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Gerty-Z

I am starting my lab as an Assistant Professor at a Big Research University (summer 2010). I have a super partner and an adorable kiddo, Mini-G. I tend to rush into things and then figure them out as I muddle along. I'm sure that will be true here, too. I hope to use this space to maintain my sanity and share my perspectives on science and academia. These perspectives may sometimes qualify as rants. There will undoubtedly be some crazy times on the tenure track. Gmail me [at] primaryinvestigator

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I'm looking for some insight from folks out there that are (or interact with) new graduate students. You see, I would really, really like to get 1 or 2 good students this year to get my lab kick-started. Where I'm at there are several sources of students: the department, a MD/PhD program, and 3 different multidisciplinary "umbrella programs". In order to get any of these students to join my lab, I first need to convince them to rotate. I've done pretty well getting attention from the students in my home department. But it is really difficult to find a way to interact with these umbrella programs as a n00b faculty. But the other day I got my "in". One of these programs, that has really good students, is having a poster session*.

Now, I know how to make good posters, IMHO. And I'm familiar with Dr. Zen's excellent advice. The thing that sort of trips me up is the whole "new grad student" part. What are they thinking? How can I get them excited about my lab? It has been a while since I was a new grad student, and I never had PIs standing next to a poster to woo me. It has also been a while since I spent a lot of time with new grad students. There weren't all that many students at Big Postdoc Inst. I've kind of been in a bubble, student-wise.

So here's my question: what should one include on a poster to get new graduate students excited and convince them to rotate in my lab?


OK, I'm sorry. There is no bacon in this post. But I do love bacon. Yummmm.

 

*It's like a bizarro-world "social". The PIs are supposed to stand up and give posters and the students mill about getting "familiar" with the faculty. I assume only new faculty go to these things, but I have no idea really.

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JaySeeDub
Dub C Med School
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Not necessarily something you can add to the poster, but something that I feel is critical - Enthusiasm.  Some of the non-med rotations I'm doing, I signed up for because the PI was enthusiastic.  I saw a couple presentations where the work looked interesting, but the PI did not look like they wanted to be there.  Scowling and answering in monosyllable does not attract me.  If you don't want to be there, why would I care what you're doing?  How do I know you're not some jerk who didn't want to be there in the first place, and if I sign up is just going to glower and yell at me for 4-6 weeks because I moved your pens .3mm to the right?


And please don't pull the used car salesman routine when I'm leaving.  It was interesting, but I have a couple other rotations that I'd like to go through, asking if I'm going to come back and forget the other rotations is kinda creepy.  I'm afraid that if I say, "No," you'll throw my pet rabbit in the stock pot.


I liked going through rotations.  It meant getting familiar with a lot of different disciplines and aspects of of the same discipline.  It really wasn't the posters or the catalog description that got me interested in most of them, though.  It was getting a chance to talk to the PI and the people in the lab.  If they sounded like they were really into what they were doing, then I felt that it was something that I probably shouldn't pass up.


melissasbench

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Yes enthusiasm is the #1 most important factor.  Also, you should not hesitate to talk about the non-science positives your lab has --  how you are trying to create an enjoyable and intellectually satisfying group environment, how you have startup funds to catalyze interesting projects, how you are physically and mentally there more because you are just starting out, how you are driven to help them succeed, you are too small to allow people to flounder around aimlessly, your eagerness and ability to be a good mentor, etc.  Students pay attention to these things, or rather they pay attention to the horror stories they hear about labs where these things aren't there.  This will make them more comfortable thinking noob=better overall experience, greybeard=not always so awesome.


 


melissasbench



biochem belle
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One of the programs at my grad univ had these sessions. We had a good mix of senior grad students and faculty at all levels who showed up to 'sell' their labs. I think our lab's poster was pretty good for this sort of thing. The key parts were keeping it simple and keeping to a broad overview. There wasn't much data on the poster, mostly 'big picture figures' and not much in the way of text, except a list of current students and postdocs and a couple of straight-forward figure legends. It was really more of a guide for us to take people through our research program. We had 3 major project areas that tied into a central theme, so I would start off briefly explaining the central theme, then highlight the 3 areas, then ask if there one are they were specifically interested in. As possible, we'd have someone working in each area there so we could hand them off :) As Jay said, enthusiasm is key. Also keep it fairly simple (remember, they are first year students, and if your program is anything like mine was, there's a wide range of backgrounds). It's good to highlight methods and opportunities, but no reason to get too technical.



Genomic Repairman
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Enthusiasm, enthusiasm, enthusiasm.  Sit down and talk to them for a while.  If you engage them in conversation or invite them to tour your lab they will see that you care.



