Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner
Even if you have previous lab experience from a high school or college lab class, the first few weeks of a new research experience in a professional research lab will have its challenges, surprises, and probably be quite different from you expect. It might take a few weeks before you feel at home in the lab, but it will happen if you stick with it and commit to learning everything you can about your research project. To help you prepare for your new adventure, here are some things that await most undergraduates at the start of a new research experience.
Awkward moments. Even if you have taken several lab classes, it’s likely that you’ll feel more self-doubt than self-confidence at the beginning of a new research experience. Each day, you’ll observe other undergrads arrive at the lab, confidently put down their backpacks, and gather the supplies they need to get to work. The conversations your labmates have about their projects will seem to be in a foreign language as they ask each other questions and give impossibly convoluted answers. You’ll feel out of place and might worry that you’re hopelessly behind everyone else—especially if the only things you know are where to find the ice machine and the differences between a beaker, flask, and graduated cylinder. Feeling awkward and unsure are part of trying something new and getting out of your comfort zone. If you have a particularly rough time adjusting, keep in mind that everyone else in the lab went through the same thing when they started.
Information overload. When you start an activity as intensive as undergrad research can be, much of what you need to learn comes at you at the same time. And you probably won’t have a previous reference to draw on for most of the jargon or procedures so the amount of new information will be overwhelming. You’ll probably get a little stressed while trying to learn the lab language, how to keep a proper notebook, and what the lab’s research focus is and how your project is relevant. But be patient with yourself. It won’t be long before you realize that you’re retaining most of what you’re learning, and if you take good notes you’ll have a place to look up the information that you don’t remember.
Something new everyday. Yep, it’s a cliche but there is no better way to sum it up—in the beginning of a research experience you will learn something new everyday. Participating in undergrad research means being part of cutting edge research, learning techniques not taught in lab classes, and doing hands-on work at the research bench. And in the beginning it’s all new and exiting. Even a research-related task such as preparing instruments for sterilization, or learning how to dispose of biohazard waste holds a certain fun quality when they are a new task. The exciting part of a new adventure is experiencing things you’ve never done before—every single day.
A learning curve. For almost every new undergrad, research turns out to be more complicated, and take more effort to gain skills and accomplish the objectives of a project than anticipated. Therefore, if it’s difficult for you to master a technique, or you don’t immediately understand a concept your research mentor explains, remind yourself that such challenges are to be expected. If you’re committed to doing your best, you’ll learn what you need and might even end up teaching a technique or explaining a concept to the next undergrad who joins the lab. For most hands-on research experiences, it’s time, repetition, and dedicated focus that leads to expertise. After you master the fundamental techniques, you’ll find that each new one takes less time and effort to learn.
Panic after making a mistake. When you make a mistake, if you start to panic, take a deep breath and remind yourself that mistakes are an unavoidable part of the learning process. Then, find the courage to bring the mistake to your research mentor as soon as you can. What feels like a tragic, experiment-ending mistake to you might be simple for a seasoned researcher to fix. Even if your experiment can’t be saved, it’s likely that the worse case scenario will be that the experiment will need to be redone. Although that may not be the most encouraging outcome, it’s not tragic to need to redo an experiment on occasion because you made a mistake. Plus, you’ll learn a lot about troubleshooting from watching how others handle a mistake or why a specific one renders an experiment unfixable. As long as you listen carefully and take detailed notes so you don’t make the same one again, you can use your research mistakes as stepping stones to your success.
Near-endless note taking. Of course you know that you’ll need to record information in your notebook, but you might be surprised at the level of detail you’ll need to make your notebook useful. Your notes will include descriptions on the procedures you do, observations you have, results you obtain, and the conclusions you form. You’ll also take notes on where reagents are stored, how to operate equipment, how to prepare solutions, and tricks your research mentor tells you. It’s not unreasonable to spend at least half of your lab time taking notes during your first semester. To help you get the right amount of details, think of the notes you take the first semester as the textbook you’ll use in your second semester.
Questions. So many questions. During your first semester, you’ll need to ask how to do simple tasks, where to find the reagents you need, what the equipment is called, and occasionally have more questions than there are steps in a protocol. You’ll also have questions about what your project is about, why its important, and how it supports the lab’s ultimate research goals. The good news is that you’re not supposed to have all the answers at the start and therefore no one expects you to. That can be difficult to accept, especially for those on the premed track, but you’ll be better off the sooner you embrace this fact. Try to think of it this way: Your job is to ask the questions and work to understand the answers. Among other advantages, this will help you connect with the science the lab does, and make your research experience a meaningful and rewarding use of your time.
Down time. It’s likely that beginning of your research experience will be a series of frenzied activities punctuated by periods of waiting for the next step, or waiting for assistance from your research mentor. Until you have the skills and knowhow to work on a task during waiting periods, there will be many moments that you don’t have enough time to start something new, but have too much time to stand around and do nothing. (If your lab schedule doesn’t work well with the research project, you might even spend more time doing research-related activities such as washing dishes or observing others than research.) As you become more proficient (and efficient) with the research procedures, you’ll be able to work on downstream steps or help a labmate during those waiting periods. Until then, try to observe a labmate’s technique or ask others about their projects with your in-between time.
An unpredictable lab schedule. Even if you’re scheduled to be in the lab from 10 AM to 4 PM, it might be a rare day when you wrap up your research by 4 PM. Especially at the start of your research experience, you’ll routinely underestimate how long a task, technique, or experiment will take. Most likely, you’ll end up texting your friends, “Go without me, I’m still at lab,” more times than you can possibly imagine. Predicting your schedule will become easier with experience, but in the beginning, your best strategy is to accept that on most days you’ll be unable to estimate your departure time from the lab with a high degree of accuracy.
Out of lab assignments. Research mentors know want you to take full advantage of the personal, professional, and academic opportunities that can accompany an in-depth research experience. Therefore, your research experience will likely happen outside of the lab too— even if you’re officially in a volunteer position. For some undergrads, this will mean writing a research proposal, designing a poster, attending seminars or presenting their work at a scientific meeting. For many undergrads, it will also include reading journal articles related to the lab’s research focus, which could be assigned at start of a research experience, or toward the end of the first semester.
Paris Grey is a molecular biology research scientist who started her career as a dishwasher in a lab. In the 21 years since, she has been a research mentor to numerous undergraduate students, and understands the many challenges premeds navigate during their research experiences. She is co-creator of undergradinthelab.com which provides tricks, tips, and strategies to help students get the most out of their time in the lab.