Applying 411

Choosing a lab

In the natural sciences, graduate students eventually join a specific lab. Scholars contribute to the research in that lab while working towards a dissertation project.

  • Join now: At some schools, the lab selection process happens during the application process or immediately after students arrive on campus – scholars immediately focus research effort by joining a specific lab.
  • Join later: At other schools–Emory included–laboratory selection is a longer process managed via a research rotation program.
  • Your choice: Some schools offer a choice between rotations or direct advisor selection

What is a research rotation program?

A research rotation program requires students to spend time in multiple labs while deciding where to pursue the PhD. At Emory, students spend about 3.5 weeks in 3 different labs.

We take our research rotations seriously and feel that they provide unique and important training for our students. Benefits of rotations include:

  • An opportunity to get a feel for different laboratories and select the lab that is the best fit for them in terms of both science and lab culture
  • Opportunities to become familiar with the research and resources of labs other than the one they ultimately join leading to future collaboration, such as membership on the dissertation committee
  • More time to balance research and the transition to graduate school – scholars are more advanced when they do join a lab

Many programs that have adopted rotations are also influenced by the fact that some funding agencies prefer or require a rotation program as a method to enhance collaborative training and student choice.

Applying to a rotation program

For applicants, the fact that Emory offers rotations means that they are accepted into the graduate program instead of any one specific lab.

  • Zoom in: Admissions decisions are made by a graduate admissions committee instead of a single faculty member
  • Yes, but: It’s fine to communicate with faculty whose research interests you – just remember that no one faculty member can offer you admissions or commit to including you in your lab without rotations

Even programs with rotations will want to know which faculty you might be interested in working with. Mention some faculty by name and add some specifics about their work that interest you and/or relate to your past experience.

At Emory, we ask that applicants identify up to five faculty of interest on the application. Applicants do not have to rotate with the five people they select, but the selections let us know that they’ve done their homework and selected labs that fit with the research interests described in the application.

Context is key when describing faculty of interest.

  • Avoid non-specific praise: “Dr. Rai’s work is so cool!” – This is kind, but not very useful. Show that you understand the work by referring to it with specifics and connecting it to your past experience.
  • Explain your interest. Why do you want to work with these people?
  • Make it make sense: If you want to move into an area you don’t have experience in, but that can look like a red flag if you don’t explain it.
    • Example: Your research experience is all in inorganic labs but you select three physical chemistry faculty of interest.
      • If you don’t explain….we might think you don’t understand the research you’re telling us you’re interested in or that you want to do something for which you are unprepared.
      • If you do explain…hearing about all those pchem courses you aced or the research on astrochemistry that changed your career plans shows us you’re ready for a new challenge!

How can I figure out my faculty of interest?

It can be challenging to select labs of interest–after all, you’re still applying! The best way to learn about labs is to read faculty websites.

At Emory, we’ve gathered all those faculty websites into one place on our Research page. Keep in mind that faculty websites can quickly get out of date. Once you find someone you’re really interested in, you’ll want to search for their most recent publications and do some reading.

This is also the point where you might reach out to the lab directly–let them know you’ve seen their website and enjoyed reading X paper. Then ask a few questions about what they are working on and let them know you are planning to apply. Even if they can’t commit to having you join their lab, most faculty will appreciate the conversation and be more than happy to update you on what types of research the lab is working on.

If you are applying to a school where you must be accepted into a specific lab, this same process becomes even more important. Don’t write to faculty and ask “what do you work on?” Let them know that you’ve done your research and ask them specific, informed questions.

How do I know if faculty are accepting students?

At Emory, we’ve made it fairly easy to use a filter to see faculty “Accepting Graduate Students” on both the Research and People pages of our website.

If a school doesn’t tell you which faculty are accepting students, faculty titles can be a helpful hint. Faculty with the title of “Lecturer” or “Emeritus” are unlikely to be taking PhD students.

  • Lecturing faculty are usually engaged 100% in teaching.
  • Emeritus faculty may still be working, but are likely to be winding down their research programs.

You’ll want to look for faculty with these titles:

  • Assistant Professor – a pre-tenure faculty member likely to be growing their research group
  • Associate Professor – a post-tenure faculty member with an established research group
  • Professor – a faculty member who has been established in their career for some time

If you still can’t figure out which faculty are accepting students, it makes sense to email faculty directly or to reach out to the program administrator.

Academic institutions are highly ordered places with specific hierarchies for faculty careers. Rank is not a good reason to choose or reject a laboratory placement, but it’s useful to understand that faculty are at all different levels in their own research journeys and that this may affect how they incorporate new students into their group.

Click the tabs to the left to learn more.

Assistant Professor

“Junior” faculty (pre-tenure) are often building their lab and you can get involved in their research on the ground floor, possibly with more responsibility. If a department is hiring in the year you apply to a program, you might even be joining the department at the same time as a new Assistant Professor.

Associate Professor or Professor

Senior faculty may have the resources to build a larger group or might already have established projects in your area of interest. They are also more likely to have multiple alumni of their group, allowing you to ask about career outcomes and other statistics, like how many of their students complete the degree and how long it generally takes.

Senior faculty are more likely to have departmental service responsibilities like serving as Chair, DGS, or DUS that might affect their availability. This isn’t always a drawback – they might also have learned how to manage their time effectively and have a leadership perspective on the department.

Some advanced faculty might be planning to wind down their labs and accept fewer students.

Additional Resources

Next in Applying 411: An interview with a current graduate scholar