Odyssey
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What bb said. You don't want to overwhelm them with information they won't understand. Keep it simple. That approach also leaves the door open for questions from the students which lets you interact with them more and gives you some insight into the students doing the asking.



Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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Yes! Everyone's advice is spot on. Highlight your big picture problems, and what cool techniques you use to answer them. When i started my grad program I had a pretty limited background, and so the labs that could relate their work to things like mental illness were the ones that caught my eye. And yes, if you're genuinely excited by your work, your students will be, too!



becca
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1) Enthusiasm


2) don't talk over their heads


3) If you're getting one who is asking good followup questions, you're doing it right. (also, smile at them and mention you're looking for students)


4) Be prepared. Right now, no one knows you. You get *one* student who has a good rotation (gets good data, learns a new technique and/or gets to interact a lot with you) and they will talk to others, an d you'll get a flock. You will soon have more than you know what to do with. Decide how you will decide on picking a student sooner rather than later, and you will also get a rep for fairness. And never, ever disucss with the first students you pick how you didn't realize you'd be able to get such good ones and you wish you hadn't been so hasty in your first decisions (true story).



Geeka
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When I was an incoming student, I did my rotations in labs that had good funding and the PI seemed like I could talk to.


 


I ended up choosing my lab because the PI and I had a 20 minute conversation about sheep not climbing stairs in the middle of the class he taught.


 


My experiences may not be representative, but I graduated in 2008, and the PI and I still have drinking lunches together.


EcoPhysioMichelle

Guest Comment

Things that I'd be paying attention to are (in order of importance)


1) Is this PI a creepazoid?


2) Funding. Does this PI have funding or would I need to find my own if I joined their lab?


3) Lab Philosophy. What kinds of questions is this PI interested in answering and do those (at least broadly) line up with my own?


4) Methods. What methods is this PI using in their lab and will I be able to use those methods to answer my questions, or will I have to develop my own? If everything else fits except this one, does the PI have colleagues with access to machines, etc. that I could collaborate with?



Donnie Berkholz
Mayo Clinic
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I'm pretty much the opposite of Dr. Becca. Because I had done research as an undergrad, I had a good idea of what kind of lab I wanted to join. I picked labs based on the primary techniques/approaches (protein structure determination), not on what problem they were working on. Almost everyone with money works on something important, and I didn't have any particular ties to one problem or disease. Enthusiasm was also a major factor.


After a rotation, things like personality meshing and whether I was having fun and not burning out became important, too.



Jason Goldman
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Hand out free beer and bacon.



Genomic Repairman
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Dude I'm joining your lab if you have booze and bacon.  Just tell me where to ship my clothes and my pipets.



Prof-like Substance
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<i>If you were an incoming graduate student, how would you choose where to rotate?</i>


 


Someplace fairly open, and clock-wise. Always clock-wise.



27 and a PhD
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When I started in grad school I didn't have a clue of what I wanted to do for my PhD. I knew I didn't want to a) do cancer like 60% of my class, b) do neuro (I'm far too dumb to understand neuro) or c) pharmacology (it ties in perfectly withh b). So instead I went to the poster sessions of the departments I really liked (biochem, biophysics, chemistry). I talked to profs who I had heard about before (I had a few friends at PhD-granting institution). They gave me the heads up on who was good and who wasn't. One thing that helped me narrow the field was that I was looking for someone motivated, passionate, nice and excited about their job, without seeming too needy. It greatly upsets me when someone is needy. Fortunately there was a student at the poster from the lab I did my PhD in and after I talked to the PI (which was nice, gracious, very well dressed and eager to start up a conversation without being too needy) I asked the grad student for more meat (details). I asked how her temperament was (whether she was nice all the time, or bitchy), and said student had never seen PhD PI in a bad mood (I only saw her once, ONCE in my whole PhD and she was pissed at some IT crap thing that had nothing to do with the lab). So, in summary, PhD boss was a) dressed to impress, b) not too eager, but not snobby either, c) had BEAUTIFUL pictures in her poster, meaning, like I was drawn to that (and the potential to produce pictures and data that looked like that) like a bee to honey, and d) people spoke volumes about her demeanour. Since you are starting, you are more than likely kicking ass on a-c, so instead I'd say, bring copies of your papers and have concrete ideas at hand of what the potential students could be working on, along with a possible timeline. If your research is close to what you did for your grad degree or postdoc, then give a realistic timeline of how you got to where you're at in how long. Hope it helps! best of luck Dr. G!



27 and a PhD
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Oh! And funding!! No funding, no student.



Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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Oh, and I'll tell you what not to do--


Under no circumstances, do not accost a first-year grad student immediately after said first-year grad student has finished performing in the first-year grad student show, and while first-year grad student happens to be dressed a little like a prostitute (FOR THE SHOW), adamantly insisting that the first-year grad student do a rotation in your lab, promising you can come up with any project to meet her interests. It is creepy and weird, and will probably have the opposite of the intended effect.



Odyssey
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Dr. Becca, you've led an interesting life...



27 and a PhD
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Dr Becca, Ph.D. said:

Oh, and I'll tell you what not to do--



Under no circumstances, do not accost a first-year grad student immediately after said first-year grad student has finished performing in the first-year grad student show, and while first-year grad student happens to be dressed a little like a prostitute (FOR THE SHOW), adamantly insisting that the first-year grad student do a rotation in your lab, promising you can come up with any project to meet her interests. It is creepy and weird, and will probably have the opposite of the intended effect.




Hahaha, Dr Becca, you kill me. Yes, this ties in perfectly with what I said, if a PI seems too needy, too eager, too soon it gives our red flags like you have NO idea. You just want to run the other way and not see this person ever again.

Donnie Berkholz
Mayo Clinic
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Dear Dr. Becca,


Although I'm sure it was unintended, your use of a double negative implies that you recommend accosting. =) "Under no circumstances, do not accost ..."



Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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Dear Donnie Berkholz,


Thanks for your note. And you're totally right--double negative, whoops!  I meant to say, "Under any circumstances, do not" or "Under no circumstances should you..." or "Something that is a really bad idea no matter the circumstances is" or "There is no imaginable circumstance under which I'd advise you to..."


OR


The fact that I prefaced my comment with "what not to do" might be construed as yet another negative, thus bringing me back to positive side of things, original intended meaning preserved!  Of course, this is not how I planned things, but....I feel like you could see things from both sides :)



Gerty-Z
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thanks for the input! I was a little curious if new students would like more of an overview poster (that is what I would do if it were talks instead of posters) or if they would be impressed by a lot of cool data. I think that I will go with an overview that has some pretty pics/data as examples.


I will also be sure to be enthusiastic but not needy or creepazoid. And I will not accost any students, especially those dressed like prostitutes (I don't think there is a show, so I will be extra careful not to approach any prostitute-looking students). $ isn't an issue for me, so maybe I'll make sure to list my funding on the poster to make it clear I have cash-on-hand for students.


GR: I always have booze in the lab, and bacon can be easily arranged. Start packing! I don't just limit the selection to beer, though, because I have a rotation student that is gluten-intolerant. So we have some MFJ (for everyday) and fancier scotch for happy occasions. I also have a tech that can't eat dairy. I swear, sometimes bringing food in for the lab is a mine field!! But bacon would make everyone happy Smile


 


PLS: I hope you aren't getting too dizzy. I wonder, if you went to the Southern hemisphere for your training would that affect your rotation patterns?


 



Prof-like Substance
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I'll find out next time I'm down there.



Tideliar
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1. boobs


2. MFJ


3. Weed


D. moar boobs


8. LOLcatz



Gerty-Z
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Dr. Becca--be honest. You ended up joining that lab, didn't you?



Tideliar
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TL;DR but really, nothing? Boobs? Cheap gutter humour? Nothing?


Damn you high strung science types.



JaySeeDub
Dub C Med School
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...what if the prospective grad students are gay men?  They're not gonna want the boobs.



Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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@Gerty Ha! No, I ran screaming, I swear!


@Odyssey - In some ways, perhaps...in others, mind-numbingly predictable. Will tell all when you come to NY and we have whiskey!



Tideliar
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Actually, a serious answer as someone who began his career in a very different system.


The idea of a student needing to do rotations alarms me. My first thought is of one of those Xtranormal cartoons, "I want to go to graduate school. I want to be a professor". If you don't know know what you are interested in, if you don't know what you are focused on, how can you be in graduate school and about to devote your life for the next 5+ years to something?


"Oh the PI was really cool, so I went to her lab." is just about the stupidest way of making a life changing decision I can imagine. I've seen students doing rotations in immunology, oncology & neuroscience. I would flat out refuse to have anything to do with such a fool. Such lack if focus betrays a fundamental lack of basic biological knowledge and a clear lack of career focus.


When I went to graduate school I refused to do any rotations (I knew which lab I wanted to work in and why. I also had previous experience from being a technician). This is partly why i also finished almost a year ahead of my peers, but I digress. The other students my cohort demononstrated, in most cases, focus however. No one seriously considered trying out three labs in three different fields. They might try a couple of neuro labs to figure out if mice/flies or imaging/electrophys  were their cup of tea, but definately not different fields.


