Twice a year in the Department of Immunology, newly minted graduate students are tasked with finding a thesis supervisor and lab where they will complete their research. Some students choose a supervisor prior to entry into their MSc or PhD program, while others participate in the Department’s rotation system.

The rotation system in its current format has been in place since the mid-1990s. The majority of incoming students found their thesis supervisors without the assistance of rotations at the time, owing to the limited number of labs to choose from. The influx of newly and cross-appointed Immunology faculty in the early 2000s meant that the number of labs in the Department grew substantially, leading to higher admission rates for students, and thus, the increased popularity of the rotation policy.

Today, the Department accepts anywhere between 15 to 20 students per year, with the large majority of this cohort opting to start their graduate careers with lab rotations. In our Department, each student is expected to spend three to four weeks in at least three labs. It is not unheard of for some students to add fourth or fifth rotations if possible; finding the right lab and advisor for a lengthy graduate degree is not a task to be taken lightly. According to the Department’s previous Graduate Coordinator, Dr. Stuart Berger, careful planning – balancing the numbers of lab openings and incoming students each year with room to spare – has ensured that no admitted student has ever been left without a lab following the rotation period.

Knowing your priorities
New graduate students are attracted to the Department of Immunology by the prospect of top-notch research and supervision. They may not be as aware that the labs in the Department vary in many different respects: to the type of research, size, environment, and location. Learning more about potential destinations can prove essential for incoming students looking to make the most out of the rotation system.

Interviews with prospective labs in the weeks or months prior to the start date help the first-year student to narrow down their choices to a final three. While completing their rotations, these students will undoubtedly seek advice from upper-year students and faculty about the labs they have chosen. Naïve incoming students are easily influenced by the opinions of their senior peers. Although it never hurts to absorb as much information as possible, in the end, the choice should remain a personal one.

Ultimately, the decision of which lab to join once rotations conclude is best made on the basis of honest self-questioning: What type of research project(s) interest me? Labs can focus on fundamental research questions or prioritize translational research that can have a more immediate impact in the clinic. What am I looking for in a supervisor? There are supervisors who will manage your projects and provide feedback on a daily basis, but also ones who may only be able to meet with you once or twice a month. What kind of working environment suits me? Some labs pride themselves on their functionality, while others are packed with personality, both good and bad.

Impressions are mutual
While they consider the pros and cons of each rotation lab for themselves, new students should not forget that they concurrently make an impression on each and every member of the lab. Input from current students and staff about prospective students usually weighs heavily on the PI’s mind when he/she makes the final decision. Add the fact that multiple students rotate through the same labs (even at the same time) and participation in the system can resemble a kind of courtship game.

A hands-off philosophy
Arranging rotations can be a scheduling nightmare for everyone involved. The ideal formula of one student a lab per rotation month rarely reflects reality, where availability of incoming student and accepting supervisor must be taken into account. This can lead to situations where two or more students simultaneously rotate through the same lab. Depending on the personalities involved, this can generate an uncomfortably competitive environment if several students are vying for one opening.

Nevertheless, the graduate committee in the Department of Immunology has always maintained a hands-off approach with rotations as soon as admissions have been finalized. As Dr. Berger mentions, “the goal of the rotation system is to maintain a genuine level of human interaction without interference”. Indeed, the graduate committee does not get involved unless concerns are brought to them directly. “Most of the time, both faculty and rotating students find what they are looking for and everything falls into place,” he adds.
The functionality of the rotation policy is built upon an unwritten code of conduct that all participants are expected to honour. Dr. Berger and the entire graduate committee strongly encourage all incoming students to finish each one of their rotation commitments before deciding which lab to join. The same message is echoed to professors who may have their eyes set on recruiting a star student to their lab. This is done to maintain a degree of civility during the potentially strenuous rotation months.

Not playing by the rules
When a student has a great experience in one of their first rotations, there is the temptation to ask the supervisor of that lab if they can join right away, thereby cancelling their other rotation commitments. Likewise, a professor may try to entice a talented student to join their lab by extending a premature offer before the student rotates in other labs. In this case, a first-year rotating student may find the opportunity hard to decline.

Regrettably, this also denies opportunities for other incoming students and faculty. While rotating, a first-year student may find out that doors have closed in a lab that they were genuinely interested in joining. In this case, should they still commit to that rotation with no chance of becoming a permanent member? Likewise, a professor could learn that one of the students interested in rotating in their lab has already joined another, leaving them with no time to find a replacement.
Indeed, selfish moves like these can trigger a chain-reaction where others follow suit and wrap up their rotations early, potentially affecting a large number of those involved. Unfortunately, this kind of activity has become more common as first-year classes increase in size. A fair number of professors and students have expressed their fears about their peers not giving the rotation system the respect it needs to operate. Frustrated students do have the option of raising their concerns to the graduate committee. Understandably, most first-year students are reluctant to call out fellow colleagues for misconduct due to a fear of authority.

Other systems to consider
Problems like these are by-products of recent growth within the Department and the additional logistical burden of increased admission rates. These factors combined with the lenient code of conduct threaten to undermine the functionality of the current rotation system.

Although our rotation policy does not require a complete overhaul, there are elements from other systems that could be borrowed to complement its utility. In the United States, universities offer rotations in at least three labs for upwards to three to four months in each one, effectively spanning the first year of study. This type of rotation system caters more to the breadth of their PhD programs, which require students to spend close to 10 hours a week in introductory classes during their first year. Given the more specialized nature of our graduate programs – which only require students to take one course in first year – this type of lengthier rotation system may require too much time commitment from everyone involved.

As such, it may be more helpful to look closer to home at how other Departments in the Faculty of Medicine structure their rotation systems. Biochemistry, LMP, and Physiology do not offer rotations and instead require their students to find a supervisor prior to official entry into their graduate programs – a route that remains an option in our Department. Molecular Genetics and Medical Biophysics offer rotation programs if students desire them, but unlike Immunology, both clearly state on their websites that “Students are not allowed to make an official commitment to permanently join a lab until the rotation period is over.” These departments are comparatively larger and have more students and supervisors to accommodate during rotations. The administrative chaos that could ensue if students or supervisors broke the rules would be unmanageable. Our sister Departments in the Faculty of Medicine either bypass the potential muddle of rotations altogether or enforce their completion by keeping a tighter grip on proceedings.

What the future holds
In comparison, our hybrid system occupies a somewhat volatile middle ground. Although Dr. Berger believes that the Department of Immunology’s current system still meets the needs of students and faculty today, he does add that, “owing to the relatively small size of the department, legislative changes to the rotation policy could happen quickly if required.” Whether a change is necessary ultimately depends on the collective opinions of our entire department; most importantly, the faculty and students.

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Hirschey, Matthew. “How to: choose a lab.” Hirschey Lab Resources 25 Oct 2011. 26 Jun 2013 ( Weblog entry.

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“Why choose a lab?” Prof-Like Substance 21 Oct 2009. 25 Jun 2013 ( Weblog entry.

Yewdell, Jonathan W. “How to succeed in science: a concise guide for young biomedical scientists. Part I: taking the plunge.” Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 9.5 (2008): 413-416. Print.

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Michael Le

Managing Editor
Michael is a 4th year PhD student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto studying how B cells diversify their antibodies to fight infections. He enjoys staying active, playing board games, and supporting his beloved Arsenal FC.

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