Undergraduate Studies


Student Guide to Research

The Undergraduate's Guide to Working in a Research Laboratory: a student's perspective


Top 10 things I wish I knew before I started


1. Make a commitment. Research takes time. You need to be sure that you can set aside a couple of hours on a regular basis for lab work. A good test to see if you'll be overcommitted—see how busy you are at the beginning of the semester, when course workload has not begun to pick up yet. If you're sitting around feeling like you could comfortably take another class or two, you probably have enough time to dedicate to lab work. Otherwise, you might want to cut back while you still can.

2. Stay motivated. Research is the study of the unknown, and as such, the path to success is not always clear. You'll make many, many false starts before getting anywhere. Hopefully, it will be tempered by some successes, too. However, after the umpteenth time an experiment fails, you'll need to remember those successes and stay confident that you'll succeed - at some time.


3. Make friends with the people in your lab. Since you will likely be spending many hours in the lab, a good way to make those hours more enjoyable is if you are friends with the people around you. Usually, they are friendly and interesting to talk to. They can also provide loads of help for a starting undergraduate—see below.


4. Ask for help. Don't know how to use that expensive-looking, delicate piece of equipment? Ask. Your fellow lab members hold a wealth of information and experience you should take advantage of. An advantage to being an undergraduate is that you can ask basic questions and not feel dumb, as you're the least trained in the lab in terms of formal education. You may feel like a leech at times—that's okay. More often than not, your lab mates are more than happy to help.


5. Respect those around you. Remember that people are taking time and energy away from their own work to help you out. Feel free to ask questions about things that you don't know and have not been told. However, don't ask the same question multiple times of the same person. If someone explains a procedure to you, write it down or make a copy. Also, make sure a person has time to help you out before asking. At the same time though, better to annoy someone by asking the same question again than to annoy him or her by breaking that eight-thousand dollar piece of equipment.


6. Don't sweat the small stuff. Unless you're freakishly careful and very lucky, chances are you'll make a stupid mistake in lab at some point. Hopefully, you'll realize it in time and won't have wasted too much effort on it or affected anyone else's work by it. Even if that isn't the case, accept it, minimize the damage as best you can, and move on. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time. Sometimes these things can't be helped.


7. Label EVERYTHING. Picture this. You're back from break, ready to begin work again, and upon opening your box you're confronted by tubes labeled "A9" or "B+B120 L". Having no clue what that means, you sigh and throw it away, not knowing that you have just thrown away the product of weeks' of work. Don't fall into this trap—label your materials well with full names and a date.


8. Keep backups and a record of what you do. There may come a point when you realize that something's gone wrong and you need to retrace your steps back to a midway point. If possible, it is very useful to keep materials in storage along the way that you can fall back on so you don't have to restart from the beginning. Keeping up your lab notebook here helps too—you may be able to tell by looking over your notes what might have gone wrong and where you would want to tweak the procedure a bit.


9. Budget more time than you think you'll need. Almost always, lab procedures will take longer than you think they will. Something will go wrong and you'll need to start over, or a buffer you thought you had has run out and you need to make some more—you get the idea. If you don't want to be constantly scrambling to race the clock, take the time you think the procedure will take, multiply by 2.5, and you should have a safer and likely more accurate estimate.


10. Have fun. Don't get too caught up in experiments that don't work or the time you spend in lab. Relax, remember the broader view, and enjoy the ride.


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