by Jonathan Gross
During the course of graduate school we’ve all likely felt as if we were stuck on a deserted island or lost in a rain forest without a map. It’s tough. As graduate students, we strive to create knowledge, but we’re not explicitly taught how to practice science. I’d like to share three lessons about graduate school that I did not appreciate at the time, and that could help you find your path to the other side.
Plan for progress
Just as any intrepid adventurer must plan ahead for food, water, or shelter, we need to plan how we progress in graduate school and not leave our paths to chance. For me this meant writing a plan for the week ahead with annotation of how it supported my goals and the lab’s focus. It helps when planning to think in figures, visualizing the answer we seek, to come up with the clearest path forward.
It seems simple, but the written plan lowered my stress level not just for arranging my time, but also when speaking to my PI. He often had quick chats to verify that we were on track and aware of the next steps. These talks shaped his impressions and assumptions of each of us as scientists.
Many of us, myself included, often fumbled these chats: “Oh…um…just working on this experiment and data analysis. Want to see it?” But once I started writing plans I could quickly say, “I am re-developing method X, which I noticed was not working because of Y. I will know tonight whether it worked and will send you the data. I expect that by Friday we will have moved on to Z to bring us closer to finishing paper A. Perhaps we can chat then about the next steps we expect?”
Quick, to-the-point progress updates helped him help me, seizing the most value from his limited attention to ensure my project would advance smoothly and that he understood my value to his lab.
As I see it, plans aren’t just the domain of corporate staff; planning is essential, deliberate preparation for a successful scientific career.
I have noticed that successful scientists do not go it alone; they have support scientists and staff helping on the sidelines. Unfortunately, individual recognition is often over emphasized, leading academics to not share certain knowledge until problems arise.
I remember wasting months just troubleshooting one experiment. After probably fifty tries, making tweaks here and there, a post-doc finally said I used the wrong reagent and an outdated protocol. While that rescued my experiment, I started to wonder why it isn’t our habit to deposit that important information in one place.
Some of the problems we will encounter next are likely the same ones our labmates have already solved. If we document these situations for the whole lab to reference easily, we can save each other much frustration, time, and money.
Sharing is a competitive advantage of successful labs. I did not think of it as giving away information without personal gain, but rather a means for all of my lab members—myself included—to publish more papers, graduate faster, and have a fruitful career.
I think that documentation is equally as important as planning and sharing, but often downplayed. From labeling tubes and plates to notebook scribbles, coded file names, tweaks to a protocol, lot numbers of reagents and legends for figures, your future self and colleagues depend on the transparency of your work. For one protocol, I photographed every step. Some derided that as over-documentation. There isn’t one way “right” way keep records, rather the crucial point is to think critically how to preserve this protocol.
In the months leading up to my graduation, good documentation meant the difference between having some free time or pulling an all-nighter. As I wrote my thesis, I was grateful that I could quickly find notes about a basic transformation written in my first year. As my defense approached, I did not have to waste time searching for files and remembering what I did three years ago.
Just look into your lab’s freezer. How many things just sit there without anyone knowing exactly what they are and what experiments they were part of? And are these samples merely taking up precious space?
Reflections from the next step ahead
Graduate school did not end when I defended. I cleaned up my space (cheers to the list of where I stored things), handed over projects to colleagues (good thing I wrote my notes in a digital format), and taught someone else how to use the instruments for which I was the go-to guy (I’m sure they appreciated my detailed photographic protocol). How you wrap up dictates the ease with which you move to the next milestone in your career (and how future graduate students will respect the next generation with the same treatment). Whether you continue with research or enter the business world, your ability to document work, share knowledge proactively, and plan will be your competitive advantage.
The goal of academic research is discovery, but learning to practice science reduces the time it takes to consistently make those discoveries over the course of a career. Let graduate school be an adventure in innovation, just make sure you approach it with the same preparation as an adventure in the wild – if you want to survive.
Jonathan Gross is the founder and chief technology officer of the laboratory software company BioData and creator of Labguru. He has a Master’s in Biotechnology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As a graduate student, Jonathan pained at his lab’s organizational issues and ended-up writing software on the side to improve lab efficiency, which he went on to use as the basis for his company.