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What is the First Day in a University Lab Like? 200

Posted by timothy
from the ymmv-and-certainly-will dept.
the_kanzure writes "I'm going to start at a university lab a few days after my high school graduation ceremony. The lab is an eclectic blend of computer science, evolutionary engineering and molecular biology, essentially it's research/development and — best of all — the research is worth something to me and my other pet projects. What I do know of science, tech and research has been gleaned from the internet. The open access research repositories (arxiv, PLoS, etc.) have been a life-saver. But showing up to get real, hard experience is not the same as those late hours into the night spent debugging software. In person, you can't just call up a favorite bash script to open up a few hundred tabs to do some quick research on feasability and past research ... how is this supposed to work — does anybody really get stuff done this way? So I've been wondering how Slashdotters have handled transitioning from learning in front of a screen and a good net connection, to actually showing up and getting stuff done. What's a first day like in a lab? Stories? What's the etiquette? Informal? In programing circles, you can always submit a patch and alternatives, but does this hold here? Is the professor still generally considered the PHB and the lowly undergrads are his minions to carry out his bidding?"
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What is the First Day in a University Lab Like?

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  • by Reality Master 201 (578873) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:01PM (#23136964) Journal
    Expect non-stop ass paddling and beer bongs. Make sure to bring a swimsuit, as there are frequent wet t-shirt contests as well.

    Your mileage may vary, however, as I work at an Ivy League institution.
    • by Burstwave (520213) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:36PM (#23137176)
      Right on the money. Your experience in the lab will be a combination of what you make of it (25%) and the quality of your lab mates (75%). To be a successful volunteer/student, pretend that you are going to be a student chef. It takes many years of experience to be a really good scientist, and you aren't going to learn even a handful of the tricks that professionals use over your summer. All you need is to have good hands, get along with your lab partners, and have lots of patience. There is a lot of hurry up and wait sorts of things that can be frustrating for someone new to the game. Ask questions, be curious, but be humble. Be enthusiatic but back off with the questions if you sense you are annoying someone. Do not attempt to thrill us with your genius; learn from those who are competent, and once you get good, you can THEN innovate and develop your own techniques. But not before then. We've seen far too many students who think they are too smart to be bothered with mundane techniques, and never get a single experiment to work. Above all, have fun.
    • Beer? Nope. (Score:2, Informative)

      by parlyboy (603457)
      From my experience in Ivy League labs, it's all about the lab ethanol supplies.

      Just make sure to drink only the 98% or 99% pure ethanol, without any denaturing contaminants. And bring plenty of mixers, 'cause that stuff is wicked strong.

      Parent is right about the ass-paddling and wet t-shirt contests, though.
    • by jellomizer (103300) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @06:49PM (#23137586)
      The first day will probably be boring. Showing you where the stuff is any safety concerns you may do a simple experiment that you already did in high school. Or just a Hello World type of Application. The thing about colleges and university that freshmen believe is what their high school teachers say that things will be so much more difficult then in high school They Scare you with things like 100 page readings and 6 hours a day of home work, which is true but you normally have classes spread out threw the day and you may have a class every week or 3 times a week. Not like the every day stuff in high school. It makes it possible to get that amount of work done for a class possible. And have more time to hang out and make friends then you ever did in high school. You could dedicate yourself near 100% academics but that would be a waist it is the only time in your life where you have the most freedom do what you want without major repercussions (To an extent).
      On the other side you need to take you academic work seriously, this is really important the first few years, The most common mistake I see from smart people who fail out of College is that when they take the intro classes they seem really easy so they let them slide then they realize at the end of the year they failed because they didn't take the classes seriously.
      When I started college in my CS degree I knew how to program in 6 or 7 languages at the time C being one of them. So taking C++ was a piece of cake. There were other students in the same boat I was in knew the same stuff. I took the intro classes seriously they took it as a joke and had to take the class over again. Because the intros classes teaches more then just the topic, but the style that you need to work on to complete college. If the stuff is easy use the extra time to take the extra step.
      It is really a balance that you need to learn and figure out what your real mental schedule is. Mine was waking up at 5:00am and do the work and be done by 11am. Others pulled all nighters work from 11pm and get one at 5:00am. Others took the practical approach of doing a little bit each day, while some went to the other extreme did the entire work the day it was due to get it out of the queue.
      • by DemingBuiltMyHotRod (836463) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @07:13PM (#23137708)
        "You could dedicate yourself near 100% academics but that would be a waist..."