You'd have been thrown off campus!


Now, I appreciate my background is significantly and substantially different to my American cousins though. My undergraduate degree was in Biology and was only biology, focused on biology. For 35+ hrs/week for 3 years. It prepares you for a different outlook on graduate school. Furthermore, at least when i was a lad, in the UK graduate positions were advertised in Nature and one competed for them.


In the States 12 might join one program. In the UK 12 might fight for one position.


 



Genomic Repairman
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I am a supporter of the rotation system.  I agree with what Tiddles says, but the UK system is better set up to not have rotations but I think they are critical in the US.  And based upon a previous article I believe CPP agrees.  I was a technician and had a fairly good idea of what I was going to do in my MS and my PhD and ended up going into completely different fields from what I originally intended due to my rotations.  Besides I think that the rotation systems helps to keep some PI's on the straight and narrow.  We have some utter shite PI's where I work and they couldn't get students to save their life because while they have stellar professional reputation, they are right fucking tyrants to PIs and we try to fill in prospective students on their reputation as far as mentoring.



Evie
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Umm I’m pretty sure that instating 'pizza wednesday', and 'beer friday' will do the trick.



JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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Hmm, well I have to say I had a completely different experience Tideliar. I did my PhD in the UK, but did one of the new system of 4 year Wellcome Trust PhDs, in which you did a year long Master of Research and rotated around three different labs. The first two labs were chosen for you, all from within the same department, and the third one was a lab of your choosing. I disagree that doing rotations looks bad and makes it seem like you are indecisive. Not everyone going through the rotations will have no focus, or no idea of what it is they want to do in their PhD. The whole point of the rotation system (at least in the UK) was to enable us to experience three different research environments, to get experience with a wide range of techniques, which looks pretty good on your CV, and to learn to quickly adapt to a new field of literature. At the end of each rotation we presented our work in front of the entire department, and also had a poster presentation session with all other postgrad students in the university towards the end of the year.  This was in combination with lectures from key faculty, journal clubs and transferable skills workshops. I think this is a really ideal way of doing things, it weeds out the people who are really going to struggle in a PhD, but still allows them to get a masters without wasting 3 years of their lives (though you can MPhil out after the first year in most programs anyway) and eased us in to what it's like to work in the world of academia, and to do a PhD, and helped us to hone a really good set of research skills before going into our chosen lab for PhD. I for one, felt way more prepared for a PhD and think I probably got off to a quicker and better start. The final rotation could be used to go to your lab of interest if you hadn't already been assigned to it.


"Oh the PI was really cool, so I went to her lab." is just about the stupidest way of making a life changing decision I can imagine. I've seen students doing rotations in immunology, oncology & neuroscience. I would flat out refuse to have anything to do with such a fool. Such lack if focus betrays a fundamental lack of basic biological knowledge and a clear lack of career focus.


Again, I disagree. I don't think that the PI or the lab atmosphere should be the only reason for choosing a lab. In fact I went against the general consensus opinion about my PI for my PhD because I felt it was the most interesting topic, the highest quality research and the best training I could possibly receive. I do however think that these things are a huge part of choosing a PhD lab. The grad school experience is quite often a miserable one and you need at the very least a supportive PI, they don't have to take you out for drinks every Friday or whatever.  But you need to go to a lab to see whether it's a good fit for you personally, everyone has different ideas of what makes a good lab. There's no point doing a PhD in a lab where the supervisor is never around, doesn't care about you or is completely insane!  In most cases I don't think it has anything to do with a lack of focus at all.


I think the rotation system, at least the one I experienced, is a really good thing, I don't think those that rotate or aren't 100% certain about the research path they want to take should be scoffed at.



Tideliar
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Hey, different strokes for different folks. At my grad school and first postdoc we had excellent and motivated students. Rotations worked. At my current place we don't and it's a fuckken disaster half the time.


re: Welcome 4yr fellowships, remember I'm a lot older than you LOL. They were just starting up at Edinburgh and...somewhere else, when I left.



JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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Agreed! Different systems will work for different people, and different institutions will likely implement them better than others. I don't think that rotations should be completely dismissed though, that was all I was trying to say.


The 4 year fellowships were pretty new when I started as well, I think Liverpool had one of the most established ones, I knew of one in Newcastle as well, but they were still pretty much in their infancy. They are much more common now, and I must admit I think they serve the UK system pretty well. Given that we only have a 3 year PhD, I think a 4 year program definitely helps (at least for some people, I'm sure lot's of people don't feel it's necessary) to give a more well rounded experience, more on a par with the European experience.


