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Life and Research: A Survival Guide for Early-Career Biomedical Scientists

—from the Lab Manager's bench and the PI's desk

Life and Research is for grad students, postdocs, and staff scientists. However, advanced undergrad researchers, or students planning to do a postbac, planning to go to grad school, or planning to do research in med school will also benefit from applying the strategies in Life and Research. We also recommend Life and Research for principal investigators who mentor early-career researchers.

Why we wrote Life and Research as a researcher-centered book

It's generally presumed that most early-career researchers have the skill sets they need to succeed in their current position simply because they were successful enough to make it to that level. On the surface, this makes sense.

But in reality even two scientists working in the same lab at the same time won’t automatically receive equitable training, professional development opportunities, and mentorship or acquire the same transferable skill sets. As an early-career researcher, you can become a data-producing machine without developing essential communication or interpersonal skills, or you can spend days and nights overworking yourself in the lab making little progress because your approach to benchwork or time management is haphazard.

Regardless of the work culture you experience and the support you receive from labmates, we wrote Life and Research to empower grad students, postdocs, and staff scientists to identify and develop transferable skills and ward off common problems with labmates and the principal investigator by keeping the lines of communication open and building a network of mentors and advisors who are invested in your success. We also hope to persuade you to continually evaluate your nonwork goals holistically, so your life, wellbeing, and relationship goals don’t fall by the wayside.

Many strategies we suggest are inspired by failure or regret—some are ours and others are from colleagues who shared their experiences with us. Ultimately, we’ve created a guide on what we wish we had known when we were early-career researchers and strategies that we wish we had implemented far sooner in our careers.

How Life and Research is organized

Life and Research is divided into two parts. Part 1 contains strategies on achieving personal goals connected to an early-career researcher’s professional responsibilities, while Part 2 is focused on strategies directly related to accomplishing research objectives or conducting labwork.

Table of Contents (A partial list)

Part 1

Chapter 1: Beginnings Are Hard for Everyone but You Got This!

  • Strengthening Your Armor against Imposter Syndrome
  • Shut Down a Toxic Inner Critic
  • Realize That You Won’t Always Know the Answer and That’s Okay
  • Internalize Your Achievements: You’re More Successful Than You Think
  • Filter Out Well-Meaning but Unhelpful Advice
  • Prioritize Self-Care and Maintain Your Work-Life Balance

Chapter 2: Building Your Mentoring and Advising Network

  • Finding Potential Mentors and Advisors
  • Staying Connected to Members of Your Professional Support Network
  • Evolving a Mentoring Connection
  • Weighing Others’ Advice
  • For grad students:Turning Graduate Committee Members into Committee Mentors
  • More Than a Reference: Mentors and Advisors as Advocates During an Application Process
  • Enlisting Advocates to Help Manage a Toxic Work Situation

Chapter 3: Determining and Achieving Your Work-Life Balance

  • Set Boundaries That Work for You
  • Breaking Away from an Always-On Work Culture and Letting Go of the Guilt
  • Incorporating Small Acts of Self-Care into Your Life
  • Defining Your Personal and Professional Goals
  • Three Questions to Ask Yourself When Evaluating a Specific Goal

Part 2

Chapter 4: Managing Your Professional Activity

  • Your Professional Calendar Should Support Your Productivity, Not Stress You Out
  • Track Where Your Time Goes
  • Discover Your True Interests
  • Conserve Your Mental Energy
  • Commit Time for Professional Development Activities
  • Managing Your Research Schedule

Chapter 5: Managing Your Research Project. It’s Your Project—Own It

  • Project Planning: First Think Big and Then Start Small
  • Project Planning and Execution: Where to Start When You’re Stuck
  • Six Steps to Getting Your Productivity Back on Track
  • The F-Word (Failure) in Research: When Good Plans Go Bad
  • Managing Project Meetings with Your PI
  • Working with an Unengaged PI

Chapter 6: Being a Good Labmate

  • Everyone Deserves to Work in a Healthy and Inclusive Lab Culture
  • Work Hard and Be Nice: If Only It Were Always That Easy
  • Be the Labmate You’d Want to Work With

Chapter 7: Managing Your Research Workday

  • Good Research Habits Save Time; Bad Ones Destroy Your Motivation
  • Using Your In-Between Time Wisely
  • Taking Workday Breaks That Support Your Wellness
  • Completing a Protocol without Duplicating Too Much Effort
  • Going Rogue: The Fastest Way to Sabotage Your Research
  • Overworking: The Classic Antiproductivity Trap to Avoid

Chapter 8: Practicing Science Communication

  • Share Your Perspective, Passion, Experience, and Research for the Greater Good
  • Ten Pro Tips for Building Connections on Social Media
  • Giving Your Time and Passion to an Outreach Program
  • Developing a Writing Habit and Managing Coauthors and Feedback
  • Help for the Unfortunately Afflicted: Some Strategies for Pushing Through Writer’s Block

Chapter 9: Presenting Your Research

  • Present Your Research Every Chance You Get
  • Taking Stock after a Presentation
  • Selecting Conferences for Inspiration, Impact, and Affordability
  • Paying for Conferences and Avoiding Reimbursement Surprises
  • Preparing for Conferences: Your Checklist of Tips
  • Getting the Most Out of Conferences


Preorder Life and Research online at Amazon, and Barnes and Nobel, and the University of Chicago Press. Release date is October 1, 2022.

Advanced Praise for Life and Research

Part survival guide and part pep-talk, Life and Research: An Early-Career Guide for Biomedical Scientists should be included in every welcome package for scientists joining a new lab or research program. Grey and Oppenheimer have created a portable version of the ideal mentor – helpful, honest, and compassionate. I wish I’d had this book ten years ago, as it would have saved me a lot of frustration and loneliness while navigating the confusing world of grad school.

-- Susanna Harris, Ph.D., Founder and Chair of PhD Balance

Paris Grey and David Oppenheimer are the mentors you never had in graduate school. They will teach you how to carry out scientific research while still living your best life, so you can do high-quality work without risking burnout.

-- Jennifer Polk, Ph.D., Principal, FromPhdToLife

Life and Research is a practical guide to surviving academic research as an early career researcher (and beyond). In this book, Grey and Oppenheimer strike a friendly tone while discussing very personal issues like finding the right work-life balance and establishing a network of mentors, but also when focusing on more utilitarian information like travel reimbursements. They are also realistic about the process of research itself – the ups and downs – and they provide practical tips for handling failure in the lab and how to get back on track.

Much of the text focuses on practical matters for new grad students, but the advice is universal. For example, the book often focuses on issues of equity, inclusion, and the hidden curriculum in biomedical research. While this information is important for new researchers, it's also important for new (and established) PIs to consider when creating a healthy and supportive lab environment. They are also honest in advising early career researchers to prioritize career development and exploration from the first years of graduate school. Resources for graduate students are all too often developed to keep researchers on an academic track even as PI positions become ever more scarce. Grey and Oppenheimer steer early career scientists to identify their strengths and pursue relevant training outside of the lab to broaden their skill sets should they decide to pursue non-academic careers.

This book should be required reading for researchers, especially those early in their career.

-- Danielle R. Snowflack, Ph.D. Senior Director of Education, Edvotek