good relationships with as many professors as you can, soon. Doing the rotation is a really good way to do this. Develop relationships soon and don't feel afraid to approach people with a problem if you're having a rough time w/ your advisor.

Grad school is rough but be prepared for the mental challenge and you'll ride through fine. Good luck!
posted by special-k at 6:28 PM on May 8, 2006

Go back and reread the first paragraph of fshgrl's comment.

Then go sign up for 3 rotations, none of which are going to be in Dr. Fucker's lab, and feel good that you dodged that particular bullet.

Keep dodging bullets long enough and you will one day be emeritus.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:55 PM on May 8, 2006

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