The Race to the Publish Line – Other Runners on the Road

September 4, 2013 | Posted by Fraser Tan in Grad School Help |

Sonia_OSullivan_in_the_Oman_Cup_RaceEach lab has its unique environment. In some labs, everyone works on specific aspects of a larger project in close coordination. In others, everyone works on their own project independently. Some professors are very hands on, checking the details of each day’s work, while others are hands off, checking in every few months to guide the scope of the project. But no matter what, you are never alone. You are part of multiple communities; your lab and department, your circle of collaborators and colleagues, and the scientific community in general.

Your labmates are your teammates. They’re the ones you ask for help when protocols don’t work, when equipment breaks down or when you need help envisioning your next steps. I was lucky to be in a very supportive lab; while all of our projects were pretty independent, everyone was eager to help everyone else. Our lab meetings were full of great ideas and discussions. When I first joined, I was intimidated by the terrifically smart people around me. I wish I had overcome my shyness earlier, but eventually I joined that discussion. As part of respecting and supporting my labmates, I did my best to keep our space and equipment in good order, cleaning up after myself, reordering shared reagents, sharing antibodies and mouse strains, and helping out with mouse work when a colleague was away. We all helped each other stay on track.

These days, the sheer amount of data required for a publication has rapidly outstripped the capacity of even the most heroic grad student. If you want to graduate in a decent amount of time, you’re going to need help. While sometimes difficult to establish, true collaborations are an ongoing joint effort between you and a colleague (from your lab, from a different lab, even from a different institution). It’s ok not to know everything, so reach out to the experts and learn from them. I was fortunate to find a great mentor (and friend) in a sister lab on campus. She and I worked together for many years, and I found a third collaborator, a frog expert, through her efforts. A friend of a friend put me in touch with my fourth collaborator, who was able to run brain experiments that I could not have done on my own. If you have one shot experiments, or require specific technical expertise, consider finding a fee-for-service provider to help you out too!

Part of setting up collaborations is having a good network, and that means being a part of the wider scientific community. Even if you have nothing to present, going to conferences is a great way to meet people who are doing similar (or disparate) work, and to make connections outside of your university. I found conferences very scary; as a naturally shy person, the sheer press of new people and number of talks quickly overwhelmed me. I decided not to try to see and do everything. For each conference I went to, I picked out which talks I wanted to go to, and took breaks in between. I found out which posters were interesting, and made myself go chat with their authors. I wasn’t very good at all this, but it did pay off when I was able to leverage my connections to find the help I needed.

Social media and blogs are also great ways to meet and converse with experts from around the world. There are active science communities on Twitter and Google+; check out #LabLife, #openscience, #science, #Scio, or the Science on Google+ communities. If you can’t find a community, start one! Don’t just follow; actively comment on posts, tweet conversations to people who say something you’re interested in. There are many great science blogs (written by scientists!) out there, and many journals also have great offerings, such as Scientific American blogs, Nature blogs and PLoS blogs. Start chatting, ask questions, and soon you’ll have more friends in the community than you can shake a beaker at.

Of all the various aspects of grad school I’ve discussed in this series, reaching out was the absolute hardest for me. Meeting new people – be they grad students like me or famous PIs – is a challenge for my naturally shy and introverted nature. I still struggle with networking (whatever “networking” is supposed to be), but looking back I am grateful to all my connections who helped me learn more and explore more than I could have alone.

About the author

Fraser supports our customers on Science Exchange. She completed her graduate and postdoctoral studies at Stanford University and served on the Marketing and Development Team for BenchWise.org before joining Science Exchange. Thanks to Brianne Villano for introducing a very belated Fraser to the wonderful world of Science on Twitter and Google+!

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