Congratulations! You found yourself with the opportunity of working in a laboratory. But now what? Starting off in a lab can be intimidating, overwhelming, and nerve-wrecking, but some tips can help make the rocky beginning better.
Do your reading. Now that you are part of a team effort, it is important to try to know as much background information as possible. Start off by reading specifically about your research topic, perhaps in a textbook as the foundation. Once you have mastered the theoretical knowledge, you can move on to the specifics by looking at papers that have been previously published by your lab. These papers may be overwhelming at first, but over time it will make more sense. Also the added bonus is that you can ask others about the research and seem well-prepared. Wanting to get even more out of the experience? Learn the history of the field. Using Mass Spec? Do some reading on the history and what Mass Spec truly is rather than just accepting they information at face-value. You will get out as much as you put into your experience so the investment in reading will only better yourself, making you more well-rounded and ultimately a better scientist.
Be safe. Starting in a lab means you may have to go through safety training, but other times you may not. It is important to familiarize yourself with some basic safety knowledge when starting in a lab, such as where the eye wash is, where the safety shower is, where the exits are, and what proper protective equipment is required. Other things to review are knowing basic things such as adding acid into water (and not the other way around) or what chemicals are toxic and must be worked with underneath a fume hood. It is important to keep this information in mind as safety is important in a laboratory setting. If you are unsure of anything, feel free to ask!
Communicate. Communicating with the others in the lab is vital. Science is a collaborative effort which makes communication key. Asking questions and asking for help is important as it will allow you to get the most out of the experience. It may be difficult to ask what seems like basic questions at first, but it is important to understand what you are doing thoroughly. Mistakes in a lab can be costly so it is best to try to avoid them by knowing exactly what you are doing.
Familiarize yourself with the lab. Some labs can be huge, which means there is much to learn. Try to learn where the things are you need such as instruments and tools you commonly use. This will help you out in the long run as you will know where things are. So wander around a bit, look a bit lost in the beginning, because it will only help you in the end.
Be proactive. If you see something in the lab that needs to be done and you know how and have the time, do it without being told. This can be as simple as cleaning up the workspace, throwing out the trash, or even cleaning glassware. Try to predict what needs to be done next and take the initiative to do it without being asked. Not only will you keep yourself busy, you will impress those around you with your forward-thinking and make the lab a better environment.
Prepare for low moments. The first few weeks will be somewhat rocky as you are starting off and are still unsure of yourself. Some moments you may feel in the way of those around you or unsure of what you are doing. During these moments, take a step back and breath. You earned your spot there and will learn what you need to succeed over time. Each person in the lab started off in the same place, feeling overwhelmed in the environment, but they learned over time, meaning you will too! Just keep pushing through because there’s so much to learn and perseverance is key!
Keeping these tips in mind, I hope it makes your experience in a lab better. Being accepted to work in a laboratory is a great honor and opportunity– you were chosen because you have the background information needed. The opportunity will build on your foundation, making you grow as an intellectual and as a person. Enjoy the experience of working in a lab because each lab is unique with different benefits to offer!