So you’re going to start working in a lab, whether it’s fresh out of college, during college, or even before. With different personalities, expensive equipment, and scary science terms, this can be thrilling and terrifying at the same time. You want to learn a lot, impress the head of the lab, and you really do not want to screw up. Here are some tips.
Ask for permission, not forgiveness – Don’t be a hero and do things beyond what was asked of you. Or if something goes wrong, you don’t always have to solve the problem yourself. Discuss with your mentor or lab mates beforehand.
Label everything clearly-THIS IS SO IMPORTANT. If you are making solutions, or organizing reagents make sure your label tubes and bottles neatly, with the EXACT contents. For example if you make a solution of saline, write “0.9% NaCl,” the date it was prepared, and your initials.
Go to lab meeting as much as possible – While lab meeting may sometimes be dry, it is crucial to running an efficient lab. It is also an excellent opportunity to learn more about your lab mates’ projects.
Stop and ask for feedback – while getting critiqued may feel daunting, it is ultimately one of the most crucial ways to learn and improve as a scientist. Most often, people will be constructive in their critique. However, do take it seriously.
Show up on time – other people in the lab depend on you, and they might plan their experiments around your schedule so make sure you get there on time.
Ask about other lab members’ projects – learn about what your lab mates are working on and maybe they’ll be able find ways to involve you in their projects. Involvement in other projects may lead to your name going on future papers.
Do the tasks you are assigned – no matter how veteran or novice, everyone will have many responsibilities in the lab. Try your best to be efficient and complete your lab duties.
Seek out your own funding opportunities – this shows ambition and if you get funding, and can save your mentor some money, they will love you. Check out our Grants page to find funding opportunities.
Preread about a new technique you are doing – if you have a new experiment coming up, take some time to read some literature about the technique. You will be less likely to scramble if you know more about it.
Take detailed notes – you might get to do some cool experiments with other lab members. When they show you how to do the protocol, take very good notes so that you can repeat the protocol by yourself.
Be honest and open about mistakes – people make mistakes all the time in lab. If you make a mistake on an experiment, let your lab mate know so that they can help you improve and so that they don’t misinterpret the results.
Lock down your lab schedule – Planning is key to surviving and thriving in science. Even if it’s thinking ahead for just the next day, planning the next steps of your experiments is crucial to making sure you’re working efficiently and having a good work life balance.
Ask your mentor for some papers to read – this will show ambition and reading some literature will definitely help you understand your project better.
Overcommit – nothing bothers a mentor more than when an undergrad promises to work a lot in the lab but then never really puts in the time that was promised.
Think that just because you’re an undergraduate/lab tech you can’t contribute – some people say undergraduates and technicians are the life-blood of the lab. Always know you are valued.
Don’t hold back ideas you have – feel comfortable discussing project ideas with your mentor and lab mates. Even if the idea gets turned down, you will definitely learn something new. If it’s well-received, it could be the start of a new project.
Be afraid to ask questions at lab meeting or a seminar – if you’re curious, ask a question. Others may have the same question. The only stupid question is one you already know the answer to.
Ask your mentor for a LOR the night before its due – your mentor will gladly write you a letter of recommendation. Just don’t wait till the last minute to ask for it. Give them enough time to write.
Forget to proof-read emails to mentors – write grammatically correct emails. It reflects on your professionalism.
Address your mentor as Mr. or Mrs. – whether in an email or in person, always address your mentor as Dr., unless stated otherwise.
Make a mess – be tidy and organized, never make your lab mates clean up after you.
Forget to thank your mentor when leaving the lab – when you’re finishing up in the lab, make sure you thank your mentor for the opportunity, and give them some contact information so that you can stay in touch. This may be important if you want to return at some point, or if you need a letter of recommendation for graduate school or a future job.