All PhD students have their own projects to work on. It is your sole focus for about 4 years of your life so understandably you would want to pursue your research question as far and wide as the time (and money!) permits you. However, regardless of how independent you are as a researcher, you will always be part of a team – your lab group. No matter whether you are a part of a big lab group or, like me, a much smaller one – you are going to have to help each other out and you will need to rely on someone many times during your PhD.
Now these relationships that you have with your lab group are essential to how successful your PhD will be and how much you enjoy your time at the lab bench. So, it is crucial that you keep them happy and they keep you on side to not sour that working relationship and make those four plus years or so of PhD research harder than it needs to be!
I think we are all guilty of getting a bit lazy around the lab from time to time – me included! I am well aware that we are all human and sometimes do make mistakes and forget to do something but we need to remember this team ethic and find ways to become a reliable and valuable member of that lab group!
I originally published this post back in February 2016, so I thought it was about time that I gave it a little update now that I have an extra three years experience. So, here are a few quick tips, plus some bonus new ones, on how to make your lab life and the life of you lab mates that little bit easier. Hopefully these will all be familiar to you which means you are ahead of the game and well on your way to being the best lab mate you can be.
1. Invest in your project.
So I am starting off with something that probably wasn’t what you were expecting to be on this particular list of advice and perhaps seems a bit counter intuitive. But what’s the point on being a good lab mate if you’re not in the lab and taking pride in your research in the first place. In my opinion, if people see that you want to get the most out of your project in the time limit, then they will be more willing to help you out to meet your goals. Plus, you never know – seeing you manage your specific project requirements as well as all the general lab jobs we all need to do may inspire the others around you to get more things done – which leads to a more productive and happier overall lab environment.
2. Ask before you borrow.
You would think as intelligent functioning adults that researchers would have the manners to ask the owner before using a piece of equipment or chemical, or even something as insignificant as a pen or some lab tape – but you would be surprised with the amount of people who don’t. And what makes it worse is that many of these people don’t even return whatever they’ve borrowed so you often spot people walking into different labs asking if they’ve seen various possessions of theirs that have been taken without their consent.
All I have to say on this one is just be polite and ask before you take something. Not only is it the polite thing to do but you wont lose the respect of others around you and they are more likely then to help you in a time of need compared to if you’ve annoyed them by taking their things.
3. Be aware of what your lab mates are up to.
Not in an ‘I’m checking up on you’ kinda way, but in a ‘What you’re doing is really awesome’ sort of way. Take an interest in what your peers are up to. Talk to them about it. It might give you clues about your research. It means you might be able to help out others who are struggling with certain things that your lab mates can help out with. It will make lab meetings and seminar talks easier for you to understand. And when they inevitably ask for your help at some point, you will be able to help them more efficiently by knowing what they want to do. But also with the planning of your own time with what resources they are using.
4. Be reliable and be flexible.
Sometimes someone might need your help to teach them how to do a certain experiment or technique, or it could be the opposite and you need help from someone else in the lab. The vast majority of people I have worked with are more than willing to teach you and help you out, but they do have their own work to do too. So, if they have asked you to turn up and start at 8.30am then be there at that time because your lab mate who is helping you out has probably scheduled all their other experiments in around helping you so don’t put them behind schedule because you can’t be bothered to turn up at the right time. But sometimes, the others in your lab just simply won’t have time to help you out tomorrow or maybe even the next day if they have a big experiment going on. Just be respectful and either ask someone else to help you or wait until they are free.
It is also the case in some labs that you need to share equipment and reagents such as Western blotting kit or cell culture hoods. If there is a booking system, book in your time so firstly you can plan your day in the lab and secondly so others around you can plan their day too.
But it is essential to be flexible too. If one of your lab mates urgently needs to use something and you do, just think about how you can rearrange your day to help them out. If there is no booking system, then maybe ask around your lab mates to see who will need to use the Western blotting kit tomorrow before you prepare samples to run 12 blots. When actually someone else needs one of the tanks so you can only actually run 2 blots worth of samples. Think ahead, and think of what other’s might want to be doing is probably my main advice.
