Lab Survival Guide

Many of us have spent years in the lab, learning the numerous short cuts, the omitted steps from the protocols and the unsaid dos and don’ts.

For those new to the lab, the world of whirring equipment, white coats and focused study can be pretty daunting! We have therefore taken it upon ourselves to hand down some of our hard-earned knowledge to the lab newbies. Whether you’re a wide-eyed PhD student or a new starter in a CRO, take heed of our ten point guide and you’ll be hobnobbing with the lab veterans in no time.

1. Maintain an adequate caffeine supply

It’s highly probable that you’ll be working on your feet for extended periods of time: you may have several gels to loads, hours of antibody washes to perform or multiple tissues to section. In any event, you’ll need those adenosine receptors comfortably blocked to enjoy the sweet flow of dopamine and the heightened concentration that it brings. Most labs frown upon i.v. caffeine so locate the coffee pot or tea room, ASAP.

2. Print out your favourite ‘academic’ comic

No new cubby hole – I mean, desk space, in the lab would be complete without the obligatory comic pinned to the wall. Pick your favourite graphical representations of the inevitable highs and lows that life in the lab will bring (PhD Comics and XKCD are both excellent options), print them out, and display them on whichever part of the lab you’ve claimed as your own. These will bring you comfort with the knowledge that many have walked this path before you!

3. Get an MP3 player

Ah music! Plug in, volume up and pipette as you’ve never pipetted before! There’s a good reason why people have been developing work songs to boost productivity throughout history. Learn to love the rhythm. Maybe try a sea shanty or two for that authentic labouring feel.

4. Identify sources of free sustenance

You’re not always going to have time to sit down at a table, assess the wine list and contemplate which steak sauce you’d like to accompany your meal. Instead, you need to become an intelligent opportunist! Take advantage of the free food and drink that always come with ‘New student mixer’ events. Grab your fill and get back to the lab – science is your sustenance now.

5. Happy Hour

Never have two words strung together held so much excitement! Your department – if it has any credibility – will likely have some sort of Happy Hour. For those unfamiliar with the concept, this is typically a period of time on a Friday, often longer than an hour, that occurs after work, allowing staff and students to leave the comfort of their labs to meet and socialise, often with the inclusion of beers and high carbohydrate content-based snacks. Revelry may ensue.

6. Learn the Art of Procrastination

When you have a plethora of things to do, sometimes the best option is to do something else. You’ll soon learn to distinguish these times from the “OMG I haven’t finished the analysis and the report’s due in three hours!” moments, in which case we refer you to item #1 on this list. Suitable options for mastering the fine art of procrastination include the aforementioned comic sites; surfing the web to peruse the type of science you could be doing; and of course any one of the social media sites you uncontrollably check whenever you sit at your desk or pick up your phone – you could have a notification to respond to after all! 

7. Develop a thick skin

You will at some point, have to present data. Science is as much about sharing data as it is about research. When that happens, someone will inevitably tear open the one tiny hole in your conclusion that you were absolutely certain no one would even be aware of! Someone is always aware. Get good at taking criticism as it will make you a better, more rigorous scientist in the long run. In the short term, you’re allowed to cry a little until your emotional leather hide develops.

8. Get good at route optimization

Whether you need to navigate the busy lab to get to the PCR machine first, the library filing system to dig out that obscure reference your boss insisted you track down, or the local streets to reach the pub in the most expedient manner, you need to optimize the route you take. Remember: less time travelling, more time procrastinating – I mean, working.

9. Be tenacious

Life in lab will throw all manner of obstacles your way. These may be pieces of equipment that never do any of the things they’re meant to; experiments that, despite controlling every conceivable variable, still fail to produce the results you know they should; self-inflicted ‘health issues’ arising from exuberance during point #5 on this list; or bosses/supervisors that send you on a scientific wild goose chase through experimental backwaters. In any event, you’ll need to acquire a bottomless supply of tenacity to overcome these hurdles.

10. Remain curious

More than any other trait, holding on to that curiosity that initially sparked your research is what will drive you forward. When your experiments fail – and they will – you have to still wonder what’s happening in your system; you need to want to continually devise new experiments; and ultimately to maintain a desire to keep asking new questions. Staying curious will see you succeed in the lab, rather than just survive it!


Peter Bridge

About the Author

Peter Bridge

Peter has a background in analytical chemistry and has gained a wealth of knowledge and experience working for and supplying to a wide range of pharmaceutical, biotech customers and pharmaceutical companies.