IMPORTANT: All rotation students must email Hong Lan (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your signed rotation form prior to your start date of the program.
BME PhD students awarded a Training Grant Fellowship by the department at Johns Hopkins have the option to do rotations for up to a full year before choosing a laboratory and mentor. Some of you may choose to take advantage of this, some of you may decide that the lab you start in is the right fit and choose not to rotate elsewhere. The purpose of the rotation is to find the best fit and match among faculty and new students.
How does the rotation generally work and how long is it supposed to be?
Unlike other PhD programs with rotations, the guidelines and timeline for BME rotations is not clearly defined, and this is an advantage to BME students. You may start or stop your rotations as you wish. This will help you work around the medical school course schedule during your first year. If you choose to do 3 rotations, for instance, one common schedule is to do one rotation your first semester, one your second semester, and one over the Summer, but this is very flexible. Most rotations are 3-4 months in length, but can be much shorter or longer depending on your circumstance. Whatever the situation, clear communication between you and the rotation professor is critical. Anytime you begin or complete your rotation, the BME department requires that you update your BME student reporting page. There is a requirement to complete a short description of what you accomplished during each rotation, as well as upload your signed rotation/mentor agreement forms.
How do rotations get set-up?
In almost all cases, you must initiate the rotation by contacting the professor. It is also up to you to actively seek out professors to work with, make sure they have funding to take new students, and plan out your first year. Generally, all it takes to set up a rotation is a friendly email to the professor expressing interest, explaining your background, and asking to meet. There is no need to send them your CV unless you feel it is appropriate. Since professors receive many emails daily, the more succinct your email, the better.
How do I choose the right mentor?
The rotations are meant to help you choose. The amount of time you work in a laboratory will expose you to the work environment, team members, and the skills of your potential mentor. In most cases, student will choose to rotate with professors whose research most closely match their own research interests. However, after working with that particular professor and team, you may decide that the environment is not ideal for you individually. In such cases, you simply communicate this to your rotation professor, complete your rotation time as agreed, and go on to find another professor of interest for the next rotation.
To allow you even more flexibility, funding under the department’s fellowship training grant for the first year covers all your expenses (excluding research expenses in the laboratory), so professors don’t have to fund you during your rotations. However, unless you have an external fellowship like the NSF-GRFP or Hertz, the professor will be required to start funding you if you choose to join their laboratory at the beginning of your second year. It is important before you start your rotation to discuss with the professor whether they plan to have the funding to take a new full time PhD students after the end of your 1st year. The funding situation for the laboratory may not be clear upfront because it changes every year, so it is up to you to talk to the professor and assess the likelihood that you will have a spot in the laboratory after your rotation if you choose to accept it. In most cases a professor will not give you clear-cut answers before you rotate because it depends on many factors, including your performance during your rotation. Generally, if you make a strong positive impact during your rotation, a professor will most likely accept you as a long term student unless there is a funding problem (and if so, you should know this long before your rotation ends).
Also keep in mind that if the professor offers you a spot in his/her laboratory, and you choose to do another rotation afterwards, that the professor is not obligated to hold the spot for you. Make sure that you and your professor communicate clearly about whether a spot is open for you, and never assume. This is yet another reason that clear communication between you and your potential mentor is crucial. Regardless of previous verbal commitments, continue to periodically verify where you both stand. Some students have unexpectedly been told near the end of a rotation that there is not space or funding for the professor to take them on as a student. You can avoid such surprises through effective communication and being professionally assertive when you need an answer.
If you haven’t starting contacting professors already, you should begin now. Take this Spring/Summer to read over faculty websites/publications, and start emailing the ones with whom you are interested in rotating with. If you are not sure, you still have some time to make an arrangement once you arrive on campus in the Fall. Experience among current BME students has shown that persistence is the key to getting a professor to respond. If they do not answer emails, call their office. If they do not return phone calls, stop by their office when you have time. Lack of response from them does not mean they are uninterested. Instead, it speaks more to how busy they are and how endless their email inbox is. Ultimately, they are more interested and willing to work with students willing to go the extra mile, so our advice to you is to be professionally and respectfully assertive.