5 Top Rookie Student Mistakes in the Lab

With summer in full swing, and students and faculty taking breaks for vacations and recharging for the academic year ahead, this also marks the traditional turnaround time when many labs and universities get new personnel.  Graduate students arrive early to get a head start on projects before their classes start in September, new faculty move in to labs before their teaching duties commence, and even new postdocs arrive for their last scientific hurdle before applying to jobs.  Fresh starts in a new lab (and position) can be very thrilling and challenging.  They can also pose the risks of making some basic mistakes that might either hamper your first year (or beyond!) or just cause embarrassment with your new colleagues.  In this post, we focus on graduate students and postdocs mistakes.  In Part II, we will shift focus to new professors.

Here are our Top 5 mistakes to avoid in your new lab:

1.  Taking on too many projects

Being a new graduate student isn’t easy.  You’re no longer an undergraduate.  More is expected of you intellectually, experimentally and in terms of responsibility in the laboratory.  On top of all of this, chances are you want to impress your new professor and show them that choosing you to work in their lab was worth it.  However, keep in mind that although you are now a graduate student, unless you’ve put a year or two under your belt in an industry lab, you are still a novice when it comes to designing and executing your own research.  Saying yes to every idea and project that is thrown at you by your PI or the postdocs you may be working with is a mistake, especially in the first two years.  You are taking classes, teaching, and easing into the project or projects that will ultimately define your thesis.  Taking on too many initially may have the opposite effect—if you spread yourself too thin, you might get frustrated, the experiments might not work, and your PI might actually think less of your skill-set.  (This was a very unfortunate reality for several of my graduate school lab mates.)  Remember, grad school, and a postdoc, are marathons, not sprints.  Get comfortable with your new research topic, with the experiments and techniques it will demand, and with the lab you’ll be working in.  Once you get one project comfortably working, then you can add on additional work without feeling stressed or stretched too thin.

2.  Not attending mandatory safety/training courses

Especially if you are a postdoc with a PhD under your belt, this is a classic rookie mistake.  Thinking that all of those pesky all-day safety courses or mandatory instrument training courses are a waste of your time, and just not right for you.  You know what you’re doing!  You have a PhD!  WRONG.  Always attend every mandatory training required by your University and laboratory.  You don’t want to be the new person who broke a key piece of shared equipment during your first week in the lab because you didn’t know what you were doing.  In some cases, it could even save your life.  The tragic 2009 death of a UCLA chemistry laboratory assistant sent shockwaves through the academic world.  Working with a pyrophoric chemical, it appears that she violated several key lab safety rules, including working alone in the lab, not wearing proper safety equipment and not having been properly trained for the work she was doing.  Remember, in the long run, the few hours you spend training properly for your new lab could not only help you become a more efficient researcher, but also a safer one.

3.  Not taking a lay of the land before starting work

Much along the same lines of points 4 and 5 below, it’s really important not to be so eager to get a head start on research (and classes if you’re a graduate student) that you forget to get a lay of the land of where you will be spending the next few years of your life.  Research-wise, get to know your laboratory, the shared facilities where you’ll be carrying out common experiments and even simple things, like where to fill up your ice bucket.  Get to know the campus, the major offices pertaining to your graduate work (or postdoc) and any early paperwork that needs to be completed.  Finally, get to know the city you’ll be living in to carry out basic day-to-day transactions.  Getting settled and comfortable in your new surroundings will make you more productive, happier and avoid having to pester your labmates with too many questions.

4.  Trying too hard with new colleagues

One of the first things I was asked to do when I joined my undergraduate research lab was give a journal club seminar on a recent advance in copper chemistry.  Normally, these were very informal affairs meant to highlight new research and foster discussion.  But being a little big for my britches, and wanting to impress my new labmates and PI, I went over the top and gave an advanced seminar way over my head in content and expertise.  Little did I know that one of the world’s leading copper chemists would be in the audience and ask me the first question.  Because I didn’t know what I was talking about, I could only stare back open-mouthed, embarrassed and put back in my place.  It’s something I’ve never forgotten since.  Remember, labs have a certain dynamic to them, one that you’re changing with your very presence.  It will take time to make new friends of your colleagues, to impress other professors and to become a senior member of the lab.  Don’t push too hard or try to become an expert at something within a month.  You might even find that it takes six months to a year before you feel comfortable, acclimated, develop friendships with your labmates and draw respect from colleagues.

5.  Not organizing

This is easily the most critical mistake a new graduate student or postdoc can make in their new lab.  You’ve been given a clean desk and lab bench (or hood), a shiny new laboratory notebook and a new project.  More often than not, the paperwork, appointments and meetings you are obligated with in a new lab can become quickly overwhelming. In addition to attaining new reagents and specimens to start your project, it doesn’t take long before you have a mountain of papers on your desk to update.  Spare yourself the embarrassment of missing your first group meeting or falling behind by starting your laboratory organization on day 1.  Know where to find your materials.  Start storing away the ream of papers you read in the first few months electronically.  Update your notebook every day.  If you form fastidious habits on day one, you’ll find that it will lead to a lot of saved time in the long run.

What do you guys think?  Any memories of rookie mistakes you made (or embarrassing ones) that you later learned from?  Drop us a line in our comments section below.  In our next installment, we’ll focus on rookie mistakes for the new professor.

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