Rotations or a match? (and when to decide)

From John Hossack and Kevin Janes, Graduate Admissions Committee, and Shayn Peirce-Cottler, Graduate Program Director, Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia

For most graduate BME programs around the country, graduate admission proceeds in one of two ways:  1) “Program Admit” where an applicant is admitted and then, through to-be-determined rotations in the first year, must find a thesis advisor willing to sponsor their research; or 2) “Mentor Admit” where the offer of admission is tied to a prespecified thesis advisor.  Our program does not do Program Admit, because we think it is unfair to give applicants an impression that they have access to “any” thesis advisor when in fact they do not.  We do our fair share of Mentor Admit, and we also can accommodate a third path called “Rotation Admit” where an applicant is admitted to a pair or trio of candidate thesis advisors.  

During the application process, is there an optimal strategy for navigating these outcomes, such that it leads to the best possible outcome for the applicant?  We argue yes and will try to lay out that strategy here.

The plan starts with the application.  When filling it out, don’t be afraid to cast a broad net when indicating your research focus or potential faculty interests.  The application gives five open spots to list faculty: use them, and only indicate rankings if you have a strong preference based on your own study of the faculty or prior interactions with them.  If your scientific interests are broad, feel free to list more than one research focus, especially if you will speak to that breadth in your written statement.  The goal of your application packet is to generate as much enthusiasm from as many specific BME faculty as you can based on your application.

As the process moves ahead, your strategy should change.  Take advantage of every interaction with our program and refine (or re-define) that broad-net list of faculty to a shortlist of possible advisors whom you are enthusiastic about and where the feeling is perceived to be mutual.  As a resource, be sure to use students currently advised by the mentors on your shortlist; think about how it would be like to become one of them.  The early interactions can be by email or Zoom, and they should culminate with the in-person visit to Charlottesville.  Prune and prioritize until you can go no further—we will be doing the same.

If, at the end, you have a clear frontrunner, then your preference should be for a Mentor Admit.  Often, applicants feel like they are “missing out” if they don’t get to do rotations; ironically, the opposite is true.  Matched students regularly interact with their mentors in the summer before the first year.  Some work in the lab full time, others iterate with mentors on project ideas and fellowship applications.  The intellectual investment of faculty toward rotating students is lower in the beginning, and the semester of rotations typically adds six months to a student’s graduation timeline.  Therefore, the option of Rotation Admit is not without its tradeoffs.

Some applicants, however, have a strong rationale for Rotation Admit.  Maybe you are changing fields or deciding between two fields and need an in-lab exposure to arrive at the best decision.  Perhaps you are coming in with your own fellowship support and have earned the flexibility to “write your own ticket”.  Or there might be a co-mentor arrangement developing where you are mentored by two advisors.  It’s best to think of Rotation Admit as a special case of admissions when the circumstances warrant.  It should not be thought of as a safer way to get an offer of admissions.  Applicants who indicate that they “would be happy to rotate with any three of the following six faculty” are the most likely to fall through the cracks.

In summary:  start flexible, prune continuously and use the in-person interview day to obtain those final pieces of information that yield a well-reasoned preference for Mentor Admit or Rotation Admit.  You are encouraged to ask our students about their match vs. rotation trajectory and how it impacted their early years of graduate study.  Of course, we are also available to serve as resources to help guide you through this process in a way that maximally benefits you and your unique strengths and interests when the time arrives.

John Hossack, PhD, Professor of BME

Kevin Janes, PhD, Professor of BME