Laboratory life expectations vs reality

Last weekend I drove up to Frankfurt, Germany the city I grew up in, to visit some childhood friends. Along with reunions and some interesting conversations, the sister of my best friend asked how I knew I wanted to go into research science, as she is still undecided on what to study.

Being in and out of the lab for almost 3 years now, it’s easy to forget that research is a bit of a closed book to ‘outsiders’ and it might be hard to picture oneself working there without actual work experience. Therefore, I thought I’d talk about some of my expectations of lab life versus reality:

1. Solitary work – One thing that I was a bit unsure about, was the idea that you work a lot by yourself and have little social contact to people.

Reality: Yes and No

No because you have a lot of lab meetings. I was in a pretty large lab group where we had 2 lab meetings (Monday and Wednesday) and 1 research seminar (Friday) every week, each of them easily 1-2 hours. Of course that depends on the lab, but I would say science communication is always a significant part of a researcher’s job. Although you do the actual lab work by yourself, research is very much a team effort, particularly when you get stuck, it’s often other people’s experience and advice that helps you get out of a dead end.

Yes, because despite science communication being a large part, in the end, you do your work/project by yourself, and of course this can be frustrating and depressing sometimes, particularly if experiments aren’t working out.

2. Work chemistry – “I tend to get along with everyone”

Reality: No

This is one big topic, I was really surprised at because I always considered myself someone that tends to get along quite well with people. And didn’t I just say a couple sentences back, that lab work is quite solitary… ?

Boy was I surprised how important ‘work chemistry’ is in the lab. Luckily I never had a bad relationship with my supervisors but I’ve seen numerous instances where students changed labs because the work chemistry just wasn’t there. Although I first thought that it’s somewhat a “bad” thing if you can’t get along with your co-workers, I’ve learned it’s really quite common and has a huge impact not only on your work experience, but also on the quality of your research project itself.

3. Repetitiveness – doesn’t it get boring?

Reality: depends

Yes, lab work can be quite monotonous at times. Some experiments simply don’t work and you adjust protocols, try new approaches, etc. Which can take weeks if not months. The one thing that brought me personally through it, was keeping my long term goals in mind while taking the lab work day by day. Nevertheless I would say if you enjoy science, the intellectual challenge never gets boring. (At least for now 😁).

The next topic will most likely be on healthy living and homeopathic medicine approaches – a combination of my personal journey and some science facts!

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