        On the other hand, going to a couple of classes every once in a while is recommended as a mind is a terrible thing to waist.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by wik (10258)
          Your mind must have gone to waste. Recall, your waist is halfway between your mind and your shoes.
      • The first day will probably be boring. Showing you where the stuff is any safety concerns you may do a simple experiment that you already did in high school.

        Well, not quite. I had a lot of fun on the first day of my chemistry lab. The first words the lab manager said were these: "Do not stick your pipette into the large bottle with 1-molar hydrochloric acid because you'd spoil it. Pour some of it into another vessel and pull it from there. Whoever is caught putting his pipette into the bottle is immediate

    • If you display normal human traits, are friendly to everyone, respect the hierarchy and are eager to learn you will find out that your co-workers are just people.

      Just a bit more intelligent.

    • by elrous0 (869638) *
      And don't follow any strange men into the storm cellars, unless you want to see the horrific sight of them in their pajamas.
  • phdcomics (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:01PM (#23136966)
    www.phdcomics.com
  • With a vocabulary like that you should consider an English major.
    • Re:Eclectic? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mpoulton (689851) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:14PM (#23137056)

      With a vocabulary like that you should consider an English major.
      Not if he "gleams" his knowledge instead of gleaning it. Your average English major not only knows that one, they can explain the etymology of it.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by theeddie55 (982783)
        perhaps he can gleam knowledge from the internet, though it's a sign he might want to turn down that monitor brightness a little.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by starwed (735423)
        You... don't know many English majors, do you? Certainly not average, incoming freshmen English majors.
      • by Gryle (933382)
        I'd like to meet these English majors. Most English majors I've met just went with the major that had the lightest course load.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        "Your average English major not only knows that one, they can explain the etymology of it."

        What do insects have to do with English majors?

        Sheesh. Kids.
  • by barfy (256323) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:03PM (#23136980)
    Real Genius,

    It is on sale this week for like 5 bucks at fry's...

    LIVE IT!
  • by Raindance (680694) * <johnsonmx@NOsPaM.gmail.com> on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:03PM (#23136988) Homepage Journal
    Keep an open mind as to how you'll be put to use. Lab work is not always glamorous.

    Build cred by being competent and getting stuff done. Try to find someone competent who can get you up to speed and answer your questions. Ask lots of questions.

    Once you have some cred, if you have ideas on how to do things better, bring them up in a respectful manner. Professors worth their salt value initiative.

    Huge YMMVs. Any idea of what working in a lab will be like will probably last 30 seconds once you get there.

    Be excited, smart, and ready to get things done, and good things will happen. If they don't, find another lab. Seriously.
    • As a computer science undergrad I really enjoyed my lab time, it was great way to socialise as well as work. Most of the time there wasn't much pressure.

      As a post grad though I found that the lab, which I shared with six other people, was a distraction. Within a few months I'd changed to working from my lodgings over ssh. That way I got the resources I needed from my lab, but the peace and quiet I needed to get things done.

      Labs can be great, but unless you can be certain of being undisturbed, they can be qu
    • by Gryle (933382) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @06:02PM (#23137342)
      "Try to find someone competent who can get you up to speed and answer your questions. Ask lots of questions."

      I agree emphatically. I learned more about organic chemistry just by working as a lab assistant than I ever did in my organic chemistry lectures, simply by virtue of assisting an extremely bright and competent grad student. After he realized that I was working in the lab because I liked chemistry rather than just for the paycheck, he took time to instruct me and fill in the knowledge gaps that I hadn't picked up in the lectures.

      In short, ask questions, keep your ears open, and people more knowledgeable than you will most of the time be happy to educated you.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by odyaws (943577)

      Lab work is not always glamorous.
      Correction: lab work is almost never glamorous. Generating real, publishable results is a long, slow, often boring process. Actually getting those results, though, can be immensely rewarding. As the parent post said, keep an open mind, do a good job at whatever you're asked to do, and keep an eye open for places where you can contribute without being asked.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        I'd say if lab work is truly glamorous, you're probably doing it wrong. It's usually a lot of work. A good chunk of the time, it doesn't work. Sometimes it is fun, but in my experience, real honest to god lab work is never going to get you a cable special. Lab DEMOS, where you're demonstrating work that's been done dozens of times, and perfected to the point of flawlessness, can be somewhat glamorous. But the real work isn't for show.
  • tea tea and more tea (Score:3, Informative)

    by VirtBlue (1233488) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:04PM (#23136990)
    uni labs are great, lots of tea and lots of not doing much. At least in physics labs in england that is.
    • uni labs are great, lots of tea and lots of not doing much. At least in physics labs in england that is.

