The following are some general tips and pieces of advice on conducting scientific research and doing scientific experiments.
1) Take a first aid course. You never know when it'll come in handy in the lab or in the field. There are so many common injuries that could be minimized if you know how to act in an emergency situation, so don't delay and look for a first aid course to sign up in right now!
2) It is usually more economical in both time and money to conduct a small pilot study on an experiment, as you want to double check if the conditions you'll be using will work properly. Anything could go wrong, so you definitely want to make sure that you don't have any problems in your system before conducting a larger study with a larger sample.
3) Always be prepared for sudden power failures. Some labs may have back-up electricity, which would most likely be OK for them, but other labs should be more wary of those things. Even if there were no power failures, be prepared to have to evacuate a building or an experiment in the case of a chemical spill, fire, or other emergency.
4) Getting along with fellow lab mates is quite important. Remember to go to as many of those gatherings as possible and maintain comfortable working relationships with all.
5) Taking a break is always important. It allows you time to think about your experiments, or just to stop thinking about them. When you return, you'll be more refreshed and may even have new ideas on how to approach that problem that you were stuck on.
6) If you have problems, don't be afraid to discuss them with supervisors, friends, or fellow labmates. Discussions can often give you fresh insights, and perhaps you may get useful suggestions for future experiments.
7) If anything ever goes wrong in the lab with respect to equipment, one source of information is the manuals. So, if by chance you have not read that manual yet, at least know where they are stored. At the very least, you can thumb through it and see if there is a troubleshooting section that can answer your question. Chances are that if this problem happened to you, the manufacturer will have an answer to it somewhere in the manual. Alternatively, there should be someone to call for technical support from that company.
8) Try not to do too many things at the same time or feel too rushed when doing experiments. If you're feeling rushed, you're doing too many things, which is when mistakes usually occur. If you feel that an experiment is too complicated, there is either a simpler way of doing things (ask your supervisor), or use fewer samples. Do those other samples at a different time. Of course, in the midst of taking away extraneous samples, remember that you need positive and negative controls each time in order to be able to interpret each experiment.
9) Like any other endeavour, you should aim to work hard in science. It's not the hard work per se that will give you discoveries, but rather, the experience that you gain from manipulating equipment, preparing samples, and seeing where potential problems could arise that you gain in your understanding of how the experiments you are conducting actually work. This will eventually allow you to perfect your technique and approach to tune in to a correct solution to a problem.
10) Stress is a natural part of life, and of scientific research. If things aren't working well, try to de-stress yourself and talk to others. If you really have no one to talk to, try to find a free information line to call or perhaps there may be free psychological counseling somewhere. Alternatively, doing appropriate exercise may also help you feel better.
11) The internet is such an explosive, new medium that many probably don't realize that we can find almost all the information we need from it. Don't hesitate to use it for sources of protocols, information, and guidance. Visit the homepages of people who do similar work as yours; read their papers. Go to the homepages of companies who sell equipment or products to your research group, and read what guidance they have to offer. Find the information you want from search engines. Spend some time searching, for it could really give you some useful information if you can find what you are looking for.
12) If you have learned something from your experiments, you have succeeded, so try not to feel as if you have failed. Since experience is cumulative, the experience that you have gained will always come in handy and prove useful to you some time in the future.
13) Plan in advance. As in many areas of life, planning in advance will lead to a successful, smooth schedule. If for example, you need to do certain tasks first because they require some waiting time after you do them, then do those tasks first. Leave other tasks for later. Plan a week in advance. Plan a month in advance. Think about how all your experiments will fit together into an organized whole.
14) Use waiting time to your full advantage. Instead of spending that time loitering around and engaging in useless activities, think about what you could do. Could you prepare something which will make your experiment run smoother tomorrow? Is there some manual that you need to read? Are there some routine tasks that you can carry out during this time? This way, you will become more productive, and not just act during urgent times.
15) Take some time to reflect upon some of the mistakes that you have made in your experiments. Are there any recurrent themes? Are there some mistakes that you have made over and over again? Alternatively, are there some ways of doing things that can make your life simpler, such as preparing a larger bottle of regent so that you don't have to prepare it all the time, or buying more of that piece of apparatus so that you don't need to order it so frequently? See if you can streamline and combine. Take time to reflect on your current work patterns. It will save you time in the long run.
16) Give clear, interesting scientific talks. Flush out the main point of the talk throughout it in order to give it a sense of unity. If even you think that you would be confused or would fall asleep, you definitely must work on clarifying the content to your audience. Use your figures to guide you in your talk, but your speech should elucidate all the concepts so clearly that the audience could listen to your talk with their eyes closed.
17) Sometimes, it's very helpful to have someone do a favor for you. Just be forewarned that the way that they do it may differ from how you do it. It may not produce the results you want, or they may even forget to do what you had asked them to. So, asking someone for a favor once in a while is fine if you really have to go somewhere or not be available, but just be aware of the consequences.
18) Try to help out in the lab as much as possible. Science is difficult enough, and that is why we need a cooperative spirit in order to produce new knowledge. If you don't have much to do that day, see if other people need any help, or if there are any general maintenance business to be done. There always can be something that can be done, so do ask people.
19) If possible, do a "dry" run on new and unfamiliar procedures or when using new equipment. Just use water or something like that as your sample. That way, you will familiarize yourself with any problems that may arise and when you actually do your experiment, it will run much more smoothly.
20) Try to allot more time than needed for any experiment. There are usually problems in every experiment that slows an experiment down. A tube may crack, the instrument you're using may get jammed, you may have remembered something wrong and have to re-do part of your experiment, and so on. By allotting more time, you will feel less rushed and thus be able to perform your experiment better.
21) Keep an open mind. In research, anything, can, could, and probably will happen. Don't narrow down things too soon. Until proven, it's hard to say that the hypothesis you have is true. There's a probability that your hypothesis is true, but that probability may not be very high. In fact, even with proven "facts", they could easily be disproved too, so try to keep an open mind. Even though it is not easy to do so, practicing to conjure up various possibilities will make you more adept.
22) Mistakes can come in so many forms. Of course, the more technically advanced you are, the fewer mistakes you will make because you have gained the experience from the mistakes and learned so that hopefully you will not repeat them in the future. Still, every time you do your experiment, you could run the risk of making a new mistakes. Don't fret, though. Eventually you'll put together a decent experiment.
23) Back up. Back up. Back up. In this day and age of the computer world, it is quite easy to back up files, so remember to do so! Backing up your work is much easier than repeating two years of experiments. For those with the experience, they will probably only be too glad to tell you about it. Back up on external drives, on floppy disks, on CDs, on anything imaginable. The more important the document, the more backups you should keep. You may even want to keep those backups in different places.
24) Whenever you would like to perform a new type of experiment or an experiment to test an effect on your particular sample, it would be wise to initially conduct that type of experiment on something that has done before. See if you can repeat that result. If you can, you know that you have eliminated or minimized any technical errors on your part when you actually work on your real sample of interest.
Hope you do have fun performing your scientific experiments and research!
Return to Becoming a Successful Scientist Home Page.