10 Pro-Tips to Wrap up Your Spring Research Semester


10 Pro-Tips to Wrap up Your Spring Research Semester

—from the PI's desk and the Researcher's bench

The close of the spring semester brings thoughts of lounging on the beach with a good book, hanging out with friends, or starting an exciting summer internship. In other words, all the things that will make your summer fun and enjoyable. However, don’t let your enthusiasm for the beginning of summer distract you from wrapping up some key tasks in the lab.

The tips below will help you finish your semester on a professional note and leave a positive, lasting impression on your labmates. Both are important whether you’re returning to the lab in the summer or next fall, or you’ve finished your last experiment and are moving on to a new adventure.

  1. Finish strong. Don’t let your motivation for quality lab work be derailed by the end-of semester activity crush. It’s true that exams, social activities, and upcoming summer adventures might be more exciting than a labor-intensive experiment or a technique that refuses to cooperate. But, don’t make the mistake of thinking that your mentor won't care if you slack for the last few weeks because you worked hard all semester. Because she absolutely will care.Your research experience might not be tied to your GPA, but the effort you put forth will be noticed and it will matter.
  2. Discuss what you won’t complete. If you aren’t going to accomplish the project objectives or complete all the experiments that you planned at the start of the semester, ask your mentor what you should focus on in the time you have left. If you’re returning in the summer, you might not need to change your research strategy, but if you’re leaving the lab at the end of the term reassessing your goals might be in order. Likewise, if you’re going to leave chores that will require a labmate to do extra work, such as caring for plants in the greenhouse, worms in the incubator, or flies in the bottles let your mentor know. Please don’t presume that she is already aware or leave her to be surprised by the additional workload.
  3. Write a solid report. Some departments require students to write a research summary that isn’t turned in to their PI but to a research coordinator or administrator. As tempting as it is to put off writing it until you’re almost out of time, doing a shoddy job will reflect poorly on both you and your PI. It’s also likely that subpar writing will be brought to his attention and PI’s tend to remember such details. When your PI writes your recommendation letters, you want him to recall that you demonstrated knowledge of the big picture, excitement about your project, and appreciation for the research opportunity. A well-written final report will help reinforce these.
  4. Complete notebook. Hopefully, you prioritized your notebook throughout the semester and never fell behind. But, sometimes things happen. Realistically, if you’re two weeks from the end of the semester and you haven’t incorporated scribbles that are on post-it-notes or paper towels into your notebook, it’s probably not going to happen. Therefore, tape, staple, or scan and upload those notes today. Although it’s not a great way to organize your notes, it’s better than risking that the notes get lost, accidentally thrown away, or a used by a labmate to dry their hands.
  5. Label everything. If you cut a few corners during the semester and didn’t label all of your storage boxes or samples, get it done before the end of the term. Even if you know what is in each box and what every sample is, don’t put your mentor in the position of having to guess. Plus, unlabeled boxes appear to be unimportant or abandoned and are in danger being discarded during a lab cleaning frenzy. If possible, in addition to labeling the outside of storage boxes with the contents and your name, add a date that corresponds with an information-rich notebook page.
  6. Clean up before you go-go. Even if you’re taking only a short break before retuning to the lab for the summer, use the end of the term to clean up, throw out, and reorganize. For example, wash your dishes (if part of your responsibilities), and complete all chores that are regularly assigned to you. If you worked with bacterial cultures or plates during the semester, don't leave the old ones rotting in the 4 °C . If you used the last (or near last ) of a community reagent, make more before you leave or inform the labmate whose job it is that it’s low or needs to be ordered.
  7. Lock down future lab schedule. To avoid a misunderstanding later, confirm what your mentor’s time-commitment expectations are for next semester before you depart. For example, if you commit to a full-time summer research experience, and to you that means thirty hours a week for nine weeks with weekends and all university holidays off, make sure your mentor knows and agrees with this plan. If you’ll be returning in the fall, but plan to spend fewer hours per week in the lab than you did this semester, confirm that such a change will work with your research project.
  8. Ask for papers. Once you’ve been in the lab for a semester or two, it’s time to put serious effort into reading the current scientific literature. Often, it’s helpful to start this task during a summer break when you have fewer classes. How difficult it will be to decipher the literature will depend on a variety of factors including your academic background, current understanding of your research project and the lab’s big picture, and the papers you’re given. Regardless, it will not be an easy task so don’t expect it to be so. Ideally, try to digest your first paper in small increments over a couple of weeks, and consult with your mentor or PI several times during the process.
  9. Thank everyone. Obviously, thanking your PI for the opportunity to learn and work in her lab is important, but so is acknowledging the impact your labmates had on your research experience. Spend a few minutes near the end of the semester to connect with your labmates and sincerely thank them for helping you or making your experience noteworthy. An honest statement such as,“Thank you for teaching me how to isolate DNA,” or “Thank you for making me feel welcome and part of the lab,” or “Thank you for giving up so much time to work with me this semester,” is all it takes. But, when choosing your words keep in mind that sincerity is the key to demonstrating genuine appreciation.
  10. Leave contact information. Your mentor may need to contact you for details about your research samples, a page in your notebook, or a general inquiry about your project. Therefore, email her (and your PI if they are separate people) your contact information even if you’re sure they have it. It’s particularly helpful if you also include your preferred method of contact such as: “Please text me if you have questions,” and any dates that you know you’ll be unavailable, “I’ll be camping with no cell phone service June 8 - 15th.”