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197. Mailbag: What If I Have “Bad Lab Hands?”

This week, we’re opening the mailbag once again to answer YOUR burning questions!

Change of Plans

We start with Allen, who was awarded a grant based on a research proposal he submitted BEFORE joining the lab. When he finished the summer rotation, it didn’t turn out the way he expected.

I have now been asked to write a report about how I used the grant for the grant committee. While I did learn some practical biology skills through this internship, and by that fulfilled the terms of my grant, it was by far not as much as I hoped for, and I can’t help feel a bit guilty about it…

He’s wondering whether he should have alerted the grant committee about the changes, or whether it’s okay that the research didn’t go as planned. We talk about the difference between project-based and person-based grants. In Allen’s case, they were probably funding HIS development as a scientist, so his experience fulfilled the terms of the award.

Making the Most of a Master’s

Next up, an anonymous listener wonders how to get support as a Master’s student in a department that seems geared toward training PhDs.

What can I do as a Masters’ student to navigate my way through academia since all the online and official activities are for PhD students?

We argue that training and mentorship shouldn’t change if you’re a Master’s student vs. a PhD student. In fact, you could be an undergrad or high-school summer student and STILL deserve communication, mentorship, and training.

We advise the listener to reach out to other Master’s students at the university, and either learn about the existing resources, or work as a group to create them. There’s strength in numbers, and you may be able to generate the support structures that all students need.

Bad Lab Hands

Finally, we hear from Lisa who feels like she understands the science, but she just can’t make the experiments work.

My technical skills are leagues behind everyone else in my lab. I have great ideas and I’ll suggest things to colleagues and they’ll get it work just fine, but for whatever reason, when I do things they always seem to end up a mess.

Lisa isn’t alone – there are aspects of research that each of us struggle to understand or perform. It takes real courage to ask for help, but that’s what she should do.

By shadowing her lab mates, or asking them to watch over her techniques, she can quickly make progress toward her goals. It’s likely that what she calls ‘bad lab hands’ is really just a subtle change in technique, or a skipped step in the protocol.

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