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Tips for your summer research position, once you've gotten one

Updated: Jul 26, 2018

Brooke O’Donnell, Contributor

January 12, 2018

If you're reading this because you recently began a new research position, congratulations! I hope you're ecstatic for this new opportunity.

I'm nowhere near an expert in this field, but I hope sharing a few of my own personal experiences will ease some of the fears and anxieties some of you may be feeling.

Don’t worry if you're unsure of yourself in the beginning

In my experience, learning about lab procedures in class or taking a lab course (unless it’s a thesis course) doesn't reveal much about the real thing.

During my first lab meeting, I panicked as I listened to a graduate student toss out unfamiliar words and procedures left and right. But upon reflection I remembered research was a new experience for me, and I was jumping into a situation where other students had been for a longer time.

I had to give myself time to learn. So don't worry if you do too, as long as you want to learn and are prepared to put the time and effort in to do so.

Read up on scientific concepts and procedures

Your supervisor will probably give you material to read up on, but if not, ask for papers or textbooks to read so you can learn the concepts behind your project. Having an understanding of the background information will definitely help speed up the adjustment process.

Ask questions about the lab procedures

When you're dealing with complex experiments or experiments with expensive materials, it's better to ask questions than stay in the dark to ensure you're performing the experiment to the required standards.

Above all, you want to ensure you're performing with the correct techniques. Asking questions also helps you to learn from other members of the lab. Graduate students even offered to let me help with their work because I asked questions and showed clear interest in their work.

Seek guidance when you need it

You may think your supervisors are busy all of the time — which they totally are — but in my experience, they will try to make time for you if you need to talk.

Your supervisors truly want you to learn and move in the right direction with your project. They're invested in the progress and results of your project. You also have to remember that they selected you for a reason.

Use your lab book

Your lab book can become your best friend. Writing down as many things as possible in your lab book can help you keep track of protocols so that you can refer back to them when you need them.

Keeping your lab book neat and up-to-date shows the progression of your research and can help you and others potentially continue the research.

Help out around the lab

For the most part, everything in a lab is shared by all the people that work there. Do your part to ensure the lab is stocked, clean and functional. Even if you don’t know how to help with things like autoclaving or cleaning up wastes, ask!

Helping out goes a long way—it shows your dedication to the lab, helps you to learn and appreciate the “grunt work” of research and makes you more invested in your project.

Be persistent

Research can be daunting and frustrating at times, especially when you get unexpected results or your assays just don’t work. But there's a reason why you're doing your research. Everyone may think differently, but whatever it is, use it as motivation to keep going.

And lastly, have fun

Being in a lab is not just about conducting research, it's also about the experience. While the individuals in the lab were incredibly dedicated and driven, one of my favourite things about the Penuela lab was that we knew how to have fun.

When you're in a lab surrounded by individuals that make it feel positive, it's easy to go into the lab everyday and feel excitement about what your research.

So get to know the people in your lab! Your colleagues may even be able to help you with your other future decisions, such as course selection, further studies or even career options.

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