Applying to Graduate School 101: Choosing a Lab

A view of a laboratory in Atwood Chemistry Center through the window of a hallway "study pod."
A view of a laboratory in Atwood Chemistry Center through the window of a hallway “study pod.”

This Fall, we are publishing a special series of blog posts about applying to graduate school–at Emory and in general. Our goal is to demystify the application process and help applicants feel confident as they seek a home for their graduate studies. This post provides advice on researching and choosing a laboratory home for the PhD.

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In the natural sciences, graduate students eventually join a specific lab. At some schools, the lab selection process happens during the application process or immediately after students arrive on campus. When you arrive at school, you will complete department requirements, such as coursework and TA assignments, but you will immediately focus your research effort by joining a specific lab. At other schools–Emory included–laboratory selection is a longer process.

What is a research rotation program?

At Emory specifically, we offer a research rotation program. The research rotation program requires students to spend about five weeks in three different labs. (Occasionally, students are able to arrange to complete a fourth rotation by beginning their graduate studies in the summer. ) We take our research rotations seriously and feel that they provide unique and important training for our students. First and foremost, students have 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. Additionally, students benefit from becoming familiar with the research and resources of labs other than the one they ultimately join. It is common for students to ask rotation advisors to be a part of their dissertation committee (at Emory, this committee is actually convened in the second year so that they can evaluate other program milestones, such as our Second Year Qualifying Exam and Fourth Year Original Research Proposal.)

For applicants, the fact that Emory offers rotations means that they are accepted into the graduate program instead of any one specific lab. As a consequence, admissions decisions are not made by any single member of the faculty but by a graduate committee. It’s 100% appropriate to communicate with faculty whose research interests you, but these individuals cannot offer you admission and you are not required to make a commitment to a lab prior to completing rotations. After rotations are over, students submit their ranked choices for a laboratory home and faculty meet to make final decisions. Most students end up in their first choice because they have used the rotation program to determine where they best fit.

We do ask that applicants identify up to three faculty of interest on the application. This is really important! You do not have to rotate with the three people you select, but your selections let us know that you’ve done your homework (or not) and selected labs that fit with the research interests you’ve described in your application. If your research experience is all in inorganic labs and you select three physical chemistry faculty, it would be helpful to address your intention to shift your focus within the application–otherwise, 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. So, tell us about that pchem course you aced or the research on astrochemistry that changed your career plans.

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 at Emory is to read our faculty websites. This will be true for most other schools, too! On our department website, 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 marked faculty who are accepting students for next year with an asterisk on our Research page. If the 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. Another thing to consider is whether someone is junior or senior faculty. “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. Senior faculty may have the resources to build a larger group or might already have established projects in your area of interest. 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. 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.

Additional Resources:

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Ready to apply? Visit chemistry.emory.edu/apply. Applications are due by December 1st, 2018 for entry in Fall 2019.

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