Staying Organized for Success in Research

Close your eyes for a second and picture the last research lab you were in. Odds are the image you conjured was spilling over with beakers, boxes, and bottles of solvent stacked to the ceiling on weary benches and stained shelves. Venturing into the lab can even feel like entering an episode of the TV show Hoarders, and the actual work of conducting research is often just as chaotic. Research is a messy and complicated business, no doubt about it.

To combat this, it is essential to streamline your work, plan ahead, and stay very organized from the start of a project right up until it’s published. These skills are even more crucial to a medical student researcher who must split time between the lab and the lecture hall. Tracking down a lost data file is the last thing you want to waste precious time on, especially when there are experiments to run or charts to review.

This article will provide some simple advice on staying efficient and organized while conducting research so that you can spend more of your valuable time on what really matters: the science itself.

Best Practices for Better Science

Staying organized with your research and data collection starts from day one. Whether your project is basic science or chart review or something else entirely, a little planning goes a long way. Starting with the ideation process, ask yourself, “Is this project feasible?” Is this methodology the best way to get the results I need?” Odds are, there are multiple ways to generate the data your hypothesis requires, and one may be more efficient than the others.

It is important to consider who and what your institution has to offer. Studying mitochondria? Consider collaborating with the expert in your physiology department. Need to capture metabolic data? Make sure your school has an MRI machine that works for the animal model you selected. Have a great hypothesis for a chart review? Don’t forget to check the EHR to make sure the data you need is actually in there. Bottom line, before you get too far in the planning process make sure you have access to all the tools and teammates you need.

Once you’ve acquired all the necessary materials, work out the kinks in your study prior to getting fully up and running. Write out a protocol for your project and make edits to it as you do a trial run of your experiment. When something goes wrong, make note of it and put steps in place to prevent it happening in the future. For a chart review, figure out the most efficient route through the charts and write a document detailing this to assist anyone else helping you to collect the data.

On that note, think about your hypothesis and decide on which data you will actually collect. Will you mass every sample, or are only certain tissues important? Do you really need to pull all those demographics from the chart, or do you only care about sex and age? Generally, it is always easier to throw out data you don’t need than to realize you need data that wasn’t recorded. However, blindly tracking every single detail can really slow you down, so plan ahead and focus on what matters most.

Finally, always prepare for the next step or the next day’s work. You can often save a ton of time by doing all your prep in one sitting as opposed to in small chunks during the experiment. For example, stopping to label test tubes every few minutes will really mess up your rhythm but spending ten minutes churning them all out the night before is a lot more efficient. While working, have all of your reagents lined up in the order that you’ll use them, or have your petri dish already on ice so that you don’t have to fumble for it while handling a delicate tissue sample.

As with most things, a little planning goes a long way in research. That being said, always expect the unexpected. You can’t always plan for things that will inevitably go wrong, but you can plan everything else so that any speedbumps are as minimal as possible. Set yourself up for success from the start of your project and you will be in great shape when it comes time to write up the manuscript.

Discipline Your Data

Now that the bulk of your data collection is done you may feel like you’re out of the woods, but don’t let your guard down just yet! Keeping your data organized, accessible, and easy to work with can be just as challenging. As with the collection process itself, this is an area where planning and foresight go a long way.

It all starts while you’re gathering the data in the first place. Many students fall into the trap of delaying data analysis until long after it has been collected. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to confusion, wasted time, and even outright errors that jeopardize your conclusions. Instead, consider setting up a template in Excel ahead of time and copy-pasting your raw data directly into this while you collect it. Spending an hour setting up formulas that spit out the numbers you actually care about can save you ages of time. As an added bonus, being truly finished when your experiment wraps up at the end of the day is a feeling unlike any other.

Next, keep a simple and complete record of all the data you’ve collected, where it’s stored, and what you plan to use it for. Having one document that lists this will be a lifesaver when you eventually go to make your figures. Fail to do it, and you may find yourself wasting a whole weekend digging through old hard drives, opening up countless files, and trying to remember what each number really means. On that note, whether you save your data in a lab folder like OneDrive or on your personal computer, keep those files organized from day one. With or without a document laying out where everything is, this will save you and your labmates many headaches throughout the lifetime of your project.

Lastly, figure out early on which software you will use to analyze your data and generate figures, and don’t wait until the last minute to migrate your raw data into it. I use one called GraphPad Prism, which looks a lot like Excel but generates the graphs and statistical tests automatically, and it is a real godsend. However, I once made the novice mistake of trying to migrate months of results into it in a single day. Needless to say, the process was remarkably more painful than if I had done it incrementally as the data was collected.

No matter where your data comes from or what you plan to do with it, keeping things organized and not leaving analysis to the last minute will help you to avoid countless headaches. You never know when you’ll have to come back to an old dataset. If it happens to be while you’re revising a manuscript for urgent resubmission, you’ll thank yourself for making things easy. 

Research is a convoluted, complex process. Science is inherently messy, and often times the lab environment itself is just as much to blame. As a student researcher, your best weapon to combat this is being extremely organized and prepared when it comes to running your experiments, collecting your data, and crunching the numbers to figure out what it all means. Staying organized will allow you to spend more of your time on the stuff that really matters, the science itself, and less of it caught in the snares and pitfalls that ill-prepared scientists are all too familiar with.

“Research for the Rest of Us” is a column about navigating the complex intricacies of life in the lab. These articles aren’t for the superhuman Nature-publishing, Nobel Prize-winning MD/PhDs out there, but rather for the rest of us: the Average Joes simply trying to get our feet wet in research. Join us as we journey through this complex world of academic adventures, from picking a project to matching into your dream residency and everything in between. 

Trevor C. Hunt is a third-year medical student and a member of his school’s Research Distinction Track. He authors the SDN column “Research for th...