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116: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Summer Students

Ten weeks is not a long time. It feels even shorter when you’re tossed into the deep-end of a top-tier research lab.

If you’re spending your summer as a Research Assistant between semesters, or you’ve graduated and want to get some summer experience before grad school, we have ideas to help you hit the ground running.

This week, we respond to a listener question. Talia wrote:

This summer I had an AMAZING opportunity to do research at my dream school. I am a public health undergraduate and I have experience mostly in qualitative methods and community-based research. This summer I’ll be in a really cool epigenetics lab. I have very little background in biology and even less bench lab experience.

For all of you bench lab folks and people in a mentoring capacity, what makes an undergraduate research assistant “coachable”? What habits do you love/don’t love in your RAs?

Great question, and we’re sure Talia is not alone in feeling unprepared for her first foray in the lab. Classes and textbooks are worlds away from the hands-on experience of research.

That’s why we crowd-sourced the traits other scientists want to see in summer research students. If you follow these guidelines, you can expect to make lifelong friends and have a solid letter of recommendation by the end of the summer

7 Habits for Summer Research

Show Humility

If you’re interested in a research career, you’ve probably done well in your classes and often been the smartest person in the room. That’s great for your self-confidence, but it’s going to drive your lab-mates and mentors crazy.

When you start as an undergraduate student research assistant, recognize that no one expects you to be an expert.

They expect you to be teachable.

That means asking questions when you are unsure about the material or getting help on the experiment where things are unclear.

And even if you have some prior experience, no one wants to hear you say “That’s not how we did it in my old lab…” Take a breath and be ready to learn a new way of doing things. Maybe the ‘old way’ was better, but you’ll never know until you try the new way!

Pay Attention to Detail

Research is all about the details, and your ability to focus and follow directions precisely will help you succeed.

Have your mentor observe and offer tips on improving your technique – things like pipetting accuracy or clearly labeling samples will make or break an experiment.

And in the first few weeks, we recommend keeping your headphones in your pocket and out of your ears. Get a few successful trials under your belt before you add other distractions while you work.

Engage with the Science

Having a summer student means an ‘extra set of hands’ in the lab, and that’s valuable, but you should strive to be more than a gel-running robot.

To get the most out of your summer research experience, do what you can to actually understand the work you’re doing.

That means asking about how your experiments fit in with the broader goals of the lab. Maybe you’re working toward a figure in a paper – take the time to see the forest for the trees.

It also means trying to understand the techniques and reagents you’re using. How does this enzyme work? Why are we adding this buffer? You’ll improve your skills at troubleshooting experiments when you understand the science behind the steps.

Demonstrate Stewardship

A lab is a little bit like a family – everyone needs to contribute to make things run smoothly. For a summer research student, that means pitching in by ordering or restocking reagents, maintaining equipment, or keeping lab spaces clean.

It also means being a good steward of your time. It’ll be tempting to get lost on Instagram while your gel runs, but try to fill the down-time with helping around the lab or digesting a new journal article.

Interact with the PI

It may be a year or more until you’re ready to apply to graduate school, but your summer research experience should be on your CV. And if you list the experience, you’ll need a letter of recommendation from the PI.

How can you get a strong letter of recommendation from a person who doesn’t remember you? Obviously, you can’t. That’s why it’s so important to make a good impression by actively seeking out facetime with the PI.

That might mean volunteering to present at lab meeting, or getting feedback on your research plan. You may be tempted to duck and hide when the PI strolls into lab, but fight that urge!

Interact with Your Lab Mates

Along the same lines, take time to get to know your lab mates.

Sure, your time is limited to just 8 or 10 weeks, but you should still invest in those relationships.

First, it’ll make your summer more enjoyable (Lab people are the BEST people!) And second, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at the real culture of research.

So go to lunch with the team, hang out at the bar, and get to know your bench-neighbors. You’re bound to make lifelong friends.

Keep in Touch

The bad thing about summer research is that just when you’re starting to figure things out, it’s time to go!

If you apply to graduate school, you’ll definitely want to ask your summer PI for a letter of recommendation, and the next time they hear from you should not be a year or two later when you’re asking them for that letter.

You don’t need to spam their inbox weekly, but send a quick note once per semester to let them know your career plans, especially as it pertains to research and graduate school. They will be excited to know that your research experience in their lab inspired you to pursue science as a career.

That’s it for our rundown of the habits that will help you succeed this summer. Tell us what traits YOU value in a summer research student by leaving a comment below, or by email or Twitter. We love your feedback!


This week, we enjoy the sweet satisfaction of beer sent in by a listener, but with a bitter center. It’s the Ocean Ruby Grapefruit Pale Ale from Ocean Lab Brewing Co. Isla Verde, Puerto Rico!

Perfect sipping for the summer, this beer smells exactly like a fresh-cut grapefruit, and carries the same, satisfying bite to the bitter end. If only we could find it in our local store!

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