Congratulations! You’ve completed Year 3 of your chemistry degree. What’s next?
You’ve either opted to spend a year abroad or stay at your home institution for the 4th year of your degree.
Take home message?
A year in a top research lab is a unique opportunity to acquire the kind of skills you’re not taught in curriculum-based activities.
Skill #1. The Importance of Networking
Make time to get to know everyone in your lab group right at the start, no matter how large the group or how independent the project. The value of being associated with a world-class research group is massive. This is your big opportunity to start building connections.
Everyone you meet during this year of research is potentially a valuable contact for the future. Connect with people on LinkedIn to help build your contacts.
Remember that your lab colleagues all started where you are now, and have probably worked on research similar to your own project. Ask them for help when you need it.
Find out if there’s a coffee hour or beer night, or suggest a regular sports night (my lab group were fiends at football on a Thursday evening). Social time is also a great opportunity to ask informal questions about your project – networking at its easiest.
Skill summary: Everyone you ever meet can be important in your future, so be smart and make long-lasting bridges.
Skill #2. Managing Your Time and Building a Knowledge Base
When studying for your first real literature review you’ll stumble across words and concepts you never knew existed. In just a few months though, you’ll be discussing these new concepts with your supervisor as if they’re as clear as the alphabet or the five times table.
To do this you need to get comfortable with the language – but how?
Audit a class
First year PhD students often attend taught classes to reinforce their understanding. By joining them you’ll increase your knowledge base, and it’s another great way to get to know the lab group. Auditing a class really helps keep you focused throughout the day.
Hearing someone confirm concepts is reassuring and boosts your confidence. But be selective – this is where your time management skills come into play. Attendance at classes needs to be offset against the requirement to get as many lab hours in before 5pm as possible.
Skill summary: Managing your time is a great skill to learn and this example would be perfect evidence on your CV or in an interview.
Skill #3. The Art of Communication
Attending seminars gives your mind a refreshing break from your work and allows you to explore concepts that provide inspiration for your project and future career.
It’s a great opportunity – not just to gain valuable knowledge, but to learn and develop your communication skills. You’ll have the chance to see professionals at work: researchers from all over the world who are excellent at conveying their subject to an interdisciplinary audience. Yes, it’s a skill that can only develop with experience, but as a student you’re in a unique position to study how to do it well.
How Good Were Those Slides?
Use seminar sessions as a model for your own presentations and analyse what you really liked (or didn’t like) about the talk. For example, was it the quality of the slides? If you were impressed, ask the speaker (or someone from your group) how they were made. If they were terrible, make sure you don’t make the same mistakes when preparing your own slides.
Note for Edinburgh students: there’s a society for seminars and related events called the Edinburgh University Young Scientific Researchers Association (EUYSRA). Check out their Facebook page and get on their mailing list if you’re interested.
Skill summary: Be mindful of how others do it, adopt good practices and make them your own.
Skill #4. Seize Opportunities and Develop Your Own Training
If given the chance to be trained on an instrument, take it! – or if you identify some other opportunity, ask someone in your group how to make it happen.
If nothing else, this action alone provides you with evidence of ‘using your initiative’ when asked to provide an example in a future job interview.
Skill summary: There’s a saying in life – “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”, so don’t wait to be told about things that might be valuable to you.
Skill #5. Develop Good Organisation Skills
Professors are busy people. We know this. They have a research lab to run, classes to take, international conferences to attend, PhD candidates to assess…. the list goes on. Clearly, you may not feature so highly on their list of priorities. But this doesn’t mean they won’t make time for you when you need it.
You might put off arranging a meeting because you’re “too worried they’ll think you don’t know anything” or because “my questions really aren’t that urgent.”
“I’ll ask in a week… or a month… or maybe just… never.”
The key is to go into the meeting with a positive attitude to your work and show that you’ve done your research. Your supervisor doesn’t expect you to know it all, so don’t worry.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Get yourself organised! Make sure you’ve researched your subject and got answers or suggestions for your queries before you meet with your supervisor.
This demonstrates initiative and proactivity (a component of the final assessment by the way), and will ensure the time spent in your meeting is as productive as possible.
At the meeting, have a list of concise questions and make sure your knowledge of the project is up to date. Now you can discuss your research with confidence.
Here’s the method I developed which works really well:
Ask to schedule a meeting, and always offer up flexible times and dates. This is very important and saves emails flying back and forth which wastes everyone’s time.
2. Ask in Person
No response to #1? Go to their office to ask for a meeting in person. But be prepared – your supervisor may say that they are free now, in which case you need to know what you want to discuss. So make sure you’ve spoken with your lab colleagues, and take everything with you before you knock on that door!
I got caught out on this one a few times.
Lesson learned, tick. Organisational skills developed, tick.
Skill summary: Make a meeting when you need one. Being fully prepared will help make it as productive as possible, ensuring you get as much out of any 1-to-1 time with your supervisor.
Pulling it all Together
You might not realise just how much you’ll learn from your year in a research lab, or exactly where everything fits in the grand scheme of your life, but the skills you’ll learn will stay with you when you return to finish your degree.
Personally, I’ve gained academic and technical knowledge in niche areas, and developed important life skills that I’ll need when I transfer into my chosen profession.
Now in my 5th year, I’m finding it easier to understand new concepts introduced in lecture courses. I’ve come into the lab for my 5MX project and I actually know what’s going on and how I will tackle my research. I know where I made mistakes last year and I know how to do it right this time around.
So, go forth and do great research. And don’t forget to enjoy yourself!
If you’re a bit unsure about where to spend your 4th year in research, contact Hannah or any of the KirsopLabs staff. We’re happy to answer any questions you have.
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You can also sign up to various websites that can help you enhance your skills portfolio. Here’s a couple of good examples to start you off:
SkilledUp: a great resource for pointing you in the right direction if you need business or technical skills to enhance your CV.
FutureLearn: Just one of the many MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platforms available now. FutureLearn is one from the UK and provides free courses on interview skills, writing applications, etc. These highlighted courses are thoroughly recommended.