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A post for new Lab students

Hey there newbie.

Yes you, with all your nerves, excitement, and enthusiasm.

Welcome to the lab.

Maybe you’ve already been introduced to everyone, but lets face it- you’ve already forgotten whose name was whose. So long as you still remember your supervisor’s name, that’s the main thing.

Don’t worry- you’ll remember everyone’s names eventually, especially if they do nice things for you, or (in the more likely scenario) if they’re annoying.

Maybe you’ve got at least one good egg, who invites you to eat lunch together, who fills you in on all the really important lab stuff. Who to stick with, who to stay away from- what to watch out for, etc.

Because while you’ve entered what may be your first professional work environment, you’ll soon discover that people will always be… people.

There are cliques, there are weirdos, and there are bullies.

But there are also some real gems- and you should find them quickly and hold onto them forever.

Maybe you’re a bit shy, and it’s hard to make friends on your first day. That’s okay, because turns out, that’s most of us. Just try to remain polite and friendly, even if it’s exhausting. Over time you’ll realise that it doesn’t matter whether you’re liked or not liked. There will always be people who dislike you, no matter how nice you are to them. On the flip side, the good people will always be there to help you out.

At best, aim for a good working relationship. Collegial. It’s all you can realistically ask for.

If your first day ends as a half day, or you end up spending most of it doing administrative tasks (inductions, OHS documentation, etc)- that’s also okay. It’s pretty much what we all have to do, even as an employee. Good news is, it’s a great ice breaker to laugh about the paperwork. Generally the first week is just a blur of admin anyway.

Just remember that it’s okay to be completely wiped after your first few days. You’re in a new environment, new faces, new routine… It can be quite a shock to the system. Take it easy, and don’t expect to jump straight into the lab and start pumping out results.

That only happens in the movies. Real life is actually quite a lot slower. πŸ˜… And results can take months to achieve, if not years.

The best thing you can do right now is to just observe.

Observe your colleagues (obviously not in a creepy way) and see how they interact with one another. Do they get on well? Is there some sort of underlying tension you weren’t initially aware of? Was your supervisor crazier than you’d realised?

Familiarise yourself with where everything is. Not just for your own experiments, but also for the overall running of the lab.

How do you replenish the pipette tips? Where are the fresh eppies kept? Are all the lab consumables stocked up?

Has someone made up the 80% ethanol, or is it empty- again?

Is the lab bin overflowing? Who’s on bin duty?

Don’t volunteer for everything, but do try to help out as best you can. Write down the locations of things in your notes if you keep forgetting.

A lab member who helps out with keeping the lab running will always be appreciated. Also don’t diss the conversations you could have with your colleagues while doing mundane tasks. Those can be the best parts of the work day.

If you don’t know something, just ask.

We say that, but there are always limits to these things.

We’re only human, and asking the same question over and over again will grate on anybody’s nerves. If the person looks busy (e.g. literally in the middle of an assay), maybe just check that they’re available. If they say no, or they ask you to go away- don’t take it to heart, just know that they’re probably a bit busy and/or stressed out.

Write things down. We all understand that no one’s memories are perfect. But if you keep notes, it’ll help you to remember, and reduce the number of times you ask the same thing.

If you still can’t remember, it’s always polite to apologise and acknowledge that you’ve forgotten, and say you’re going to write it down. I guess, it’s okay to admit fault- just remember to also have a strategy to avoid the same situation in the future.

If you forget to do something, or you make a mistake- just be honest and own up.

I know it’s really scary, but honesty is far better than lying, or blaming someone else.

If someone posts in the lab group chat, or emails the lab about an issue, and you know it was you…

Just own up to it. It doesn’t have to be to the group, it can just be to the person who posted/sent it.

An apology, followed again by an ‘I will not do this again’, ‘I will fix this ASAP’ or ‘I will help you with this next time to atone’, is far better than lying, remaining silent, or… worse yet- rattling excuses. Sometimes it’s far easier to just say you’re sorry, and that you’ll get onto fixing the issue immediately. That’s how you own your mistakes.

