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Getting Started in a Lab

Getting Started in a Lab
March 4, 2009

If you are a new graduate student in the sciences, you will rotate through several labs during your first year. Your challenge is to find the right lab for you -- one that best matches your intellectual interests and that helps prepare you for your career.

How to get started in a lab?

Sample a range of lab environments and cultures. Find a lab that will help you develop as a researcher.

Find outwhat the ground rules and expectations are:

  • How many hours are you expected to be in the lab? (Remember that research is not a 9 to 5 job; you should look forward to hanging out in the lab -- but also make sure you know specific expectations for your time).
  • What’s the definition of “progress” in lab work? What’s the definition of progress in graduate work in your discipline?

Look for opportunities that will benefit your career:

  • Will you have an opportunity to publish?
  • Will you get credit -- as an author, co-author -- for the work you do in the lab? Will your intellectual work really be your own? Seek a lab that gives ownership of your ideas to you.
  • Will you have a chance to push beyond the boundaries of particular grants?
  • Will you be able to collaborate with other labs?

Be smart:

  • The best lab is not necessarily the one that pays the most.
  • Success is not always about being comfortable -- so look for a lab where you will be pushed a bit.

How to evaluate labs?

Both established and new labs have great merit.

  • In an established lab, find out: What’s the lab’s track record? Where have people ended up working after their lab experience?
  • Recognize that some younger faculty members -- who do not have well established labs and therefore do not have the same track record as established labs -- often bring the newest ideas to the discipline and are often willing to spend time with graduate students. Such labs might be a better place to try new things.
  • Where do people in the lab publish? In top-tier journals?
  • Ask other students about the labs.
  • Trust your instincts.

Be clear about your own expectations for mentorship in a lab:

  • How often would you like to meet with faculty mentors? (Make sure that the time you request is for the most pressing matters; don’t waste time on minor details that you can find out elsewhere).
  • Can you get on the mentor’s calendar? (Ask other graduate students in the lab about the nature and extent of mentorship).

Make good use of your lab work: Publish early and publish often:

  • Publications are the currency of success.
  • Publications are a guaranteed path to a relatively carefree thesis preparation.

How to succeed in a lab?

  • Participation is the key to any successful lab. A successful lab draws on a variety of skills, so contribute.
  • Recognize that a good lab is one with mutual mentorship; that means you need to contribute, too. As a first-year student, you may well have expertise that others in the lab don’t have. Be a good citizen; contribute the work. Recognize that you have the potential to be a valuable contributor from the very first day you walk in the door.
  • Learn from others and support others in the lab. Recognize the expertise of all of your lab colleagues (faculty, visiting scientists, postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, and even high school students).
  • During your first year, aim to complete a research paper that can be presented at a meeting or submitted.

Bio

Tom Daniel is professor of biology at the University of Washington.

 

 

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