      Just make sure its Earl Grey. Remember you have an image to keep ;)
  • First day (Score:5, Funny)

    by Dunbal (464142) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:05PM (#23137000)
    You're going to die.
  • My experiece (Score:5, Insightful)

    by diewlasing (1126425) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:06PM (#23137012)
    I haven't worked in university labs but I have worked in labs affiliated with them. I suspect there's no real difference. You're probably going to have to put up with safety training which usually is a joke that drains a couple hours of your life. Then if you're lucky you'll get a computer which IT might take its sweet time to set up for you. But in the mean time I highly recommend you go around and introduce yourself to the people there. They are the ones that will be teaching you the most and can be very helpful, just try not to be too shy. Get acquainted with the people, equipment and where the best places to eat near there are located.
    • Well, my experience was somewhat different. Chemistry 101 lab, first day, major university. I look over at the guy next to me and he is digging through the laboratory bench drawer. In no time he has assembled an Erlenmeyer flask, funnel and tubing and has this curious and cheerful look in his eye. Next thing I hear him saying is "Man, this will make an awesome bong."
    • by ceoyoyo (59147)
      My safety training was fantastic. Every year the intraoperative MRI OR does a safetly demo for the scrub nurses. We (grad students) used to tag along just for the fun. You walk into this operating room with a mobile 1.5T MR scanner on ceiling mounted rails slid out of its closet. Covering the bore is a piece of 1" plywood. There's a big wrench hovering in mid air, tied via a long rope to the base of the operating table.

      They go through various demos, including releasing the wrench from about 1" and show
  • You're gonna have to come out of the basement for this one, and the surprises will only become ruder and ruder from then on :)

    God bless America!
  • my advice (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    www.phdcomics.com contains all you need to know.

    Dont be afraid of being proactive. Academic types will assume you know what you are doing and that you are working when really you could be drowning. Ask them questions.

    I also suggest bringing a jacket. Labs can be chilly.

    Good luck.
  • Hm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by imsabbel (611519) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:11PM (#23137038)
    My first real "day" at a "lab" was a beamtime at a synchrotron. So thats hardly representative.

    If you dont know _exactly_ what you want to know (and search for corresponding review papers), arxiv & co are worse than wikipedia for a basic knowledge background. You can very easily run into missconceptions, glorified pet theories, or just get lost in (for the big picture) unimportant details.

    About professors: I cannot speak for the US, but over here, the professor has better thinks to do than playing tyrrant in the lab. In fact, many will hardly ever be there. They have to spend their time for teaching, and getting money to finance their (and that also usually means _your_) research.

    Etiquette can be drastically different. I am in physics, and in one other chair of the institute i was back then, attentance at 8:00 was required, and people had to do their quarterly reports, ect.
    While where i was, you just had to do your stuff (even if that means comming at 1pm and leaving late at the evening, ect). Tone was usually very informal. Just remember: For you its your Great First Day in the Lab. For the others, its just work/doing what is done every day. So you will just experience a normal work enviroment (well, a gernerally more relaxed one than in the industry, but still), with all the variations that this can include.
  • Stupid question time (Score:2, Interesting)

    by nickname29 (1240104)
    Stupid question time (I'm not from USA).

    How does it work that you go to a lab directly after high school? Are you going to study while you work in the lab? Or is it a permanent type of work?

    With shiploads of luck I may be studying postgrad in the USA next year... (It seems that the USA has to most amazing university system in the world).
  • ...learn the difference between 'gleaned' and 'gleamed'.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by timothy (36799)
      Mea culpa for not spotting that and fixing before. My weak excuse, but real: higher-res screen than I've ever used before, and tighter pixels.

      For the rest of the day, I've bumped up the font size a bit.

      timothy

      •       I just looked at this guy's homepage and his research roadmap. If anyone has a breakthrough in AI research in the next few years I'll place my bet on him.

          rd
  • It's... interesting (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Metasquares (555685) <slashdotNO@SPAMmetasquared.com> on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:23PM (#23137102) Homepage

    First of all, realize you're starting out at the bottom of the food chain [phdcomics.com], which means you're probably going to get all of the grunt work that no one else wants to do.

    The agenda of a research lab typically revolves around its director(s). Everyone will be working on their own individual projects (all of which have been detailed in the grant the faculty member was awarded 5 years previously), but you can always approach someone who is working on something similar to you for help, should you require it. Most will probably be glad to help you. The environment is less formal and more close-knit than that in the corporate world.

