In an ideal world, every PI would be a nurturing and challenging mentor who carefully guides your project and is invested in developing your skills as a scientist. In the real world, however, that kind of leadership can be hard to find.
In any case, one of the most important and useful mental steps you can take in your career is to take responsibility for your own work and actions as early as possible. To help you along the way here are some suggestions to enable you to be your own boss. Take the reins and train yourself the way you want to be trained!
1. Read read read!
Read all the papers that have come out of your lab recently and as many reviews and current research articles as you need to get a thorough understanding of the state of the field. Reading your competitors’ papers will clue you in on what has been done and what questions are still unanswered. Reading your colleagues’ papers will tell you what materials and experimental techniques are commonly used in the lab.
2. Write up a proposal of what you plan to do for your project
Students are fortunate (no really!) to be required to do this, but I’d strongly recommend this method for post-docs, too. Independence is good, but aimlessness is not, and it’s easy to get off-course unless you’ve established a road map for yourself. Don’t hesitate to put a timeline on your proposal. You may or may not be able to predict how long every step will take, but it can serve as a handy yardstick for measuring your accomplishments vs. your expectations.
3. Network within your University
Get familiar with your department and other PIs at your university. Does anyone else work on a subject similar to your lab’s focus? Who has skills or interests that may make them useful resources? Are there established “in-house” collaborations or informal relationships with other labs on your hall?
4. Get plugged into a seminar series
A lot of departments run their own presentation series, but don’t be afraid to check out other seminars that sound interesting. Stop in, eat a cookie, and get a sense of what topics are covered in the series and whether it’s relevant to you and your project. Smaller seminar series are a great way to make connections with faculty members, who will come to think of you as a familiar face, and be impressed with your interest (and contributions?).
5. Spend time on “housekeeping” tasks to keep your work running smoothly
Take an hour out on Monday to plan your experiments for the week; take another hour on Friday to update your lab notebook and backup your data files.
6. Make weekly lab meetings work for you
Turn unproductive meetings into teaching opportunities by challenging yourself to “do it better!”. Ask yourself: how would I have designed this experiment differently? What do I think is the most interesting question raised by this data? If this were my project, what would I do next?
7. Keep track of your progress with monthly reports
Without the benefit of a PI keeping an eye on your project, it’s important to self-evaluate on a regular basis. This article published a few years ago by Science Magazine suggests a great list of questions to ask yourself on a monthly basis.
8. Try setting up an informal data club
Pull together a group of friends for lunch every few weeks to talk over your research in a casual setting. This sort of forum is great for getting technical help, as well as gauging what parts of your research are interesting to people outside of your own field.
9. Write up a yearly report on how your progress compares to what you proposed to do
Give yourself a day or two at the end of the year to go back over your lab notebook from the previous year. Skim through it and get an idea of how much time you’ve spent on various projects, what you’ve learned, and how you’ve changed as a scientist over the year. The little changes are hard to see as they occur, but looking back over a body of work can really clarify how far you’ve come.
10. Stay focused on publishing
As you generate data, keep in mind that your top priority is publication. Ask yourself: what do I need to do to turn my results into a complete, publishable story? The answer to this question will inform your weekly and monthly goals, and ensure that your project stays focused.
Not everyone is in an ideal lab situation, but that doesn’t mean your time in the lab should be written off as a loss. Taking charge and being your own boss will help you get the scientific training you need, and teach you the even more valuable lessons of independence and self-confidence.
What are your top tips for taking charge of your career?
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