Being asked to write about ‘managing lab life’ made me think of many things from organising, scheduling, and planning experiments & projects; keeping lab notebooks; communication skills; relationship management, the list is extensive. But I have been asked to write How To…

Whether you’re a research student, post-doc or tenured professor ‘Managing Your Lab Life’ is something you must practice and develop over time with the changing times. Drink as much coffee as you can but there’s a chance you won’t get everything you needed to get done. There might be a million ways to swing a cat in the lab (mixing up expressions is one of my special skills), but you can’t deny there is always room for improvement.

Acting like a project manager

Taking control of experimental projects and their outcomes to a planned schedule can be extremely stressful for everyone on the project, so honing your skills as a negotiator, conflict resolver, and communications expert can be extremely useful if you want to keep your lab project going strong. If your project seems to be stalling or there are problems with working relationships within the lab, stepping-up and resolving issues, quickly and fairly, is something you need to be able to do.

I found a fantastic little questionnaire that’ll help you identify what you might be doing wrong and where you are going right in your project managing.

Moments used well in between experiments, reducing the ‘overwhelm’

You have your Individual Development Plan (IDP) and your experimental project is underway but you might not have to be in the lab all the time – what are you doing in in between? Are you stuck in the ‘Busyness Trap’ littering all your time in between bigger tasks with little ‘tasks’ like checking your email, your social media accounts, your phone?

Are you trying to fill time or doing it to look busy? Littering your in-between-experiments time with the endless and ongoing tasks like email instead of lumping it into one or two daily tasks is wasteful of your time. This behaviour can lead to what‘s known as ‘Overwhelm’ where you’re in ‘role overload’ doing too many things, which only adds to your general distractibility and stress levels.

You can start to reduce your overwhelm by doing these few simple things differently:

  1. First Things First – not email: Give priority to your work and spend the first part of your day working on the most pressing task on your list. NO email, NO social media. The most productive people leave emails until that first thing on the to-do list is done. I know I’m more productive when I do that.
  2. Decide when to open your email: Schedule time for email – two 30 minute blocks, whatever you feel you should, but don’t become a slave to the pings on your phone. Historically, we used to have only two ‘snail mail’ deliveries a day, so if it helps, just think about it like that. NB: If they really want to contact you they’ll find a way! And, if you’re still struggling with this concept, these 7 reasons will convince you.
  3. Turn off notification sounds and browser notifications: They’re distracting making you behave like a Skinner Rat in a box waiting for your next work-treat when you should be concentrating on what you’re doing.
  4. Time Blocking: If you find you are feeling very overwhelmed with work and can’t stop thinking about all your tasks even though you are doing them, it might help to time-block you day around experiments and meetings. In this way you are allowing yourself 30 minutes or an hour to a task so you don’t have to worry about all the other tasks as you’re getting through them. You could even your lab beeper so you don’t go over time. There are quite a few websites describing various ways of doing this but this one (click here) is one of the better ones.

You can read-up on ‘busyness’ and Getting Things Done til you’re blue in the face, but in the end you just have to find what works for you. I’m reading journalist, Brigit Schulte’s Book, on Overwhelm: Work Love Play When No-one Has Time. It’s really interesting for me because what I’ve taken from it so far is that it’s about attitude. We’re so used to ‘busy’ being something we’re supposed to ‘be’ and a status symbol for success, but how many busy people are actually getting things done? By giving yourself permission to work on a task will ease your stress-levels immeasurably instead of measuring yourself against your colleagues who are still working when you leave the lab to play a scheduled game of squash.

Time-saving management tools for the lab

I just love apps and software because I’ve found so many good ways of using them in the lab and office. I’m sure you have your favourites but I’ll just list a few I love and a few I’d love to try!

Lab notebooks have come a long way since lined paper and ball-point pens, but a lot of us are still stuck using them. I used an excel spreadsheet to keep track of my PhD data and measurements, I wrote stuff down in my paper hardback official notebook but without the excel spreadsheet it’s pretty useless and vice versa. Now-a-days we have such great software tools to keep an entire lab group informed of the project and it’s progress. There are such good reasons to go electronic with your lab book and for example, just take a look at LabGuru.

Notebooks, note-takers and To-Do lists. How many notebooks do you have? I have a few paper ones for general notes but for everything else I have Evernote. I put meeting notes in there and even PDFs that I need to refer to. It’s so useful for a lot of things and there are ways you can even clever ways to manage your To-Do list using Evernote (click here and here).

  • GoogleDrive/GoogleDocs is great for note taking too, and easily sharing & editing files between lab members.
  • Workflowy is a free online and desktop tool I use for writing notes during my ‘research’ phase of writing. It keeps all my ideas too and is excellent for breaking down tasks or sections into manageable parts.
  • To-Doist is a recent program I’ve started using. Available on all devices web browsers and even your mail client, it helps you to keep track of every task you do each day. It’s great for breaking down projects into tasks, setting deadlines and even gives you ‘karma’ for how many tasks you complete. Sometimes I do something to give myself more points. Game theory at work again, folks, but this is likely to keep you motivated more than most to-do lists.

PDFs and Citation software. There is seemingly an endless list of programs for citation and PDF notetaking. I’ve actually used Evernote to make notes on PDFs because they’re searchable. And before EndNote finally upped their game I used ReadCube to make notes on PDFs and put them in topical folders for each paper I was writing. I find citation tools is a highly controversial point of discussion with researchers but I will wonder how researchers manage their notes of the read articles (not insert citation).

The have a great list of Bench Tools for researchers, have a look to see if there is something to help you in the lab and please give a comment below if you have a favourite tool, technique or widsom to share.

I may have been telling you to proverbially suck eggs in this blog but I think it’s always worth keeping an eye on where you spend you time and energy in the lab. When was the last time you looked up if there was a better kit for that method you use all the time? Maybe you should give that rep the time of day and let them tell you about the latest and cheapest kits.

After finishing a BSc at Keele University in Biology with Physical Geography, including a year abroad at the Pasteur Institute in Lille, Jojo stayed with Keele to do her Masters, and travelled to the South of France do the research at the University Montpellier 1, to study Leishmania genetics. After gaining a distinction for her Masters thesis, Jojo spent half year applying for PhD projects and got an interview at Oxford in April 2008 and was offered to start in October 2008. Jojo finished Completed her PhD in June 2013, and viva’d in October, gaining her Doctorate of Philosophy in Zoology for her thesis titled ‘The Diversity of Silica-Scaled Protists’. No sooner had Jojo passed her viva, and Tweeted a picture of herself in her academic examination dress, she was offered a position as a Post-Doctoral fellow at the University of Saskatchewan over Twitter. After negotiations and applications Jojo went to Canada and stayed until the end of October 2014 returning to England, UK, to embark on a writing career. Jojo registered in the UK as self-employed in January of 2015 and writes a blog of her own called the Online Academic, discussing all the aspects of being an academic online and using online tools to better one’s career, especially in research. She also writes scientific blogs and content for an up-and-coming Canadian startup.