Conducting Successful Virtual Rotations for Basic and Biomedical Students

Welcome, first-year students!

We want you to succeed

If you're a first-year student in the basic and biomedical graduate programs thinking about your lab rotations, this is the page for you. This guide was made especially for the COVID-19 era through a collaboration between the Office of Career and Professional Development (OCPD) and the Graduate Division. We'll walk you through the what, how, when, and why of rotations and provide tips for how to navigate a rotation with limited time in-person and on-campus so that you can be sure you find a lab where you can achieve your goals. Also, watch our "Choosing a Thesis Lab" episode of Career Conversations for Researchers in the Age of COVID.

Why do students join labs that aren't a good fit for them?

It happens every year. It can be hard to know what to look for when you're rotating and joining a lab. That's why we made this page. You know that the lab you join will have a big impact on your experience during graduate school and the outcome of your PhD and career. A bad fit can prevent you from acheiving your goals, so it's well worth it to take time now to understand how to identify a bad fit. Taking a few extra minutes now is much easier than trying to be productive in a lab that's a bad fit, or switching labs and starting your PhD all over again.

If working in a lab that's a bad fit is so terrible, why do people do it? There are three reasons students join labs that aren't good fits for them:

  1. They didn't look for red flags,
  2. They didn't see the red flags, or
  3. They denied that the red flags were really red flags.

Watch our short video so you don't make the same mistakes!

How does a virtual rotation compare with an in-person rotation?

You'll need to set up structure.
Expecially in virtual rotations, which may be shorter or have limited time in-person, structure is the best way to make sure that you have the interactions that you need to have a successful rotation.

Your peers can be a source of structure too.
Don't be afraid to discuss your experiences with your classmates. Labs have a tendency to be silos, but you don't have to get stuck in them! Communicating with your own community of classmates is a great way to combat the isolation you may feel and learn about how labs that operate differently. Set up a weekly check-in with a few friends on Zoom.

More communication is required for a virtual rotation to be successful.
This is actually a good thing though. Communication is key for any mentor-mentee relationship, so it's great opportunity for you to practice, and it's a good way to see how well the PI communicates with you before you join the lab.

What should you be communicating about?
Expectations and feedback. You want communication in the beginning of your rotation to center on the expectations that you have, that the PI has, and that anyone you'll be working with has. As you get into your work, ask for and provide feedback on whether expectations are being met.

How to set up structure and communication

  1. Ask in the beginning of your rotation what the expected outcomes are in a best-case, good-case, and worst-case scenario. Ask how they will assess your progress.
  2. Then (either by yourself or with the person supervising you) plan backwards to come up with milestones toward that outcome and place them on the calendar to break up your rotation into chunks.
  3. Plan meetings with the PI (and/or whoever you are supervised by) around the time of these projected milestones. These meetings are a good opportunity to ask for feedback and provide feedback. You'll want to be clear on what kind of feedback you are asking for/providing and how the feedback will be communicated. This will enable you to change your approach during your rotation if needed.
  4. Ask to be invited to all lab meetings, project meetings, and social gatherings so you can see how the whole group interacts.
  5. Set up weekly check-ins with a few of your classmates on Zoom to discuss how it's going in your different labs.


    UCSF offices can help you conduct successful rotations

    Schedule a 1:1 appointment with Learning Resource Services for:

    • Setting up a remote learning environment that works for you
    • Coaching for staying motivated and acheiving goals remotely

    Schedule a 1:1 appointment with the Office of Career and Professional Development for:

    • Identifying your goals or values
    • Finding suitable rotations
    • Navigating a new lab environment
    • Developing strategies for successful rotations
    • Preparing for difficult conversations
    • Choosing a dissertation lab

    Schedule a 1:1 appointment with D'Anne Duncan, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Learner Success for:

    • Navigating graduate school and living in the San Francisco Bay Area
    • Building community and belonging
    • Balancing professional and personal needs
    • Identifying mentorship, leadership, and outreach opportunities
    • Managing interpersonal conflict
    • Navigating difficult conversations
    • Identifying UCSF resources

    Authors of this webpage

    Rachel Care, PhD - Program Manager, Office of Career and Professional Development
    D'Anne Duncan, PhD - Assistant Dean for Diversity and Learner Success

    Upcoming Events


    Alumni Career Paths in Science Communication

    Date: April 21, 2021
    Time: 11 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.