By: Arvin Wali
‘Parameters.’ ‘Controlled environment.’ ‘Following protocol.’
Let’s be honest - these words don’t exactly instill feelings of growth and independence. Early in your research career, it’s normal to become a tad disenchanted by the lab.
In the beginning, you might only receive rote, mechanical duties, or find yourself repeating the same experiment over and over again. As you face ‘confounding variables’ and ‘skewed distribution’ on your path to minimal results, you might be tempted to hang up your white coat for good.
But if you’re feeling this way, you probably need to adjust your mindset. Research requires persistence as you pay your dues and earn your way up in the ranks. It’s a world of learning curves and delayed gratification, but it can be navigated with the right approach. While you’re getting acclimated to the lab, there are several strategies that can help you maximize your research experience.
Research is a skill tree with many branches, but you must first develop your roots. Think of it like leveling up in an RPG video game. Everyone starts from scratch, but as your experience builds, you can eventually focus and deepen your expertise. There’s no way around it -- you need a solid understanding of basic biology, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, etc. If you don’t establish this knowledge base, it will feel impossible to keep up.
So much of research (and medicine) involves learning from the person next to you and then teaching the person on your right. The more you know, the more you can teach, and the higher up the ranks you can climb. It’s best to begin developing this network on your first day; don’t be shy! Talk to as many people as possible and soak in their wisdom like a sponge.
Take a moment to assume the perspective of your superiors. It’s important to recognize that the professors or doctors you’re working under are people with many responsibilities. You might not always get a lot of facetime with them. The best way to get their attention is to make their lives easier.
Since there is a chain of command, you can start by developing a rapport with the various subordinates--post-docs, PhD candidates, Master’s students, and even fellow undergraduates with experience. Each one can be your mentor, and each relationship will present opportunities for you to contribute and get noticed. Be prepared to take on less glamorous projects, and always offer to fill in when the lab is shorthanded. Your efforts will impress your colleagues and trickle upward to the head honcho.
Do not make the mistake of viewing the lab and the classroom as disparate realms. Even if your research project seems niche or esoteric, you should strive to draw connections between the scientific knowledge you’re acquiring both outside and inside the classroom.
Are you running drug trials on mice models? Performing vision response tests on autistic children? Testing the therapeutic properties of coffee and dark chocolate? These are all projects we have seen on students’ applications; despite their specificity, each student was able to successfully apply the ideas to their academics, and in some cases, to their patient care experiences. These connections will help to elevate your application essays about research and communicate the value of the experience beyond resume-stuffing.
Do your best to make a good first impression with the other lab members, and then strive to exceed expectations. Don’t push the boundaries or step on any toes, but try to remain proactive. Present yourself as consistent, reliable, and mature. If you make mistakes, own up to them and find ways to fix them. If you’re unsure of something, ask questions and communicate openly. Remain as flexible as possible when it comes to your role or set of tasks. Show a willingness to collaborate, actively listen, and learn on the job. Once you’ve developed your skillsets, offer to mentor and train newcomers in the lab.
Like all workplaces, some are more conducive to collaboration, others less so. After a few months, ask yourself, “Am I a good fit for this lab, project, or field?” Hopefully the answer is yes. But part of developing trust in the lab means being honest with yourself and others. If you’ve worked diligently on a project and developed bonds with your colleagues, then it shouldn’t be too challenging to explain your motivations for changing labs. It’s okay to leave a project, as long as you leave it with grace. If your exit is graceful, then your colleagues will be more likely to help you solidify a new position elsewhere.
Once you’re trusted, then you get to take the lead. Initiative is a key quality for all hopeful pre-meds, and this mentality should permeate into your lab work. Volunteer whenever tasks and experiments present themselves, but also formulate your own ideas along the way. If you develop enough clout with your colleagues, you may be able to position yourself into an independent project of your own design.
Again, this process is slow, so make sure sufficient time has passed before approaching superiors about additional responsibility. Ask questions first to gauge what the lab needs most and to test whether your ideas for projects have potential. Present your thoughts and hypotheses with the intention of friendly discussion, and if you play your cards right, these conversations could grow into an unforgettable research journey.