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Expectations for a Young Researcher

In the ~2 years since I defended my PhD, due to circumstances (mostly) out of my control, I’ve been jumping between brief stints in three jobs. It was hard to miss the differences between the heads of each lab. Each had their own strengths, and I really tried to learn from each of them, remembering tricks and approaches that might help me be more successful in the future.

The best organized among them was in my second job, which I had to resign from unfortunately in order to move with my wife to Europe. This was probably because while my immediate supervisor was a scientist, I ultimately had to answer to a business man focused on the bottom line, who was very good at management. What he did, first and foremost, was to lay out in no uncertain terms what was expected of me. It was all simple things, but by setting up these codified “rules”, he established a system that avoided possible interpersonal frustrations that I encountered in my first brief job.

On the other hand, the opposite was true for all of the academic positions I’ve worked in. Things were very relaxed and lab members were able to slack off on vital duties (e.g., notebook maintenance), which could potentially lead to trouble later on. I’m sure that this super-relaxed atmosphere works for some people, but it just never worked for me.

And now I find myself in another new job (started a little over a month ago), that is actually exactly what I’ve been looking for these past two years. I’m postdoc in this lab, and have a lot of flexibility to conduct my day as I like, with no clear-cut expectations laid out for me.

So looking back on these experiences, here are the basic expectations I would have for a young researcher working in my lab:

Clear and Concise Documentation
The most important thing by far, in my opinion, is clear and concise documentation of every experiment, even failed ones, with every piece of data saved and stored. Even results that make no sense whatsoever can be helpful, and it’s a grave mistake to delete even the most useless-seeming piece of data. As the famous FDA-slogan goes, “If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.”

Moreover, if I were the PI, I would want a very easy way to look over what my lab members have tried, as I gather information and decide what course of action to recommend. So, a good lab notebook is the end-all and be-all of science (I cannot stress this enough).

Consistent Labelling of Reagents
Another one is partly a pet peeve, but it too has important repurcussions, lest you lose some lysate or reagent: Labeling things properly. If it’s for your own materials, use whatever system you want, just keep a system, period. If it’s shared materials, include the chemical and concentration at the very least, and make sure that the label doesn’t wear off. You’d be surprised how many people slack off on this one, and it ticks me off to no end (especially when I’m trying to find something in the lab).

Read and Dicuss the Literature
And the third major thing, which perhaps shouldn’t have to be said either, is that you have to be paying attention to the literature. Read constantly new journal issues, as well as older papers. And DISCUSS them with your PI and fellow lab members. Often.

Like I said, these are obvious things. But perhaps a lot of fresh or prospective grad students don’t get this sort of thing emphasized enough, since most researchers take these things for granted (at least on a daily or weekly basis) and sometimes slack off on them.

What things would you expect of a young researcher in your lab?

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