116: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Summer Students

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Podcast: Hello PhD
Episode: 116: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Summer Students
Pub date: 2019-06-18

Ten weeks is not a long time. It feels even shorter when you’re tossed into the deep-end of a top-tier research lab.

If you’re spending your summer as a Research Assistant between semesters, or you’ve graduated and want to get some summer experience before grad school, we have ideas to help you hit the ground running.

This week, we respond to a listener question. Talia wrote:

This summer I had an AMAZING opportunity to do research at my dream school. I am a public health undergraduate and I have experience mostly in qualitative methods and community-based research. This summer I’ll be in a really cool epigenetics lab. I have very little background in biology and even less bench lab experience.For all of you bench lab folks and people in a mentoring capacity, what makes an undergraduate research assistant “coachable”? What habits do you love/don’t love in your RAs?

Great question, and we’re sure Talia is not alone in feeling unprepared for her first foray in the lab. Classes and textbooks are worlds away from the hands-on experience of research.

That’s why we crowd-sourced the traits other scientists want to see in summer research students. If you follow these guidelines, you can expect to make lifelong friends and have a solid letter of recommendation by the end of the summer

7 Habits for Summer Research

Show Humility

If you’re interested in a research career, you’ve probably done well in your classes and often been the smartest person in the room. That’s great for your self-confidence, but it’s going to drive your lab-mates and mentors crazy.

When you start as an undergraduate student research assistant, recognize that no one expects you to be an expert.

They expect you to be teachable.

That means asking questions when you are unsure about the material or getting help on the experiment where things are unclear.

And even if you have some prior experience, no one wants to hear you say “That’s not how we did it in my old lab…” Take a breath and be ready to learn a new way of doing things. Maybe the ‘old way’ was better, but you’ll never know until you try the new way!

Pay Attention to Detail

Research is all about the details, and your ability to focus and follow directions precisely will help you succeed.

Have your mentor observe and offer tips on improving your technique – things like pipetting accuracy or clearly labeling samples will make or break an experiment.

And in the first few weeks, we recommend keeping your headphones in your pocket and out of your ears. Get a few successful trials under your belt before you add other distractions while you work.

Engage with the Science

Having a summer student means an ‘extra set of hands’ in the lab, and that’s valuable, but you should strive to be more than a gel-running robot.

To get the most out of your summer research experience, do what you can to actually understand the work you’re doing.

That means asking about how your experiments fit in with the broader goals of the lab. Maybe you’re working toward a figure in a paper – take the time to see the forest for the trees.

It also means trying to understand the techniques and reagents you’re using. How does this enzyme work? Why are we adding this buffer?

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