Shh, these are the secrets!
So, I am assuming you are here to learn the three HACKS to graduate from your Ph.D. ASAP. Check out Part I to learn the real secret to being the most productive student on the planet. Want to know how to do it? Well, you have visited the right place!
- The secret to productivity happens even before you reach the bench- plan, plan, plan!
The majority of your time should NOT be spent at the bench, but rather at your DESK slowly thinking, organizing, planning, and strategizing the plan of attack for your experiments. The more you plan ahead of time, the easier it would be at the bench. There’s less chances for mistakes to happen in the middle of the experiment- that’s a HUGE win! I, personally, have taken hours to plan these large, multi-variable experiments before heading to the bench until I am confident enough that my very thorough action plan will work well. I have even hand-drawn 96-well templates on paper (or printed out templates online) and noted where each cell type and treatment plan will be in each well.
As you plan your experiments, think of:
- How much time and materials are needed in each step of your experiment?
- What does a step-by-step detailed protocol look like and write it out?
- Can your lab mate pick up your highly detailed instruction manual and repeat the experiment?
- How can you carefully organize each and every step of the process to explore more than 1 variable? Can I include 2-3 more variables?
- What will you do in case things do not go as planned?
- If I visually walk through my experiment in my head according to my current plan, does it make sense?
- Have all concentrations and amounts been calculated?
The more you plan in advance, the easier it will be at the bench, ready to rock-n’-roll. You need to focus all of your attention to many different things during an experiment, especially when working with hazardous materials. To optimize your personal multitasking superpowers, take your time to plan every single itty, bitty detail of the experiment in advance. Take into consideration the exact amount of material to weigh on the scale to 2 sig figs, as well as which Sharpie marker to use for labeling samples. This detailed planning strategy will allow you to move robotically at the bench so that you can be confident and know EXACTLY what to do when that pipette hits your hand.
Remember, slow and steady does win the race.
2. Always over-estimate how much material and time you need.
You are in the middle of a time-sensitive experiment, and then you scream, F%&^!!!! Yup, it happened again; someone took the last ounce of ethanol you needed for the last step of your 10-step experiment. We have all been there, unfortunately.
As part of your planning from Step 1, ALWAYS double (or even triple) check you have everything available before starting the experiment. This may be a “no-brainer” but I’ve seen countless of eager, impatient graduate students that were way too excited to get started in the lab, but only later find out they don’t have what they need. That’s wasted time and money! Time to start that experiment over again! Trust me, it happens. Since we are humans and make mistakes, there’s always a chance you will need more materials for an experiment than originally planned. To avoid these pitfalls, I always recommend to check there is at least 1.5 X the amount of materials available for an experiments before getting started.
Importantly, it is also critical you give yourself efficient time to complete experiments. For example, if your protocol saids your experiment will take 1 hour to complete, squeeze an extra 20 minutes in there. It is important to plan a buffer for any last-minute unexpected events that comes up in the middle of an experiment. Yes, these unexpected instances will show up and no one wants to become frustrated over an experiment that is taking longer than expected. In fact, everything in life takes longer than expected! This is true especially with science. Rushing through experiments won’t get you to the end goal any faster! Trust me, I have learned that the hard way in my early days.
3. Master the techniques and experiments, FIRST.
If you are a first- year graduate student or a first-semester second-year graduate student, I do not recommend pursuing the SECRET HACK early on until you have mastered the experimental techniques. I know you are tempted to do so but let me explain why.
Take these precious (yet stressfully) early years to learn how to properly do experiments and use the appropriate techniques. It takes a lot of time to understand the in’s and out’s of optimizing experiments and confidently figuring out what technique and experimental approaches would be best suitable for your investigations. That is all part of the Ph.D. training!
If you are not confident in performing a particular experiment or do not fully understand now an instrument works, do not use this strategy and start multi-taking immediately! This could even result in wasting more money and time if your experiment was not done properly. Or worse, frustrate your own PI!
Be patient and make sure you master all the necessary techniques and experimental protocols before going full steam ahead. Patience is the secret to success!
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-the Grad School HACKERS