    Most time spent in the lab is rather dull. The exception to this is the month of January, because that's when conference paper deadlines tend to occur. Think of it as a punctuated equilibrium. If you know that the professor wants to submit a paper on one of the projects you're working on, start preparing a paper early, before he even mentions the conference, because if he's anything like mine, he won't mention the conference until two days before the deadline.

    Don't expect fair apportion of credit, adherence to some glowing paragon of scientific method, or even basic integrity to abound. Most beliefs that outsiders hold about academia are false. In general, I'd advise going into the process with a healthy dose of cynicism.

    Oh, and everything in PhD Comics is true.

    • by turing_m (1030530)
      "Don't expect fair apportion of credit, adherence to some glowing paragon of scientific method, or even basic integrity to abound. Most beliefs that outsiders hold about academia are false. In general, I'd advise going into the process with a healthy dose of cynicism."

      Oh yes. Before anything, please read:

      http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/ [greenspun.com]

      It will explain everything you need to know.

    • That's hardly fair. In the lab where I was working the work was apportioned fairly. Everyone starts out at the bottom. Unlike in the commercial world they don't waste money sending you off on expensive training courses. You're expected to be learning as you go.

      You'll pick up some shit work. Ask questions. Make sure you're doing it the way they want. Keep a couple of pet projects on the side to keep you busy when there is no "real" work to be done.

      In many ways it's a lot like the real world. Demonstr
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Being an undergrad fresh from high school, you won't be doing the professor's bidding. You won't even see your professor at lab. You will have a TA (teaching assistant), a grad student who handles the undergrad labs part time. The lab assignments will give practical experience to the material that will be covered in class. Notice I say "will be covered". That's because there isn't enough time in the semester to wait until you've covered things in class and then start experimenting later on. Often times you
  • I wouldn't expect too much of a difference to an industry job, except
    • lower pay,
    • being more in new territory,
    • less importance for ease-of-use / eye-candy, and
    • no QA team.

    In particular someone is going to have a problem, they will ask you to work on it, and probably point you to some pre-existing code for you to understand.

    Of course, industry would have more excuses to use Microsoft software, so with a University job, if they use Microsoft stuff that is a red-light, "something's not quite right h

    • by xrayspx (13127)
      no QA team.

      What do you think those little white things in all the cages are for? Lunch? They're there to A the Q of the lab's product, right?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Having MS doesn't necessarily mean the professors like it. In intermediate physics lab, we need to have LabView. The boxes all have windows (even though the lab assistants and the professor dislike it) because LabView only has real driver support in windows.

      Now come on up to the theoretical physics department: Linux cluster, Linux servers, and the professors have Linux desktops.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by TapeCutter (624760)
      "Of course, industry would have more excuses to use Microsoft software, so with a University job, if they use Microsoft stuff that is a red-light, "something's not quite right here"."

      What a load of closed minded twaddle. You will get nowhere being an O/S zealot in the workplace, actively trying to avoid MS in either a corporate or an academic environment is like trying to avoid death and taxes.

      The rule is 'use the best tool available for the job', as a low-level newcomer to the lab the submitter can h
  • jfb2252 (Score:5, Informative)

    by jfb2252 (1172123) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:26PM (#23137120)
    The first day will likely be spent in paperwork and safety briefings. One of the key things you should be told is "bio-safety level". Depending on location and age (over 18 or not) you may be restricted as to the level of organisms you can deal with. ----- Most important trait: Ask questions. Ask dumb questions. Ask questions even if you feel embarrassed not knowing the answer. You don't want to hurt yourself or a colleague by guessing. Nor does your employer want you to screw up an experiment by guessing, but that's secondary to safety.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Depending on location and age (over 18 or not) you may be restricted as to the level of organisms you can deal with.


      For some strange reason, I first read this as revering to the level of orgasms you could deal with. The scary ting is, in context it made just as much sense as what you actually wrote.

    • safety briefings

      What are those?

      I got, "so, here's the laser."


      (Now I'm in a different lab where there is nothing more dangerous than a few small robots which present a minor tripping hazard.)

  • by taniwha (70410) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:28PM (#23137136) Homepage Journal
    is that communication is really important here - talk to people - listen more - remember that the most important communication happens in unstructured places - coffee breaks, having a beer, waiting for meetings to start etc etc - if you aren't hanging out with the other people you're working with you wont get the really creative group thing you're there to do working
  • Some Thoughts (Score:5, Interesting)

    by raaum (152451) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:28PM (#23137146) Homepage
    Every lab has its own distinct culture, some of which comes from the discipline, some of which comes from the PI (Principal Investigator), and some of which comes from the other people in the lab. I've worked in several academic labs and the culture in each was startlingly different. I'm starting my own lab now, and I imagine it will turn out different from any in my prior experience!

