We’ve all been there. You have a favorite scientist and a favorite research topic. You’re passionate and motivated. It’s all going good … and then. All of a sudden, you’re spending sleepless nights with the coffee machine. You’re attempting statistical analysis of your data for the first time and wishing you were bald. The clock reads 3 AM and you begin to question the significance of your own life.
The truth is, It doesn’t matter how motivated you are. Unless you have a disciplined work ethic and a planned approach, stress will get the better of you. Sanity will diminish and you will neither be productive nor happy.
Fear not. Here are 5 simple tips to develop a good work ethic that will help you have a stress free research life.
1. Buy Yourself a Pretty Notebook
I know this seems arbitrary, but this notebook will be with you for the rest of the term. So take your time to get one that can handle your frustration and the occasional careless spills. Buy a sturdy notebook. One that looks bad if you tear a page from it (because you should never tear a page out).
Customize your notebook for your needs. What I like to do is make a small paper pouch at the back of the notebook. This is where I keep random calculations that are scribbled with a marker pen on a tissue paper. Trust me, this happens a lot. Inside every researcher is an enthusiastic scrapbooker, isn’t there?
2. Pay Attention to Every Detail Right From the Start
When someone is taking valuable time out of their schedule to demonstrate a protocol to you, the least you can do is listen. Even if it’s a simple protocol you’ve done before. Take note of everything. Make sure you listen carefully and clarify any doubts you have.
One way to pay attention is to pretend you will have to repeat the protocol in front of your PI. How unfortunate would it be if you can’t remember the split ratio the lab generally uses or if you forget to use a cell scraper because you don’t usually use one?
3. Remember Where the Reagents Live
This is common sense. Just like you cannot keep misplacing your keys and asking your roommate if she’s seen them, you can’t expect your lab members to keep telling you where to find things. The reagent has a location, remember it.
To help yourself, label a page at the back of your notebook as ‘Navigating the lab: Where the treasures are hidden’. Ok, maybe just ‘List of reagents’ will do (A little creativity never killed anyone, you know). As soon as you are introduced to the location of a reagent, take note immediately. You will assume that you will remember it, but unless you have a photographic memory, you really won’t.
4. Label Like You Won’t Remember Anything
This is a no brainer. Imagine you’re looking for the supernatant you collected from your tumor experiment in July for setting 3. Is a label of ‘7 July tumor’ the best you can do? What is that 3? Is that from flask 3 or setting 3? Which tumor is it? The one you processed or the one your colleague processed? Is it a sample from 2015 or 2014? What was the passage number?
These are all questions you would not be asking if you labeled descriptively. Say you did an experiment where you now have 3 microcentrifuge tubes to store. Put them all in a plastic sealant bag. Write your name in big bold letters on the bag. Write the date (including the year). Write the experimental setting. Make a detailed note in your lab notebook. Here, you can add more details and add some notes on the protocol too (See point 2). You’re done.
5. Talk to Your Adviser From Day 1
Everyone in the lab knows how hard you work. The post-doc in charge of you has finally given you the codes to shut down and start the biosafety cabinet. She has also trusted you to come in on Sundays and operate the machinery in her absence. The Ph.D. students now engage you in conversations near the coffee machine. It’s all working out.
Then one fine day, you get an email from your advisor. And she asks, “So, what are you working on? I’ve heard nothing from you and I often see you outside the lab (because of course they always see you when you’re not working). This is not good you know.” Moral: It is important to establish a healthy rapport with your adviser from day 1. In many cases, your words are the only updates your advisor receives on your project.
That’s it. Follow these tips and: You will not be in a last minute rush to find the name of that machine or the supplier of that enzyme. You will not be forced to bother your adviser, who is on a well-deserved holiday, for your last minute questions. You will not be a coffee addicted zombie that does not leave the lab until the sound of morning transportation makes you realize it’s 4 AM.
You will be a happy and efficient researcher crunching data and mapping a bright future.