Lab Smarts, Street Smarts

Sorry for the slim pickings this week, folks, but Ive had a few adventures in the lab this week… I seem to have had lots of strange adventures since I grabbed onto the coattails of Bossman a few years ago…

I didnt just jump straight from college to grad school to the lab of an established PI. I took an alternative route, and have gained some ‘lab smarts’ analogous to ‘street smarts’– stuff you dont know how/what to do until you live through it.

  • Tips/Tricks for setting up international collaborations
  • How to part gracefully with a former employer
  • How to set up a new laboratory, from scratch
  • What to do when a collaborator is gravely ill
  • What to do when a colleague leaves academia and ‘orphans’ his grad students
  • How to write/submit/rewrite/resubmit grants
  • How to balance grant budgets, when you get them
  • How to hire employees
  • How to pick new grad students
  • How to interview potential faculty
  • … How to deal with ‘under-performing’ employees…
  • …… How to deal with ‘disgruntled’ employees……


Yeah… Well, former employee is gone now…

Yeah…… Look, guys, sometimes I paint a rosy picture of the Research World. Ive been lucky enough to interact with great people, from universities all over the world, and Im madly in love with my research… But the thing is, this job isnt for everyone. Its a lifestyle, and while its my dream, I totally understand why some people might not like it.

So if you think Research World sounds like fun, try it out! I highly recommend undergrads take a summer to participate in summer research programs. I did that one summer, and it changed my life. Or if you want to take some time after your undergraduate degree to get a tech job to figure out whether you want to do PhD or MD or what, that is a great idea too (hehehehehe, also what I did).

Make sure if you do that, if you stick your toe into research world for the summer, or decide to join a lab after you get your BS, and you hate it… Just tell the PI “Thank you for the opportunity, but this really isnt for me, lol!”

Dont fuck around. Dont slack off. Dont waste reagents and waste the time of your PI and waste the time of your coworkers. By all means, stick your toes into Research World! Dive on in if you like the waters! But for the love of god, get out of the damn pool if its not for you.


  1. #1 factician
    June 6, 2008

    I tend to tell newbies that come into the lab, “Research is like heroin. It’s fun as hell, but probably not all that good for you…”

  2. #2 Seabhag
    June 6, 2008

    Another alternative (totally depending upon your university), is to do undergrad research (that was a requirement for my B.S. Chem). The other option I had available to myself was to participate in the university’s “Accelerated Masters” program. The senior year classes counted as both undergraduate and master’s level (extra papers, presentations, etc). I didn’t start doing a lot of extra research till I finished my senior year; but I was in/around the lab a lot, especially since my undergrad research adviser and my master’s research adviser are the same person.

    When I started my chemistry degree I was a planning on becoming a pharmacist. By the time I finished my first semester of undergraduate research (and 2 years of working in a pharmacy), I’d pretty well decided that research was so much cooler than working in a pharmacy.

    Factician is right. Research is like a drug. Sometimes you have a bad trip (discover a research paper where the authors did your really cool idea); but overall it’s addictive.

    It’s always a blast when you walk into your adviser/boss’s office and say “check *this* out” and you see them get stoked about new data.

    Like ERV said, if you think you might even have a CHANCE of being interested in research. Try it, REU (aka summer research assistantships), or undergraduate research (especially if you have to give a presentation over your topic) will really let you know if you want to keep doing that.

  3. #3 PhysioProf
    June 7, 2008

    Or if you want to take some time after your undergraduate degree to get a tech job to figure out whether you want to do PhD or MD or what, that is a great idea too (hehehehehe, also what I did).

    This is an excellent idea! We have an explicit training program in my lab for post-graduate research fellows, and at any given time have ~3 of them in the lab. The brightest, most driven post-grad trainees function at the level of senior grad students.

  4. #4 Sili
    June 7, 2008

    And once more you remind what a poor student I was.

    I didn’t learn any of that, and by the time I realised just how little I knew to get along in academia it was too late. I just packed my desk and left – in disgrace, I’m sure.

    Don’t like to think about just how much money was wasted on me …

  5. #5 Paul Lundgren
    June 7, 2008

    Abbie, I’ve never been a scientific researcher, but the advice is excellent: if you want to do something, talk to someone who does the job and see what it’s REALLY like. My best friend, who’s a professional administrator, used to tell me of my former profession, “I think radio broadcasting is fascinating.” My usual rebuttal was, “That’s because you’ve never done it for a living…it’s overrated.”

    My own personal advice would be, talk to people who both like that profession, and those who got out of it because they didn’t, and see which group reminds you most of yourself. If you find kindred spirits among those who stuck it out and fell in love with it, take the plunge. Otherwise, it’s probably not your cup of tea.

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