    That said, I'll offer some general advice.

    1. Unfortunately, there will probably no one whose job it is to set you up. And there are a thousand and one little details that you need to learn. Where is the photocopier? What do I do when the printer runs out of toner? Where do I order this reagent? Where happens when the biohazard is full? And so on. _Politely_ ask the lowest person on the totem pole until you get an answer.

    2. There usually is not an official hierarchy, but the unofficial hierarchy generally runs along the lines of PI -> Postdocs -> Graduate Students -> Research Assistants -> Undergraduates -> Others, modified by time of residence and area of expertise.

    3. Everyone in academia likes to be asked to offer their opinion. Even if you think you know the answer, you will often learn something by asking a question or two.

    4. Nobody likes it when the new guy is a know-it-all. Even if you do actually know it all, wait a little while before letting everyone else know :)

    5. Have fun and relax. No one expects you to solve all their research problems in your first week.

    6. Also, a lot of academic research time (especially in the type of lab it seems you're going to) is "in front of a screen and a good net connection," albeit with access to a lot more peer-reviewed literature than you've probably had access to in the past.

    • Re:Some Thoughts (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Angry Toad (314562) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @06:55PM (#23137618)

      2. There usually is not an official hierarchy, but the unofficial hierarchy generally runs along the lines of PI -> Postdocs -> Graduate Students -> Research Assistants -> Undergraduates -> Others, modified by time of residence and area of expertise.

      Very much modified by time! God help you if you treat the 25-year Research Assistant who runs the lab as "lower" than some Johnny-come-lately postdoc. You will be a marked man.

  • by kylben (1008989) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:31PM (#23137160) Homepage
    ...here's how it'll be:

    There will be a set of formal rules, some of which are never followed and others the violation of which will get you fired instanter. You may or may not be told which are which - and certainly not told all of the distinctions. There will be an informal set of rules that you won't ever be told about but will have to discover on your own or face the consequences. These will include everything from standards of break-room refrigerator etiquette to which buttons you don't dare ever push (both literal and figurative buttons).

    There will be several types of people there. There will be the ass kisser who is always sucking up to the bosses - and who may in fact be your boss. There will be the stickler for rules, and there will be those who don't pay any attention to the rules but still get a lot of work done. 20% of the people there will be highly competent and professional (for certain values of "professional"), and about 80% who are bumbling morons that make you wonder how they keep their jobs. There will be one guy who everybody looks to for guidance, decisions, and ideas, and who will almost definitely not have any formal authority. There will be some who you become fast friends with almost immediately, and some who will hate you on sight. There will be a guy who loves any opportunity to help you out, another who will help you out, but only as an excuse to rub your face in what you don't know, and one who you'd better not approach with any question that he thinks is beneath him (i.e. one he can't answer). One or more of these qualities may be present in the same individual.

    There will be cliques and power structures that you will not be told about, yet you will be expected to find your place in them, possibly including taking sides. Choosing wrong could affect your entire career, but will at least substantially affect your success at that particular workplace. You will be expected to exercise more authority than you actually have, but no more than the unwritten rules allow you. You will have to discover that upper limit without crossing it by enough to have serious consequences.

    You will be expected to put in extra effort, and perhaps extra time above what is supposedly expected, but will be looked down upon, and possibly resented, if you give too much. You will be expected to do what the boss actually wants, regardless of what he says he wants. You will be expected to do what the rest of your team wants, and expected to figure out what that is. The expectations of your boss and those of your co-workers will not always be compatible, but you are expected to meet both. You will be responsible for following policies which are counter to the purpose of the job, and which may even contradict each other. That will not be an allowable excuse for not getting the job done.

    Your continued employment will be subject to seemingly arbitrary decisions of the boss and/or your co-workers. These decisions will not be based solely on your performance or compliance to policies and rules, but those will be the stated reason for your termination should that ever occur. Your promotions and salary will be subject to the same constraints.

    The good news is that (most) everybody else already knows all this, accommodations will be made (within limits), and it's possible to successfully negotiate this and actually get real work done.

    And, no, I've never worked in a lab.