And another key bit of advice is don’t overrun if someone is booked on after you. I always try and overestimate slightly the amount of time I will need as it gives me a bit of room to play with. And if someone asks how long you will be, give them an honest answer. Don’t say 10 minutes if in reality you are going to be another 30 minutes – because 10 minutes I will wait for you to finish, whereas 30 minutes I might go and start something else so I’m not in the lab until 8pm every night.
And if you finish early, maybe pop the next person an email to let them know you are done. They might have been waiting for you to finish so could get started a little earlier. It will brighten their day.
If you help them out, then they will try and help you out if you’ve missed calculated the amount of time you’ll need in the hood for example and swap with you.
5. Think of others when doing your experiments
As I’ve mentioned, in our lab, we tend to share working areas and reagents for certain experiments – so it is quite a common thing for two people to be doing the same experiment on the same day but obviously the starts are staggered so we are not working completely on top of each other. I’m usually the one that starts later as I’m not a morning person, so any excuse to stay in bed a bit longer and start work a bit later suits me 🙂 But it sometimes means that I end up making up fresh stocks of all the buffers because they have been used before me and not replaced.
Now that might sound like I expect there to be buffers and reagents there for me to use every time but I don’t intend for it to sound that way at all. I’m happy to make up buffers but I don’t want to be faced with all the empty buffers all of the time. Plus in our lab, for each buffer we usually have two bottles of stock – so we in theory should always have something to use as when one bottle is finished you can use the other but make up fresh in that recently finished one too. But unfortunately it doesn’t usually happen.
All I am trying to say for this point is be aware – check back to tip number 3 – of what experiments your peers are doing or planning to do and make sure you don’t use up the last of something without getting it ordered because you don’t want to be the one who has set up a really expensive experiment, got most of the way through and can’t finish it because the last person finished the reagent you need and didn’t order it. It is a waste of time and money. So, just treat others as you would want to be treated I suppose is what I’m trying to say 🙂
6. If there are any issues, just talk it out!
And there will be issues. Not everyone is going to get on all of the time. That’s normal. But rather than making the environment awkward for everyone and talking behind people’s backs, bring up any issues in lab meetings or with the person in question. Talk it out. Resolve your differences. Compromise. It will make your life, their life and everyone else around you too.
7. Make notes about reagents
What do I mean with this one? I mean label with the date and make any notes about where things are stored, any issues they may be, if you have reordered something and so on. It will be useful to everyone sharing the reagents. Everyone will know where they stand and can be more efficient with their time.
8. Do your lab chores.
This is my greatest hate in the lab – people who don’t do their lab chores!
Now with the risk of sounding like your mother, people who can’t be bothered to the trivial things like restocking shelfs, wiping down equipment after using it, refilling pipette tip boxes, lab cleaning or simply emptying the bins when they are full really get to me. These are all things that everyone in the lab needs and use for their research so it is EVERYONES job to keep the lab ticking over. It is so simple – if things are running low or bins are overflowing, stock them up or empty them! It takes two seconds. Dont rely on the same person to fill up the ethanol bottles every week or leave an empty box of lab gloves on the lab bench and wait for someone else to put a new box there. It is so infuriating! This goes back to my team ethic point – help the team out and the team will help you out! And if you dont know where something is or how to discard of something just ask or tell someone! It is so much nicer to tell someone that there is something to be dealt with rather than just leaving them to find ot with the impression that you left it there for them because youre ‘too good’ for that job or have better things to do. Rant over 😛
All in all – the simple key to being a good lab mate is ‘Communication’!
Talk about problems, take an interest in what people are doing, let people know what resources you will be needing and so on and so on. I promise it will make your time in the lab so much happier.
So, there’s my top tips for being a good lab mate! Hopefully it doesn’t put anyone off working with me in the lab 😛 But do you have any other tips and advice to share? I would love to hear them as it might help me and others become better lab mates too!
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