This advice comes from Christine Kiefer – Scientist at MedImmune, and Adjunct Professor, Loudon campus of The Northern Virginia Community College
If you are a student in the hard sciences or engineering fields, your lab bench work should be the primary focus while in graduate school. However, it is inevitable that other obligations such as lab meetings, journal clubs, and classes will interfere. The following are some tips to help you keep your attention in the right place when you feel pulled in many different directions.
- TIME MANAGEMENT - This is absolutely the most important skill you need to master. When working on the bench, a good rule is to budget at least 1.5 times the amount of time you "think" a task will take, because it will always take longer. Start new experiments slowly and methodically. As your comfort level with the techniques becomes more advanced, you may be able to balance 2 or more experiments at once if you manage your time effectively. For example, you may be able to fit one experiment's "active participation" inside another one's incubation or wait time. The ability to balance good planning and organization with consistent and reliable execution will slash the amount of time you waste in the lab. Things can always happen that are out of your control, but staying organized and managing you time wisely can help you avoid earning that undesirable reputation as the person who is unprepared and always late.
- Don't get distracted - When you're working on a specific experiment or problem, it can be easy to become hyper-focused and lose sight of the bigger picture. Always keep your specific aims in mind and your end-goal in sight. It is especially important to step back when things are NOT working to re-assess why you are taking one approach over another and whether you can attack the same question in a different way.
- Always ask for help - A good majority of your forward progress in the lab will be in some part thanks to advice and consultation with your colleagues. Being resistant to asking questions or a fear of looking like you're not an expert will only extend the amount of time you end up wasting on the bench. If you're lucky, there will be more senior personnel in your lab to consult, but keep your options open. Some of the best experimental advice can be gleaned from people doing similar experiments to answer completely different questions, so put your networking skills to work early and get to know the people in your department.
- Don't ignore your other obligations -There will be many times when you are so focused on your experiments that you feel the need to neglect everything else. Time management skills will help tremendously in keeping all your obligations balanced and in check. Remember, ensuring that you give an excellent presentation in front of department faculty can often be much more important in the long run than running one more experiment. If you push too hard and try to do everything, not only will your bench work suffer from being rushed and distracted but you may also miss important opportunities to practice other skills that are just as important for your career.
About the author: Christine earned her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Florida, College of Medicine. Currently, she works as a Scientist at MedImmune, as well as an Adjunct Professor, Loudon campus of The Northern Virginia Community College. Throughout her training, she has been a successful laboratory mentor to high school, undergraduate, graduate, and medical students.