For most researchers, working in the lab over a holiday break is somewhat different from working in the lab during the rest of the year. For example, if an experiment has flexibly, it can be started or stopped when it’s convenient for the researcher instead of planned around seminars, classes, and campus parking issues. In addition, some researchers take a vacation, adopt unconventional work hours, or hide in their office to work on a manuscript and only visit the lab to search for inspiration, a snack, or a temporary distraction.
I regularly direct several undergrad projects at the same time, work with other members of my lab team, and pursue my own research projects. And even though I enjoy mentoring my students, the researcher in me wants to take full advantage of holiday breaks. For me, a holiday break is an opportunity to set my work schedule as I please or conquer a particularly difficult experiment without being interrupted much. Alternatively, I might start an experiment, or run out to do errands and share a meal with friends, only to return to the lab when it’s convenient for me. I also want to spend some time relaxing—perhaps on my couch playing Halo—because I benefit from taking a break from directing other’s projects and thinking about how to solve a labmate’s bench woe.
However, I also understand the benefits to undergrad researchers who spend some of their holiday time in the lab, so I remain open to the possibility. Although it’s never a requirement, and I never ask a student to stay—they must initiate the conversation—it can be a worthwhile experience when the undergrad is motivated and genuinely interested in their project. Doing research in my lab over a break brings certain freedoms and responsibilities, and sometimes includes learning a highly specialized technique that I don’t have time to teach during the regular semester. Working over a break can also give an undergrad an opportunity to demonstrate elevated self-reliance, troubleshooting skills, and critical thinking—all characteristics that will enhance any letter of recommendation.
Even so, as with most mentors, I have a different set of expectations for my undergrads who spend their holiday breaks in the lab. For example, only undergrads who have reached a certain level of independence and demonstrated a genuine interest in their project are eligible to remain in the lab over breaks. Although many mentors are fine with answering texts or short emails during holiday breaks, it’s known by all of my lab members that I take an “email sabbatical” (unless, of course, there is an emergency). Therefore, a student must have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to plan and conduct 90% of their experiments without substantial help.
If an undergrad will be learning a new skill-intensive technique from me, they must have mastered basic ones and demonstrated patience and perseverance when challenged with technical difficulties. In addition, it can’t simply be that the student is stuck on campus and is searching for something to fill their time in between Netflix and catching up on sleep. They must want to be in the lab because they enjoy their research project and believe that spending part of their break doing research will be a meaningful use of their time.
If you hope to spend some of your upcoming spring break in the lab, talk with your research mentor as soon as you can to make sure it’s a possibility and find out what will be required. Ask specific questions about what you will do and what your responsibilities will be, before you make the commitment.
Specifically, ask your research mentor these questions:
- Will you be available for questions as during the semester or will I be on my own?
- If I need to contact you, is the best method a phone call, text, or email?
- Will I set my schedule or will it need to overlap with yours?
- Will I need a key or a passcode to enter the building?
- If I arrive at the lab and no one else is there, will I be allowed to work or will I need to wait until someone else arrives?
- Will I have additional or different responsibilities than I have during the semester?
- What specific research goals do you want me to accomplish during this time in the lab?
And keep these in mind:
- Only choose to be in the lab if you genuinely want to be there. Concerns about being bored or lonely over break are not good reasons to be in the lab.
- Once you make the commitment, stick with it unless insurmountable circumstances arise. Changing your mind mid-break could leave your research mentor with a lot of extra work that they had not planned to do, and result in you being labeled unreliable—something you want to avoid that at all costs.
- Your research mentor might rearrange their time to overlap with you, or spend extra time planning experiments or preparing reagents for you. Make sure to sincerely thank them for their help to demonstrate that you recognize their efforts. Even better if you offer to wash some of their lab dishes, rack tips, or do another lab chore to help them out.
- Renewal is still important. If you plan to work long hours, do not work the entire break. If you plan to work only a few hours each day, you still need to build in a break. Try to take at least two days off to relax and reboot before the semester resumes.
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.