I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere about you stroking people, but I won't lower the tone!



Tideliar
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Haha, no lowering the tone is one of my responsibilities!


I am actually glad I got the US experience because in retrospect, even though i knew exactly what i wanted to do, I needed the extra time to grow the fuck up. I think a 3yr UK PhD would have not worked for me.



becca
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A mature and focused student will also realize that it doesn't matter what you're interested in, if you get stuck with a bad advisor you will not do good science. Also, you might not graduate. Also, second amendment solutions might begin to sound appealing.

Rotations can also enable a focused student to learn techniques their first pick for thesis lab does not have, forces them to get on good terms with more faculty (and therefore have better options for the thesis committee) and, ideally, helps them meet other lab folks. Basically, they build your professional support network.

But mostly, the  argument I find most compelling in favor of rotations is that many (most?) imaginable mentor/student combinations are suboptimal, and you can't always figure it out if that applies to you without spending at least a little time working together.

The compelling arguments against rotations is that it's still too much of a honeymoon phase to weed out bad matches, and they waste time. If the system is implemented badly, these can outweigh the good.


NatC
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Tideliar said:

I am actually glad I got the US experience because in retrospect, even though i knew exactly what i wanted to do, I needed the extra time to grow the fuck up.


I hear ya.  I was unimpressed with the idea of spending an extra couple of years doing a PhD. But then I grew up and got a helluva lot more experience and opportunities than I would have had if I'd stayed in a 3-year system.

 


JaySeeDub
Dub C Med School
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@becca I had a very horrible mentor/advisor for my 2nd and 3rd years of undergrad.  He was so bad, I left my program for a few years.  Our last meeting ended with me throwing stuff in his office.  When I came back, I picked a former prof I got along with well to be my advisor, and she was waaay better.  She convinced me to go through as many rotations as possible in the first year of grad school, t oget a feel for all the different aspects of my field.

One of those rotations led me to a part time job in Napa that I absolutely fell in love with, and when it came time to figure out if I wanted to pursue my MD, PhD, both or neither, they gave me a hell of an offer to continue cooking there.  I do not regret opting away from the kitchen and "molecular gastronomy," mostly because I still get to do it.  Mostly for my friends and other babydocs (c Tideliar).


Gerty-Z
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I think the rotation system is really good. I don't think that it is reasonable to expect someone coming straight out of undergrad to really know what they want to work on. I don't think that most (especially if they got their undergrad degree in US) have been exposed to enough to have a good enough base to make an informed decision. Particularly if they come from a SLAC.

I rotated in 1. a yeast genetics lab, 2. a molecular biophysics lab and 3. a cell biology lab. They were all great, and I had a better ability to think about each of these fields as a result. I joined the biophysics lab, but then ended up in a molecular physiology/genetics lab for a postdoc.

I guess I still don't have that much focus. I hope we can still be friends, Tiddles. Even if I am #k3rn3d


Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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Pick the guys with lot of enthusiasm. You can figure it out by the way they involve in your poster.

Although enthusiasm is not the sole criterion. Also discuss about their interest.

Describe the new things you would like to do to evoke interest in them.

HFM

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As a student in that approximate age range, I'm looking for two things: sanity and cluefulness.

1) Sanity.  That's a broad term - mostly, I'm wondering if we could spend five-plus years working closely together without killing each other.  Are you unable to put down your CrackBerry?  Do you stare at my tits?  Are you fixated on your pet hypothesis, and will I go under the bus if I prove it wrong?  Do you play favorites?  Will I be written off as unserious if I go home before midnight, or (gasp!) go on a date?  When you have a bad day, will you look for any plausible excuse to scream at me?  Inquiring minds want to know.

2) Cluefulness.  Especially for new PIs, it's important that they have it together - I can't judge them on their record, just on their plan.  I want to know that they understand what a fundable, tractable research problem is.  I want to know that they can make strategic decisions based on the data and resources at hand; that's their job, after all, and that's what I came here to learn by example.  Ideally, there should be a near-term plan in addition - here's the lab, here's the funding, here's the big idea, now here are the awesome experiments that could be done tomorrow (if only there were some minions to do them!).

And I agree with Becca: grad students talk.  Do right by your first couple of rotation students, and soon you'll have a herd of them knocking on your door.


Gerty-Z
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Thanks for stopping by, Pradobh and HFM! I especially like Cluefulness as something to aim for.

I am working hard to make sure my first rotation student is doing OK. I even brought gluten-free snacks to lab meeting!

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