  • by cashman73 (855518) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:42PM (#23137222) Journal
    First of all, I think it's excellent that you're going to work in a laboratory early on, as an undergraduate (I am assuming that you're not just going to work in a university lab with a high school diploma, and that you plan to take courses at the school you're going to work at). If I had to do things over again, I certainly would have done more research at the undergraduate level -- you learn a heck of a lot more there than in the classroom alone, not to mention that you make a lot of important connections with faculty and staff. While you're there, make sure you take advantage of every opportunity to get to know people -- don't just show up for work, do what's asked of you, and leave at 5 pm every day. Ask questions, talk to people, take advantage of opportunities to present your research (poster presentations, oral talks at conferences) as much as you can. If you do this while an undergrad, graduate school will be a zillion times easier.

    Take good notes, keep a good, organized laboratory notebook. Become very familiar with the instruments and/or software that you will be using. If you know how to use this well, and you become well known as an expert at a particular experiment/procedure, professors will love you for it, and you'll be a valuable resource to them later on (they may even ask you to come back a year or two later, if you're available, and pay you to do a particular experiment or train someone how to do what you've done).

    Don't expect to work in one lab too long. You'll probably end up working in 1-3 different laboratories as an undergraduate, move on to a different one (or different school) for graduate school, maybe another lab for a PhD, and another one for a post-doc. That's the typical route -- expect it. There's not too much advancement in laboratory work without some type of graduate school, unless you want to end up maintaining equipment or working in IT or something. But if you start undergraduate research as a freshman in college, there's no reason why you shouldn't have a PhD in 7-8 years, easily.

    A lot of your coworkers will not be American. A good number will be from India, and more from China. Don't let this be a reason you avoid them. The US has some of the top research universities in the world, and we usually get the cream of the crop in terms of foreign students and researchers (even some of the smaller, less well known American schools can be well known and well respected overseas). Their English may not be all that good, but most of them do know their shit, and can be quite helpful. And most of them do want to learn more English and become better at it, so talking with them will help them out as well as you.

    Anyway, good luck to you. I'm not sure where you're going to be, but if you're going to be here [pitt.edu], I might run into you,... Cheers!

  • I've worked at several labs in programming circles so I'll give you all I know.

    First off, the quality of code that comes out of Universities is generally of poor quality. The research that is done at these labs is interesting and is generally used to write some paper or advance some research so time isn't wasted on doing anything except getting things running.

    Yes, some people (very few people) do write good code but for the most part I would not consider the code practices used at a lab as how you should a
  • I spent several years in a university biology lab. I can't speak firsthand about a tech lab, but from my associations with others I have gathered that the following similarity holds true for nearly all university research environments:

    The single largest factor determining your experience will be your professor. The specific attitudes and personalities of professors and the methods by which they run their labs varies quite a lot. The only thing you can really count on is that the prof will be the overl
  • by Cordath (581672) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @05:58PM (#23137326)
    1. Take an interest in what other people are doing. First of all, most people love to talk about what they're doing. (provided you aren't asking at a bad time) Second, what everyone is doing may actually fit together and be motivated towards a common goal. Understanding that goal and how other people are working towards it can help you understand and motivate your own work. 2. Some labs will have extracurricular activities. Show up. Once you have some experience with the group, consider organizing extracurricular activities yourself, even if its just a trip to the bar. 3. Everything takes longer than you think it will. A lot longer. Try not to get frustrated. 4. If you think you are going to need parts that have to be ordered, work your ass off until they're in the mail. Then, while you're waiting for them to arrive, you can catch up on your other work. 5. There are going to be times when you need equipment that others are using. Don't sweat it. If they know you need it, they'll try to free it up for you. It might take a while though. Likewise, try to free up equipment other people need. 6. Don't panic.
  • by xaxa (988988) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @06:20PM (#23137430)
    My Uncle told me on his first day working in a lab (not in a university) he was asked to go to the store room for a "long stand". He went and asked for one, and the stores guy went to get it. 15 minutes later... you get the idea ;-)

    Then his 'team' said his labcoat looked too small, so they told him to hold his arms out so they could measure it. A real long stand was quickly put through the sleeves so he couldn't move his arms.
  • The first thing you have to do is lose the Dilbert crap. Do that, people will take you seriously, and the rest will fall into place.

  • No offense, but if you're about to graduate from high school, you haven't had enough experience to apply it to any comparisons offered here. So, take it as it comes. Trust that the instructor knows what they're doing, and no matter whether that's true or not, do your best to accomplish what's set before you in the way they say to. That's the best way to get a good grade, and they might actually know what they're doing (and as I said, you don't have the experience to be able to judge that). However the instr
  • by plopez (54068) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @06:47PM (#23137576) Journal
    or other effluents, always was your hands *before* as well as after using the bathroom.

