Getting Started with Working in a Research Lab

Eva Lantsoght
9 Jan ’14

So you've found yourself a great PhD program and supervisor, which is part of your Plan for Your Academic Life, and now you're supposed to get started with your experiments in the lab of your research group.

After a few days of taking care of the basics of getting started in your program and doing all the paperwork, you're excited to get started working in your research lab.

You start with a smile on your face, maybe even whistling while you work. 

And then you break something. 

And then all your experiments go wrong. 

And then you stay up all night trying to fix something. 

And then you just want to go back to mom and pop and give up on it all.

Before you go down this road, which some might consider as your lab baptism, you might as well sit down and reflect first. Sharpen your pencil, and get planned. I can't repeat it often enough, but planning is an essential part of getting sh*t done.

Even though some productivity gurus might claim that planning takes too much time and that it is not productive time, I beg to differ. In academia, in experiments and in research, there's no point in getting start without making a plan.

So what should your plan for getting started in a research lab contain?

1. Basic literature review

Before you get started, make sure you have at least a basic grasp of the topic you will be studying. Just spend a few afternoons with a delightful cup of coffee or tea to work your way through a few seminal research papers before you start pottering around in the lab. You might not understand all the details of these papers, and that's perfectly OK. Make sure you can produce about 5 pages of text describing what you want to test, why you need to do this, and what your possible outcomes could be.

2. Materials needed

List the materials and equipment that you need for the experiments you want to carry out. Go to the lab to take stock of what is available, and bug someone to order whatever you need if it's missing or almost running out.

3. Planning of your (first series of) experiments

Yeah right, planning experiments? As if that ever goes according to plan... Well, you need a planning even though you might find yourself adjusting your planning throughout your lab days. Making a planning for your experiments helps you to determine which parameter you want to study, and what really matters to your research question.

4. Gantt chart for your experiments

If your experiments consist of different steps, make a Gantt chart outlining which actions should be taking place when. For example, if you are doing research on concrete specimens, you'll need to schedule time for preparing the reinforcement and formwork, then casting the specimen, then waiting 28 days, and then testing the specimen.

5. Setting up your labbook

How will your labbook be? Make an overview of what you want to note down of every experiment. I made a sample sheet and predictions for every experiment, and printed this before every test. During the tests, I would scribble down my notes, and have my predictions handy in case somebody passed by to ask what the theory said.

6. Starting a research diary

Start a document that serves as your research diary, in which you track what you did throughout your experiments. This can be part of your labbook, or you can start a notebook in EverNote.

7. Set up a processing protocol

What will you do with the raw data of your experiments? Have a plan in place for processing your data, before you have gigabytes full of raw data and no time to start coding a way to process your results into graphs. Set up a sheet that can read your raw data and process it into visual information. I used Matlab, because I prefer to see my code rather than having it hidden in awful cell-based formulas (as in MS Excel).

8. Set up a storage protocol

How are you going to save your data? Are you going to make a folder per experiment, or will you save things together per parameter? Set up a protocol and stick to it, so that you can easily find everything back once you're in the full swing of your experiments. Oh, and now that we're at it, include a protocol for making back-ups of your data as well. If the world succumbs to a zombie apocalypse, you might still want to have your data, instead of needing to repeat your experiments.

9. Plan time for writing

If you have a protocol for processing your data into visuals, you also need a protocol for preparing your research report. Set up the skeleton of the report of your testing, outline the data you need to write about, and start filling it out every single experiment to stay on course.

For experiments in a research lab, having a good plan is a great starting point. You might feel tempted now to run into the lab and start tackling your research. I'll have to bring you to a halt again, and point out the following things to consider before you really hit the ground running:

1. Learn from the more senior researchers

Get together with more experienced PhD researchers in your lab over lunch or coffee, and ask for their advice. If possible, ask if you can work along with them for a few days to learn from their routines. You'll sure learn a few tricks and hints you didn't think of when preparing your Lab Plan.

2. Make friends with the technicians

I credit the success of my PhD to the wonderful support of my daily supervisor and lab technician. You're part of a team, so show your team spirit and learn from the technicians - some of them might have been in your lab for 20 years and know exactly what all the noobs do wrong when they start.

3. Ask someone for a tour

Ask a senior researcher or lab technician to take you on a tour and show you what's inside of every cupboard, and what every machine does. You might not need everything at day 1 of your experiments, but it's good to know what is available and where to find it. Heck, you might even get a few ideas by seeing what is possible in your lab.

4. Know where to find products

When you get a tour, and you know that your brain is not so good at remembering things, take notes of where to find whichever product you might need for your experiments. Nothing is as annoying as having to explain the newbie 4 times in a row in which cupboard the markers are hiding.

5. Get acquainted with the lab etiquette

How does your lab work? When do people start working, when do they take a coffee break? When do you clean up after experiments? Learn about the customs of the lab, and adhere to the unwritten rules of your lab. Again, you're in a team, you're not a lone wolf looking for mischief.

Above everything, remember that having the opportunity to touch science with your own hands is a blessing. Even though you might get stuck and feel overwhelmed by the vast amount of experimental work that there is to be done, remember how privileged you are. And above all, remember that science is fun!

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