Tips for Teaching and Research: A Dozen "Don'ts" for a Successful Career in Research

A Dozen “Don’ts” for a Successful Career in Research

Alexis D. Grant & Barbara Lom

Davidson College

Biology Department & Neuroscience Program

The undergraduates in our lab recently asked to discuss advice they should hear as they begin to build successful research careers.  To kick-start the discussion they asked the PI to generate a list of “don’ts” for research success. 

1. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions.  Asking questions is a very effective way to make a positive impression.  Asking a question at a presentation or in a conversation powerfully demonstrates that you are engaged.  Who doesn’t appreciate such attention and investment?  Similarly, in situations where you need information, don’t wait to ask questions until someone looks available.  Opportune moments with PIs can be rare because they are busy people.  It’s helpful to let colleagues know when you have questions and how rapidly you need a response (ASAP, today, this week, etc.).

2. Don’t avoid criticism.  Soliciting feedback is important to every aspect of research success, from designing experiments to publishing results.  You know that person who has a talent for pointing out fatal flaws?  Use her/his critical eye to your advantage when it comes time to edit a poster or an article for publication.  While no one enjoys receiving criticism, it is far better to hear that criticism and then address it in advance than to read that criticism on a review.  

3. Don’t assume you’ll remember.  Was that a 3 mM or a 3 uM solution you made last week?  Small details can make big differences.  The importance of maintaining organized and complete records cannot be overstated – for yourself, your boss, and subsequent students.  When you leave, your records will stay in the lab as your legacy and this legacy must be understandable to others.  At some point you will get an email out of the blue asking you for a procedural detail or result.  Being able to point to that information may save a colleague hours of time or even mean your data gets included in a publication.  We have a colleague who photographed the table of contents of her lab notebooks before she left.  That way, when she needed to reference old data, she called the lab and told them exactly what pages she needed to see.

4. Don’t toss your originals.  Raw data is sacred.  Everything you collect (numbers, images, recordings, responses, etc.) will at some point be collated, blinded, labeled, and/or analyzed, meaning there’s opportunity for unintentional errors.  In cases where confidence about labeling, interpretation, or other events comes into question, keeping a pristine back-up copy of your original results may save you from needing to repeat entire experiments..

5. Don’t cut corners.  Compromising the quality of your research is never a good idea, even when circumstances overwhelm you.  A quote posted in a chemical stock room said it best: “If you don’t have time to do the job right, how ever will you find extra time to do the job over again?”

6. Don’t discount your ideas.  Your input, no matter where it might fall on the spectrum from boringly obvious to paradigm shifting, is important to the dialogue of lab meetings and presentations.  It is always better to share your ideas than to hold them inside for fear of inadequacy. 

7. Don’t interpret silence as rejection. In this age where instant communication is expected, patience and persistence can fall to the wayside.  Being persistent and patient with feedback—and learning not to assume that no response is a bad response is an important skill in a research career.  Sometimes, busy PIs make a habit responding only after receiving a second (or third) email.  If something is important to you—be it a question, a job, or a recommendation—make that known by being persistent (and polite) in your communication.

8. Don’t be 100% critical.  Scientists are critical and skeptical by nature and, for this reason, not always the most mannerly.  While peer review moves science forward, it is essential to keep in mind that scientists have feelings and are personally invested in their research.  When reviewing scientific work remember that no matter how weak the experiments or questionable the interpretation, the work you are reviewing represents someone’s sweat and tears.  Point out the good elements and deliver criticism specifically and constructively.  For example, saying, “that’s a terrible figure” is not nearly as helpful as saying, “the graph format obscured the main point of your data.”

9. Don’t forget to plan.  Time management is something that all successful people struggle with regularly. If a task is important, make it a priority, make it a habit, put it on your schedule, and/or hold yourself to a deadline.  Many research tasks can be overwhelming, but are easily broken down into many achievable “bite-sized” pieces.

10. Don’t work in isolation.  Two heads are always better than one; if you do not share your results or learn from your peers, your science will not be as strong as it could be.  It is imperative (and challenging) to stay up-to-date with the current research in any scientific field.  Reading papers, attending conferences, and networking with people in your field is an important part of any scientist’s success.  It is also important to spend time learning from related disciplines.  Be open to new ideas; inspiration often comes from entirely unexpected sources outside your field.

11. Don’t assume that information is always correct.  While it can be tempting to take information (particularly from senior scientists) at face value, even textbooks get a few things wrong.  If the ramifications of a statement are particularly important for your research, do your fact checking and go back to the original source(s). It is surprising how quickly a subjective interpretation or typo can propagate through the literature.  Not to mention, there is much to be learned by reading the original in addition to the synthesis.

12. Don’t keep your dreams quiet. Articulating what you want and sharing your aspirations is an essential step to reaching your goals.  Sharing goals with friends, family, colleagues, and especially bosses not only makes you accountable for achieving those goals, but increases the likelihood you will build a network of the people who can support and even catalyze your success.