Not so alone in the lab

Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @yogipetals
Instagram / @gradlifemcgill by @yogipetals

The theme last week for the GradLife Instagram was “Colours of Gratitude” and with Thanksgiving just last Monday it has me pondering ‘What about grad school I’m grateful for?’ There are many things that come to mind; intellectual engagement, flexible hours, meaningful work and experiments that work! But what I’ve come to realize over the last several years is that the things I’m most grateful for is the support and friendship of my lab mates. The lab can be a lonely place. As a scientist, you are most often working independently on your individual projects. When you add in the long, erratic hours at the lab this can sometimes lead to feelings of isolation. What helped me when I first arrived was a supportive lab group and co-workers who very quickly become my friends.

It was 5 years ago, but I still remember coming to my current lab to interview. Perhaps I was a bit naïve in how I went about choosing where I wanted to do my PhD, but what really helped me make my decision was talking with the current graduate students of a lab. Looking back I don’t think I truly realized how important this would be for me. Your lab mates are the people you will be working 8-12h a day with for the next 2-7 years. These will be the people who train you, who help decipher your results, who tell you when your ideas make sense or when you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. These are the people that you will see ALL the time.

If I could give some advice to people looking to start their graduate studies in a lab-based environment, it would be two thing; know what kind of working environment works best for you and try to have an opportunity to talk (or e-mail) with the people working for your potential supervisor. Not everyone works well in the same sort of environment and this is exactly what the other graduate students will be able to help you ascertain. They can tell you what it is really like in the lab and how the supervisor runs things. Try to get a feel for the lab dynamics and the other graduate students themselves. Prepare some questions in advance. These are the people you will, in all likelihood, be spending a significant amount of time with so I think it’s important to understand if the lab atmosphere is one that will work for you.

I’m not saying you need to be best friends with your lab mates, but you will be seeing a lot of them. As such, good working relationships are essential. I was lucky because I started at the same time as 2 other grad students in my lab. There is something so reassuring about going through all the grad school milestones with someone else. You have someone to commiserate with when you’re stressed about comprehensive exams and people to celebrate with when you get your first publication. And maybe it doesn’t have to be your immediate lab mates, maybe it’s the students down the hall or the collaborators a floor above. What’s important is that you don’t go through it alone.

All this to say, I’m very grateful for the close friends I’ve made in the lab. They make coming to work a little more fun and grad school a lot less lonely. Graduate school can be tough but having good working relationships can make it so much easier. So if you can get a glimpse at what that working environment is like before you join a lab, in my opinion, you’ll be better off for it.


Banner image by GradLife McGill Instagrammer @yogipetals // @gradlifemcgill

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