    HTH
  • since your a gen Y i'll make something clear from the start - you aren't the boss, you are starting from the lowest point possible. the janitor has more cred than you do.

    maybe i'm jumping the gun and you aren't one of these typical gen y kids, but oh lordy i'm looking forward to the comming wave of youtube video's of them freaking out in the work place.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by cashman73 (855518)
      Since somebody mentioned the janitor here, I just thought I'd mention that 9 times out of 10, it's actually well worth your time to get to know the person that regularly cleans up your lab. Seriously. Many of them are very friendly and helpful, and they talk to people. The better ones talk to professors, department chairs, deans, grad students, undergrads, techs -- virtually everyone. While they generally don't have much of a scientific background or anything, they often do have a general interest in what's
    • since your a gen Y i'll make something clear from the start - you aren't the boss, you are starting from the lowest point possible. the janitor has more cred than you do.

      This is truly the case. In my lab, we have no expectations for the undergrads. In fact, undergrads tend to slow down the people around them more than help them. Many graduate students do not like working with undergrads for this very reason. This is not universally true, but this is the expectation that will likely be placed upon you at your arrival.

      This is both a curse and an opportunity. It sucks because you will be given little real work to do. It is likely that you will lack the deep scient

    • I'd like to think of slashdot as a place where we could move beyond this generational warfare.

      Get a grip grandpa. When you were just starting college, you were a know it all too. You did stupid things, spoke out of turn, presumed you knew everything, and in general annoyed the people who knew what they were doing.

      ALL young people (no matter what stupid "Gen" letter you want to arbitrarily assign to them) are immature and clueless. That's what it's like to be young. The right thing to do is realize this
  • The lab is an eclectic blend of computer science, evolutionary engineering and molecular biology, essentially it's research/development and -- best of all -- the research is worth something to me and my other pet projects.

    If you'll excuse my interruption.... what exactly is it that your lab is attempting to do that involves all three of those things? Create life? Build cylons [wikipedia.org]?

    I also can't figure out for the life of me what evolutionary engineering entails...

  • Learn to accept and live with failure, if it was easy to do, it would have been done. Learn from failures and keep trying. At the top of most fields many decisions are made for political reasons or personal ones rather than what is the best science. The best thing I could say or hear about someone for a job recommendation when asked was: "they write well."
  • Two things to guide your experience:

    1. Summer undergrads almost never get anything of substance accomplished in a molecular biology lab. I started working in labs at age 16, and the first time I started to feel even modestly productive was after two years of grad school. The first time I even generated any data at all worth publishing was after a year-long (~1000 hr) senior project. A summer is just too short. You're there to learn the techniques, to gain some experience in how to design an experiment and
  • I can tell you what my first day, and really my first week, were like - standing and/or bumbling around trying to get used to where everything is and how everything is done while being completely ineffectual. After that, it depended on the situation.

    I have a question. You're out of high school, and you're working in a university lab? No offense, but it is highly likely you will be doing nothing but grunt work. While on occassion labs will take (college) freshmen as work study, I've never heard of them

    • by cashman73 (855518)
      No offense, but it is highly likely you will be doing nothing but grunt work.

      This will depend on the school that you're at. A lot of "research intensive" institutions may not have as many opportunities for undergraduates, particularly because there's so many graduate students, and the best work goes to them. So yes, there, the grunt work will go to the undergrads, and they're at the bottom of the food chain. Unless you're some kind of supergenius who's 8 years ahead of schedule, then you might get to d

      • Undergraduates get lab time, yes. Freshmen (a specific subset of undergrads) gennerally get grunt work. The juniors and seniors in my lab get some very cool stuff to work on, just as cool as the graduate students.
  • by mako1138 (837520) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @09:30PM (#23138416)
    Since you're straight out of high school, they're going to have to teach you what to do. It could take a while, and if the field you end up working in is like mine, all the science is grad-level and there's very little resources on a basic level.

    I expect that you'll be assigned a PI and you'll be given a project/sub-project to work on, either by yourself or more likely with another student or grad student. What this project will be is hard to say. It will definitely involve computing in some way, though: simulation, data analysis, design.

    Don't be too apprehensive. Most labs are fairly chill, and the people are cool for the most part. There's always a few bad apples, but you've got a long ways before bad PIs can influence your career.
  • A Word of Warning (Score:2, Insightful)

    by piltdownman84 (853358)
    If the school is anything like the one I went to, it seems like you will be leaps and bounds above your classmates. Most first year classes are a joke. My advice is be careful because it does get harder real fast.

