Following on from the previous article about Developing your Analytical Skills, this article will be the last in this series and looks at how to properly plan out your lab days and manage your time.
Good time management is invaluable for researchers. For example: Imagine finally getting to the end of your cytofluorescence and you’ve been probing for a protein that’s only expressed in low levels: you suddenly realise that you haven’t booked the microscope and somebody’s going to be on it for the rest of the day. By this stage, it may have taken you two or three days of work to get to where you are, and not getting to photograph your experiment straight away probably means that you won’t get brilliant results and that time has, essentially, been wasted.
It’s times like these (and believe me, I’ve had plenty of them during my PhD) that you’d wished you’d thought it through all the way and planned for every step and properly managed your time. That’s why planning your day in the lab is such a valuable skill, and one that future employers will appreciate.
Reasons for good time management
Why is it valuable that we manage our time? Well there are a few good reasons:
- Planning ahead means that you’re less likely to miss out on getting time with whatever equipment you need.
- Often in the lab we’re doing several experiments simultaneously. Planning ahead and time management allows you to figure out when you can fit one in around another (and helps stop you losing track when it all feels like everything is happening all at once!).
- You may have an experiment that requires you take samples at particular time intervals – who wants to be coming into the lab at 3am if it can be avoided?
Ultimately, planning your day out means that you’ll be more efficient at getting your work done on time, and also hopefully feel less panicked about it all!
Make a list of what needs doing. I often read that to-do lists should never have more than four things on them, but in my experience in the lab there are always a hundred experiments that need doing – so scribble away. At least then it’s all in one place and you haven’t got a secondary list stored somewhere in the back of your head that you’re more likely to forget things from.
Keep a diary of all your engagements, and keep it up to date. It can be whatever you feel comfy using – a FiloFax, your phone, an online calendar… anything! Put all your regular work commitments in it (meetings with your supervisor, weekly seminars etc) and any social events you may have to work around. If you can see your immediate future planned out in front of you, planning experiments around it will be much easier.
Don’t forget to plan in time away from the bench. We’ve all got other commitments (regular talks we have to attend, extra credit activities, preparing presentations…) and you’ll panic about those less if you’ve planned time for them into your week too.
If you’re experiment goes completely wrong, don’t panic. People make mistakes. We’re humans – not robots (although I’ve worked with plenty of machines which infuriatingly mess things up!). Just move on. I remember something a violin teacher taught me once about playing in recitals: if you mess up on a note, don’t dwell on it – it’s in the past – just keep playing. At the time I never thought those words could be anything useful, but as my PhD progressed, and I had the usual panic we all experience on bad days, I found it became my life mantra: just keep playing! Dwelling on our mistakes distracts us from what’s at hand, and means we’re more likely to make more mistakes.
If you find you’ve fallen behind at some stage and it’s going to disrupt your experiment (especially if you’re multi-tasking and doing two or three at once), then have a backup plan ready. Most experiments have stages in them where you can stop and pick it up later – even if it’s just leaving whatever it is in a buffer while you sort your head out.
You are not a failure
Some days are just bad. The gel runner breaks, the power goes out, a bulb goes in the microscope. The point is, it isn’t always your fault. I know how achingly disappointing it can be, but if there’s nothing you can do about it you just have to accept it. Often I find in these cases of really bad days sometimes the best thing you can do is just walk away. If you’re in a bad mood and upset thinking will be more difficult and you’ll be likely to make more mistakes. Start again tomorrow and maybe spend the rest of the day doing something different. Work on that paper you’ve been trying to write. Do some of your thesis. Anything different that’ll take your mind off of it – and remember: tomorrow is another day!
Do you have any tips on how to plan out your day efficiently? Comment below!
For more on the staying sane in the lab side of things, you might want to check out “Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Getting Results” by Nick Oswald… it’s a thought-provoking read.