Hello all, today I am coming to you with the latest post in my PhD Chronicles series and I am diving into the topic of navigating the lab at the beginning of your PhD and the 5 things that I have learnt so far.
I am quite lucky that my supervisor paired me up with another colleague in our lab because we are working on the same tissue (adipose). It has been a big help, especially when trying to learn new experimental techniques and some cool little tricks when it comes to working with adipose tissue. I would really advise that when you start your PhD see if there is a senior member in your lab group that is doing similar work to you and watch them doing experiments. By doing this, you get to see where everything is but also you gain a better understanding of some of the techniques that you’ll be using because eventually, you will have to be doing this alone. That being said, in the beginning, it is always nice to see how it’s done and to pick up any tips. This is because sometimes the protocol you are given to follow it’s not exactly in the most detail or you may have to make some minor tweaks to said protocol. Therefore, take notes whilst shadowing so that you’ll be able to replicate the experiment when you’re alone. Also, this is another way to socialise and get to know the people in your lab because you will be working with those individuals for at least a year so it’s good to develop a form of working relationship with them.
Check-in with Your Supervisor
I will also advise new students to always check in with your supervisor especially in the first couple of months. You’re probably going to speak with your supervisor a lot to get a general gist of the overview of your project and what you are trying to do. It’s also nice to have check-in sessions with your supervisor as well in case things are going wrong they have the knowledge to give you tips and advice on how to improve your current techniques to yield better results! It’s also another way to get to know your supervisor as well in order to establish that supervisor student relationship. I can say that I’ve been very blessed with my supervisor because he is from a similar background to me and is a very approachable person. I know that there have been times where I have felt a bit anxious or worried about something and I’ve just been able to go to his office to speak to him which really makes a world of difference.
I put this tip at the top of my self-care tips post but honestly, you do need to rest as well whilst you are doing a series of experiments. Trying to manoeuvre in the lab when you’re tired or you don’t feel well is a disservice to both yourself and possibly the quality of your work. I know for a fact that if I feel particularly tired and drained I don’t go into the lab but instead, I work at my computer (my 6-month report is due soon yikes!). I have also heard some horror stories of accidents happening when somebody has been trying to work in the lab tired and I do not want that to be me any time soon so I will take the rest that I need. Always remember that your safety and that of others in the lab is a top priority! Similarly to my self-care post, resting is important for your creativity and overall general function; it is okay to put your experiments on pause if you need to take a breather (make sure you are at a safe point before doing so).
Ask For Help
Something that I am doing more of regarding my academics is asking for help when I need it. There are things that I do not know such as people that I may need to email for specific requests or where I need to go to get dry ice/liquid nitrogen. Therefore, it is always good to ask for help when you don’t know anything even if you’ve been in the lab for a year you should never be ashamed to ask for help when necessary. I know for a fact that the person I’m shadowing in my lab even if she has shown me something I’m not afraid to ask her. Additionally, it is better to ask if you don’t know something than to attempt it by yourself when you are unsure. There is the possibility of making an error which can either: put you in danger, bring risks to other colleagues or will be a hindrance to both your results and data (remember that your safety and that of others in the lab is a top priority!).
Lastly, I want to emphasise the importance of trying again when things have gone wrong. There is a possibility that one little thing that has caused everything to go awry therefore a little tweak will be much better for you in the long run. For example, when I was first doing RNA isolation, I wasn’t using filtered pipette tips which caused any RNA isolated to easily degrade. After speaking to my supervisor and my fellow colleague, I was also advised to make sure that I cut my tissue on ice to further ensure no degradation. Therefore, in essence, I have to keep trying again until I know my technique. Additionally, after speaking to more experienced colleagues in my building, a lot of them have said that they didn’t get their most significant results until towards the end of their degree. I personally feel like with science sometimes you are operating on trial and error until you get what you need. Also, when something isn’t working as you expect it to that is actually an answer to your research question and therefore nothing to worry about. Overall, just keep trying again because there’s a reason why you wanted to do this PhD so keep trying your experiments over and over again you got this!
All in all, I hope this post can be of help to PhD students who have a heavy practical element and their experiments may have gone wrong. My faith tells me that tests can come and experiments with my tissue are no exception to this. A lot of the time it just takes trial and error to find the optimum technique that works for you but produces the results. In the meantime, there is always browsing Skyscanner in between your experiments to egg on your wanderlust.
Until next time,
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