    I did almost nothing in my first year and a half of Uni, and still got really good grades. I partied pretty hard, and next thing I knew my edge was gone. I went from being way ahead to being behind and it was hard to become a 'good student' again.
  • by quixote9 (999874) on Sunday April 20, 2008 @09:52PM (#23138494) Homepage
    I've been a prof (biology), and therefore obviously also a grad student. Good profs are not PHBs. That's around 0.05% at a wild guess. Tread very carefully until you're *sure* what species of prof you have. You depend totally on him or her, and there's no real appeal against anything they do. (Start appealing, and you're a troublemaker and dead meat anyway.) It's a feudal system.

    If you find out you can't stand your prof, change topics somewhat, make some plausible excuse, and go work with someone whom you've vetted more carefully. As an undergrad, you're probably not going to be seeing that much of the profs anyway. Post docs and grad students are going to be your main mentors. Post docs are wildly overworked, so never ever ever waste their time. You may find yourself squashed like a bug if you do. (Did I mention that it's not a democracy?)

    As for learning, techniques, and all that straightforward, non-political stuff: that's the easy part. Just do whatever works.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by pz (113803)
      Good profs are not PHBs.

      I'm a new professor at a Major Research Institution, part of a Large University You Have Heard Of That Begins With H.

      No one gets to this level just being a PHB. No one heads a lab who has stumbled into it from middle management somewhere else. That just does not happen. (1) The vetting process to get these jobs is pretty hairy, and (2) the competition for them is insane. Then, once you get the job, (3) the competition to get funding is even MORE insane, and people who are just ma
      • I'm a new professor at a Major Research Institution, part of a Large University You Have Heard Of That Begins With H.

        Hawaii Pacific University?!?!?! WOW!
  • If, after every time you pull the lever, you receive an elecrtic shock, you might want to give some careful consideration to who the subject of the experiment really is.
  • Steal early and steal often. Make sure before your peers rip off your research that you just rip theirs off first. Then at your first opportunity expose your peers as inferior to prepare the stage for your defense months later when they come forward with accusations against you. Once they have been discredited you are free and clear to rise to the top. Eventually you will become head of the department if you can navigate the complex political tapestry that is a research lab.
  • Always... no, never forget to check your references.
  • The main problems with new grad students I've observed is they dont choose the right research problems to work on. They are either interested in something too large to solve in three years- or one-year chunks to publish- like curing cancer or inventing the final theory of physics. Else they are considering doing something that has already been done but were not aware of. The purpose of working in a lab or for a professor is learn the right-size problems between these two extremes.
  • Honestly, you have now become the Principle Investigator's Bitch.

    That said, it depends on the lab. Back in my chemical engineering days, the PI was wonderful, but the grad students sucked. A friend from high school lamented the lack of ethics of his PI due to him doing all of the work, obtaining funding, coming up with the idea, etc... and the PI signing his name to the final product and taking all of the credit. My friend is now a PI in his own respect. My current Research Advisor, who acts as a PI, works

  • Is to carry a notebook (as in paper, not a computer) with you everywhere you go in the lab. Take lots of notes on everything. Anytime someone mentions something you aren't familiar with, write it down. Even if you don't have a chance to ask about it at the time, write it down so you can look it up later.

    And by all means, write down every protocol someone describes to you. You'll probably work with people who are very familiar with how to do XYZ. They might tell you orally the first time how to do it,
  • Find the smartest person there. It isn't hard. They are the one that helps everyone, that person that everyone goes to, the one that never has any time.
    Mirror this person's hours, get a desk near theirs, do your darnedest to learn everything they know. When you know everything they know, find an even smarter person and do it again.
    Help everyone one can. When everyone depends on you, you become invaluable, people will not be able to function without you.
    If you truly are smart, not just a lazy person who li
  • As others have said, listen. Always listen.

    If something doesn't match your experience, ask why. The answer will teach you something, teach others something, and often both.

    Here's the most important thing: Once you get your feet on the ground, you will start to be asked to do things. If you're asked "can you do X?", and you don't, then say so. However, the most important and best answer to questions like that is "I don't know, but I will find out." And then find out, and report back about it at th

  • Ok, I'll put my few cents in. Before I start let me say, Welcome to the club. The Job of scientists is truly one of the most fun and free jobs you can have. Don't expect to be payed well for the skill you will some day have. I can easily make 5X what I do as a scientist in business or management with my skill level. But I am never bored, thats a big plus. I choose my own hours (usually means 60 + per week) but I don't have to work mornings if I don't like it. I get to play with cool toys. Yes it si

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