Guidelines and Expectations
A research degree involves the pursuit of the truth. Sometimes a hypothesis will be accepted, sometimes it will be rejected; either way, you will employ a scientific process and you will be contributing to the development of knowledge. Remember that negative results are just as important. They need to be reported and shared. You should conduct research honestly and diligently and not in haste or for self-gain. Never be tempted to cut corners. You need to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and know that your research was ethical and authentic. Research is hard work and it can involve challenges and disappointment as well as joy – but the journey is just as important as the destination. Take no short cuts. Have exemplary standards and aim for excellence.
2. Organization and Productivity
Keep a lab book and note down everything relevant to your research and your experiments, and make ‘to-do’ lists to keep yourself on track. Learn how things work and develop your lab and technical skills to a high standard. Plan, conduct, and report your research meticulously and with the utmost attention to detail so that you and others can replicate your methods. Stay organized with both your data and your research samples. Prepare for all your experiments the day before, think through all the steps, and anticipate issues.
3. Data Storage and Analysis
Store your data carefully and keep multiple copies. Become adept at using spreadsheets and statistical software and graphical programmes for interrogating your data and presenting your results. Label everything so you always know which version you’re working on and take time out regularly to update your results.
Creating and hitting deadlines is important for steady progress. If you negotiate a deadline with your supervisors, try to produce your piece of work within the agreed timeframe. Do not make your PI or your supervisor follow up with you endlessly. Take responsibility for your project and don't lose momentum. Your supervisors will consider your work carefully and provide detailed feedback; you should respond to that feedback with equally careful revisions. Your supervisors will be much more impressed with the care you take than the speed with which you return the next version.
5. Team Work
Research is a team game. At any time, there will be people with more knowledge and experience than you in the research group and other people with less. Everybody gains if experience and knowledge are shared. Be generous with your time: be a study participant; help out in the lab; share data; read draft manuscripts; discuss research articles – others will do the same for you and your research and career will benefit. Never be afraid to admit you don’t know how to do something nor to ask for help from your team.
6. Courtesy and Etiquette
Be helpful and understanding to people both within and outside your research group. In particular, be nice to fellow lab members, senior graduate students, and the technical services staff. You’ll enhance your reputation and, when you need them (which will be often) they’ll be much more inclined to help you out! Remember that senior students and lab technicians are there to advise and help you but not to do your work for you. Be responsive to emails and volunteer to help with other on-going projects in the lab. If you have a conflict or disagreement with a fellow lab member, please notify your PI. Your PI will look into the matter and come up with a plan to move forward. Be good lab citizens and notify your PI as soon as possible if you notice something odd (for instance, if you notice something broken in the lab, left out at room temperature when it should be in fridge, or if someone accidentally left a piece of equipment on).
Have confidence in your supervisors’ ability to guide and coordinate your research activities to your best advantage. Appreciate that, at times, research can be competitive and treat new results confidentially. Consult your supervisors before reaching out to people beyond your immediate team for advice.
8. Reading and Writing
Read widely. You should become the master of your research topic. Read the newest literature so that you’re up-to-date but also read the classics and read other papers you find interesting too. The best way to improve your own writing is to read good scientific literature. Scientific writing is a skill and it takes time to develop. Expect to write multiple drafts of every article. Keep honing every sentence until they’re ‘perfect’ but realize draft articles can always be enhanced so don’t be shy about sharing them. Always seek to clarify and not to obfuscate.
9. Appreciate Lineage and Legacy
Know the history of your research topic and therefore your place in the story. Learn about the people that came before you that made discoveries on which your work builds. Ask your supervisors about their successes and failures and learn from their experiences. Practice humility. Celebrate your own achievements, take note of your errors, and keep it all in perspective.
10. Graduate Students - Treat it like a job
Graduate school allows plenty of personal freedom. It can be appealing and terrifying at the same time. In my lab, you are allowed to make your own schedule in consultation with me. Please understand that you are expected to work on your research project for ~20-40 hours a week if you wish to publish manuscripts and graduate on time. Set a schedule for yourself and stick to it. Graduate students are expected to work during spring and fall breaks. You need to consult with me before taking time off.
I expect 1-2 first author manuscripts from Master's students and at least 3 first author from PhD students. The work for these manuscripts must be performed in my lab directly under my supervision. As a graduate student, you are also responsible for developing new techniques and increasing the capability of the lab. You are also expected to help and guide undergraduate students in their projects.
11. Accepting Criticism
In academic research, you will need to accept constructive criticism from your PI, committee members, and external reviewers. It is an important skill that you will need to develop. You will not receive a grade for lab work. All feedback on your performance and productivity will be verbal. If you continue to make similar mistakes and do not show improvement, it will be difficult to show kindness and I will be tough on you. Please understand that your PI has your best interest at heart and wants you to be successful.
According to some studies, students can be grouped into having either a fixed mind-set or growth mind-set. Students with fixed mind-set view criticism as pointless, personal, and spirit-crushing. On the other hand, students with a growth mind-set can take criticism as an opportunity for improvement. They see criticism as an investment in their professional development and develop an action-plan to course-correct as they move forward. I would expect you to develop a growth mind-set.
Research involves communication in writing but also in person. Attend research seminars and work on your ability to communicate your research findings and their implications simply and succinctly both to fellow scientists and to members of the general public who may benefit from them. Remember that you are an ambassador for your research team. Represent. Conferences are also a good way to learn about the latest techniques, get feedback or new ideas for your research, and meet other lab groups working in your area. Take some time to go through the scientific program. Try to identify the scientific talks you should attend and the posters you should visit. Make good use of this opportunity. Always remember that you are there to work.
13. And Finally!
Stay excited. Conducting original research is an enormous privilege. It is so exciting to have the opportunity to discover new facts and to communicate them across the world. Appreciate that opportunity, enjoy your studies and have fun.
written and graciously shared by:
Associate Dean for Research and Impact, College of Life and Environmental Sciences
University of Exeter
Minor edits by: Koyal Garg