As a newcomer to a research lab, looking at the seasoned, experiment-beaten postdocs around you, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the task of acquiring their level of knowledge and expertise, and of making any sort of impact within the lab and wider community, is huge and daunting.
But this is not true. An expert is just someone who knows more about a specific subject than most of the people around them and you are perfectly capable of building your knowledge in specific areas to a high level.
Build expertise slowly and surely
The best approach, in my experience, is to start small and be thorough and focused. Concentrate on one small area at a time, for example a technique or a piece of equipment you are using and put in the time to read around the subject until you have a thorough knowledge that allows you to fully understand it, and talk about it with confidence and authority.
Staying focused is just as important as being thorough; if you concentrate on too many areas at once, it will quickly becoming overwhelming. One thing at a time is best.
By making it a habit to do such thorough background reading whenever you pick up a new technique, use a new instrument or whatever, you will routinely and quickly gain blocks of expertise on these specific areas. Over time this will build into a formidable range of knowledge that will set you apart from many scientists who are happy to get by with a thin working knowledge.
Use your expertise as soon as you have it
But you don’t have to wait for years to reap the benefits of even the smallest area of expertise. Armed with a thorough knowledge you will of course be more likely do a better job of using whatever technique, instrument or subject area you have studied. But by sharing your knowledge with others in the lab, you will also start to build your own reputation and confidence, at the same time as helping them out.
You can be proactive in this by writing detailed guides and protocols for yourself others and always being willing to talk and help out where you can.
It only takes a handful of blocks of knowledge like this, generously shared, for you to not only have the beginnings of excellent knowledge base for yourself, but also develop strong relationships with your peers and a reputation as a person to be called upon and trusted.
All of these things will be valuable throughout your career and for what, a bit of extra reading and a willingness to share? Sounds worth it to me.
If you are worried about making the time to do that extra reading take a look at my earlier article on How to Become a World Expert in Your Field for some ideas.