The day-to-day reality of many graduate programs is that you’ll spend most of your time doing research.
Even if you don’t end up working in a lab or doing experiments forever in your career (and most people don’t!), being able complete experiments is going to help you efficiently progress through your program and eventually GRADUATE. And isn’t that what we all want?
This week, we cover some common pitfalls that suck your time and erode your confidence. We’ve got advice for avoiding those traps and making the most of your time in the lab. Yes, it’s about getting stuff done. But it’s also about getting the RIGHT stuff done in the right way.
Trap 1. Not Knowing Your Central Question
When Josh works with students, he always pushes them to make sure they have a clear understanding of what their research question is.
No matter what field you’re in or how broad or focused your specific project is, you probably have SOME specific question you’re trying to answer, and it’s important to be able to articulate that.
When a student doesn’t have a clear idea of what the research question is, it’s hard for them to effectively talk about the project either formally in a seminar or at lab meeting, or even informally with their PI or other lab mates.
This advice may seem obvious, but it happens too often that when you start in a new lab, you’re barraged with new info and techniques and papers. You’re trying to keep up, and the next thing you know, a week, a month, or even a year has gone by!
It’s only then that you realize… “Hey wait, what am I trying to do here?”
Besides making it hard to think or talk about your science, losing sight of your central question can make it harder to maintain your motivation. You lose sight of the connection between what you’re doing day-to-day and the big picture: WHY you are doing it.
If this describes you, stop what you’re doing, scrap your experiments for the afternoon, and take enough time to understand your central question. What you MIGHT find out is that you don’t know because no one told you, or there truly is some hole in the logic or flaw in the experimental design. Maybe you can figure it out on your own, but honestly, don’t be afraid to just come clean with your PI or another trusted person in your lab.
And don’t give up until you understand what you’re doing, why, and how it fits into the big picture. Once you have a firm grasp on that, a lot of other productivity and confidence will follow because now you’re able to frame each of your experiments, conversations, and presentations with that solid understanding of your main question.
Trap 2: Making Your Plans in the Morning
There’s an old cliche: “A failure to plan is a plan to fail.” This next tip is about just that… making a plan.
Early on in graduate school, Josh’s general way of being organized and having a plan was to show up in the morning, get a cup of coffee, chat with folks in the lab about last night’s episode of American Idol (or whatever show was popular in the mid 2000s) and then finally sit down at the lab bench with a notebook to start making a list of the experiments he wanted to do.
It would be 10:30 AM and he hadn’t even started pipetting anything yet, or even worse, he was hungry and ready for lunch before he even got started!
Beyond the loss of productivity and time, this led to hectic afternoons as he frantically tried to fit in all the things he was hoping to get d...