Rotation PhD

The Rotation PhD programme is an internationally-leading PhD programme that trains graduate students at the John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory.

It is open to UK, EU and International students.

Applications for the Rotation PhD programme 2020 intake are now closed. Applications for 2021 will open during autumn 2020.

Special features of the Rotation Programme in Plant and Microbial Science include the freedom to select:

  • Three mini-projects in the first eight months
  • Both the topic and the supervisor for your main research project

During the first rotation year, you will undertake 10-week research projects with three different supervisors located in either of the two partner institutes.

You will learn from your fellow rotation students in this multidisciplinary programme through a fortnightly journal club and through research presentations at the end of each mini-project.

You will be mentored by the programme tutor, a senior academic and a rotation student from the previous year-group.

You will rapidly become familiar with a wide range of scientific approaches that encompass:

  • Plant science
  • Microbiology
  • Biological chemistry
  • Applied mathematics
  • Computational biology
  • Systems biology
  • Genetics
  • Genomics
  • Crop science
  • Cell biology
  • Molecular biology

The objective is for you to gain broad technical and theoretical training prior to the selection of a main research project and supervisor leading to the submission of a high-quality PhD thesis within a total of four years.

This is the longest running rotation programme in non-medical sciences in the UK with a proven track record in research training and academic excellence since 2003.

The four-year studentship includes a generous stipend to cover living expenses, university registration fees and research costs/training funds.

This programme involves the John Innes Centre and another internationally leading research institute in Norwich, The Sainsbury Laboratory. You will be registered for your degree at the University of East Anglia.

The Rotation Programme

A traditional PhD studentship has a pre-defined research project and supervisor. By contrast, a rotation PhD programme allows you the student to select several mini-research projects in the first year before choosing a topic and supervisor for your main research project.

A key objective of any PhD is to train students to become independent thinking scientists. The empowerment of the student on the rotation programme instils independence of thought right from the start. We place a strong emphasis upon a student-led approach to the PhD.

This programme is therefore suitable for the very best students who are ready to embrace independence together with a thirst for training in a broad range of multidisciplinary skills to develop their own PhD project and launch their research careers.

Our rotation programme was the first in plant and microbial science in the United Kingdom, having been established in 2003. A total of over 80 students have enrolled so far.

This multidisciplinary programme is open to students with a degree in any scientific subject of relevance to the scope of the programme.

The expected outcomes from the Rotation PhD Programme will be: well-rounded multidisciplinary training in research; the timely completion of an excellent thesis; publications in high-ranking international refereed journals; and a firm foundation for a distinguished career.

The Rotation PhD Programme is sponsored by the John Innes Foundation, together with the partner institutes.

It is expected that up to five studentships will be available each year.

We have recruited students from all over Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia, North America and South America. Former students are now living and working around the globe.

For more information contact:

Your first year

Year one begins with a three-week period of intensive training and orientation. This is designed to introduce all the research programmes currently being pursued at the John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory.

You will attend departmental presentations, our Annual Science Meeting, a Rotation Students’ Retreat for all year groups, and a range of one-to-one meetings of your choice with supervisors whose research particularly interests you.

You will be guided by a faculty-mentor, a student-mentor from the previous year-group and the programme tutor who will help you to select your three rotation projects.

You will then undertake 10-week mini-research projects with three different supervisors located in any part of the two partner institutes.

You will learn from fellow rotation students in this multidisciplinary programme through a fortnightly journal club where you will present and discuss publications from researchers at the two institutes. After each rotation period, you will write a brief report and give a short oral presentation to the other rotation students.

You will rapidly become familiar with a wide range of scientific approaches. The objective of the first eight months is to gain broad technical and theoretical training prior to the selection of a main research project and supervisor.

Our plant and microbial research is organised into the following scientific areas:

  • Biological Chemistry
  • Cell and Developmental Biology
  • Computational & Systems Biology
  • Crop Genetics
  • Metabolic Biology
  • Molecular Microbiology
  • Molecular Plant Pathology

After the first three rotations

By June of the first year, you will have selected the supervisor with whom to embark on the main research project.

Then, during a fourth rotation period of 16 weeks, you will conduct exploratory experiments and write a research proposal for your PhD.

The emphasis of this is upon clearly framing the questions to be addressed in the thesis by creating a scientifically interesting but technically feasible research project.

The outcome will be the submission of a high-quality PhD thesis within a total of four years.

Your future

Rotation students have an amazing publication record from their doctoral studies.

A cohort of five students who finished recently published first-author papers in Science, Nature Communications, Plant Cell, Current Biology, Current Opinion in Biotechnology, and Journal of Visualized Experiments and co-authored papers in PLoS Pathogens, Plant Physiology, Plant Biotechnology Journal, Biology Protocols, and BMC Plant Biology.

Several former Rotation students have gone on to lead their own research groups around the world (e.g. Alexander Graf, Sebastian Marquardt, Linfeng Huang, Ulises Rosas and Frank Sainsbury). Some have come back to run groups at the John Innes Centre (Yiliang Ding and Tung Le).

Others have taken their careers in other directions, such as medical writing, industrial project and product management, and science funding agency management.

The benefits of doing a Rotation PhD John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory

  • The John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory share a campus and have closely linked scientific programmes
  • The John Innes Centre is one of the world’s premier research institutes in plant and microbial sciences with an illustrious history going back over a century
  • The Sainsbury Laboratory is a world leader in plant-microbial interaction research


Philippa Borrill

“The rotation programme was a fantastic opportunity to gain experience working in a range of different labs and in diverse scientific fields.

Working in different areas has given me the confidence to interact with scientists from a wide range of disciplines and the contacts made during my rotation year made me aware of the world class expertise available at the John Innes Centre.

But maybe the best part has been the chance to formulate my own project based on shared interests with my two chosen PhD supervisors Cristobal Uauy and Alison Smith.”

Scott Berry

“The rotation year provided a fantastic opportunity to work with researchers from around the John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory, providing an invaluable introduction to world class research in plant and microbial science.

Like many students on the rotation programme, my main project combined aspects from two of my rotations to establish a multidisciplinary collaboration with both experimental and theoretical supervisors.

I have found staff at the John Innes Centre and The Sainsburys Laboratory to be extremely approachable (even Group Leaders) and with the diverse range of expertise available on site, there has always been someone to go to for a helpful and thought-provoking discussion.”

Sakonwan (Sue) Kuhaudomlarp

“The Rotation Programme provides a fantastic opportunity for me to explore biochemistry and phylogeny of various organisms from free-living micro algae to plant-pathogenic bacteria and fungi.

I have learned so much from the experts in all the subjects and have the freedom to pursue the research I am passionate about.”

Programme Directors