I’d hope this goes without saying- if you apologise, own the issue and apology, and the other person just keeps rubbing more salt into the wound… Then they’re also being a jerk. You might just have to let them bask in their superiority complex, but just know in your heart that they’re being an arsehole. If your workplace culture is so toxic that owning up to a mistake results in public execution, then… That’s not okay. That’s just toxic.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, you’ll notice you’ll be doing a lot of conflict resolution. Maybe you’re not directly involved, but another lab person is. Either way, there will always be some level of tension, or issue/s that regularly pop up between people. Diplomacy is definitely needed in any team environment, so if you’ve never worked full time in a workplace before, welcome to this nightmare. πŸ˜‚

Find role models.

And not just good ones.

A lot of people put emphasis on good role models- and for good reasons, too. But I find good role models to be few and far between, and I fear that this is quite common across the board, no matter what lab or institution you’re at.

People who display poor workplace behaviour are also role models- but they’re the bad kind. Still, negative role models are good because they really teach you how not to be. Learn from their many, many mistakes, so that you can recognise future poor behaviours and vow never to be like them.

Don’t be offended if your colleagues don’t know what you’re working on. It’s actually quite normal. Unless you’re talking about it on the daily, it’s easy to lose track of what everyone is doing. Hell, can you remember what your bench neighbour is working on? πŸ˜‚

Use it as an opportunity to practice communicating your work to others. You might even get some helpful advice on what to do next. Sure, most of it will be unwarranted ‘helpful’ advice, but it’s still a chance to communicate your work. At least it’s to your colleague, and not to some strangers at a conference.

It’s okay to vent, but be wary of who you vent to.

Generally speaking, everyone in the lab is busy, to varying degrees. It’s like the baseline is ‘busy’, and then it goes up from there (busier, very busy, extremely busy, flat out snowballing, ‘don’t talk to me about busy or I’ll cut you 🀬’)

So just complaining about how busy your schedule is might not be so good, especially when the person you’re complaining to is busier than you.

Rather than this, you can frame it a different way and say you’re struggling with the workload. You’ll probably get more sympathy that way (especially when you’re new). You can also use this as an opportunity to ask for advice on how to lessen the stress.

But still pick your people. Some people are so wound up that any mention of someone else being ‘busy’ is a trigger. Sure, some might not react aggressively, but I suppose that’s why it’s good to have strong friendships. It doesn’t even have to be a direct lab mate. It could be someone from a different lab- or even outside of. Just someone safe to talk to.

Bloody hell, I haven’t even gotten to the actual workload you’re supposed to be doing. There’ll be a bunch of papers to read to catch up on literature and protocols, and a bunch of new experiments to actually be doing.

It’s going to be overwhelming. There’s no doubt about it.

But I think the main thing here is that over time, while the workload will continue to increase, you’ll notice that your capacity will also be increasing. Sure it’ll always feel like treading water, but if you think back to when you began, the speed at which you do things will increase.

You’ll skim papers quicker. You might not retain all the information, but you’ll realise that you can scribble summary notes on the edges that you can read later.

You’ll perform each assay quicker. You might go from doing one assay at a time to five assays at a time, just because your project or supervisor needs you to, but that still means you can now do five things at once.

The most important thing here is to remember that you can only compare yourself to… yourself.

Because no matter how efficient or amazing a person is, there will always be others who do it better. Unfortunately you’re in a field that compares people against each other in an extremely competitive fashion, but if it’s grinding you down too much-

Again, the only person you can realistically compare yourself against is you.

Don’t forget that we’re all human. We all have bad days, or bad periods in our lives. The best people are the ones who acknowledge when they’ve been inappropriate, and has the decency to apologise for it.

But they’re pretty rare.

You too, could be a rare gem.

At the end of the day, my biggest concern for newbies is the burn out.

Your enthusiasm burns so brightly, but you have to regulate it so that it doesn’t burnt out too fast.

Things aren’t always as good as they seem, and you might suddenly notice a whole bunch of issues. I suppose you could call it ‘the honeymoon phase’ ending.

And that’s why it’s really important to keep talking to people. To maintain realistic goals and expectations.

Lab will always be intense, but I hope over time you can either learn to get used to it, or learn that it’s not for you. Either way you’ll figure out more about yourself than before.

And isn’t that the whole point of life in a nutshell? Learning about who you are?


Categories: Careers General Lab Ph D posts

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A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. πŸ‘€ 🦠 🧫 🧬

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