Working the lab

The big decision has been made, you have picked the right supervisor. They’re going to help you flourish and develop into the perfect, employable graduate student. They’ll always be there to answer all your questions, but wait, what? What do you mean they’re in another country, before going to a conference, and then a research visit elsewhere? What do you mean they aren’t there just to look after me?!

This is where your lab mates or other research group members come in. These are the people who should be one of your first resources when you run into a problem, they’ve probably had a similar problem previously and generally know some of the tricks of the trade. It’s also quite possible that they know where the good food specials are for different days of the week as well as which places to avoid. They’ve been around the block once or twice and are a resource that I know I definitely underestimated when I first began graduate school.

I found them quite intimidating the first time I met them. These were the people who actually asked questions in departmental seminars! As intimidating as they may be in the beginning, it is important to build working relationships with them. It may not always feel like it but this is the space where you can fail and learn from it, without anyone judging you because they’ve already been there. It’s where you get to practice reviewing others’ work, giving feedback, and learning to take critical feedback of your own work. It’s where you get to practice networking and resolving workplace conflicts. They’re often your first colleagues and will probably have an even larger influence on how you feel about your workplace than anyone else.

I’ve been in two different labs, one in my home country and one in a new country. Each had its own challenges and have taught me many different things. My experiences are unlikely to be shared by anyone else but I think there are a few general thoughts that came out of them that may be useful to others. One of the biggest ones for me is to participate in a way that you are comfortable with. It may sound very obvious but it can be more subtle. If you have anxiety over asking questions that seem silly, try approaching the other student afterwards. We all love to talk about our research and that may give you the courage to ask a question in the meeting. Next thing you know, you’ll be asking the questions in seminar and having others stare at you in awe. As intimidating as you may find people initially, they were also in your shoes at some point. The only way to improve is to try. Your lab mates are going to be your first cheerleaders, critics and resources, so a good working relationship with them is essential.

This working relationship with your lab mates is probably the most important one to nurture. Having a social relationship with them can also be very rewarding, especially when you are far away from home. They can be the support you need to get through it and keep your motivation up. When the social aspects begin to negatively affect the working relationships it becomes a lot more difficult. Then not only are you losing the support that all graduate students need to be successful, but the isolating effects of losing work and social relationships can become nearly unbearable. This is something I have experienced firsthand and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. It may be a bit cynical but I realised that you don’t have to be friends with your lab mates, but you do have to be able to work with them. Have friends who aren’t connected to your lab or even the same field of research – they can often have different insights as they see a different perspective to the one that you have been trained to see. They can give you a place to talk about social problems without having it impact the quality of your working relationships. Never underestimate the support that’s needed to get through graduate school without completely falling apart. We all need people to stop us becoming the stereotypical basement academic who arrives at seminars wild-eyed and scary.

The working relationships that you build with your lab mates are also likely to become your first meaningful collaborations once you leave your lab. Start establishing those relationships right at the beginning and work at them the same way that you would other areas of professional development. If something isn’t going in a direction that you feel comfortable with, ask your supervisor for advice when they get back from the conference/research visit/Mars. Unless they are trying a very different social experiment, they want you to succeed and their group to function well as a unit. Suffering in silence helps no one.

Megan Calvert

Megan Calvert

Originally from South Africa where she did her BSc, BSc (Hons) and MSc at the University of Pretoria, Megan is now a PhD student at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kansas, working on wheat.

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