My Advice to First-Year Ken (Time Machine Availability Pending)

Having just successfully defended my dissertation and finding myself with spare time during a cross-country drive between Los Angeles to North Carolina, I have compiled a list of things that I did or, in retrospect, wish I had done at the beginning of graduate school. I hope that those who are just entering a program this fall will find it useful. One thing to keep in mind while reading this list is that I am primarily a synthetic chemist. Yet, I am optimistic that there is something useful to all chemists, no matter the flavor.

In no particular order:

1) Search through every nook and cranny of your lab. When you first start working you should look through every drawer/cabinet/fridge/corner in your group’s space just to get a feel for what is available to you. At some point you might need a unique item that you recall happening across during your initial search. Keep in mind that while group materials are often shared, some of the senior group members might not be happy if they find you going through “their stuff” so you might want to either ask them or do it at night when no one is around.

2) Have an extra set of clothing/shoes in desk. You never know when you will sacrifice an item of clothing on the alter of science (Ignore this point if you enjoy public nudity).

3) Use a numbering system for your files. Early in your graduate career you might be tempted to label your spectroscopic files (NMR, UV-Vis, IR, etc.) after the name of your molecules. However, unless you are going to list the full IUPAC name it will result in some acronym or abbreviation that could change over time. To avoid much frustration and ordeal while sorting through your first-year files as you write your dissertation it is much better just to name your files by notebook number or some systematic way that will not change over time.

4) Write down everything. I realize you are told this many times but you have no idea how difficult it is to recreate a procedure four years later with notes that are not up to par. If you are not motivated by the fear of your own personal frustration later on, do it for the next person that needs to recreate your results.

5) Always remain skeptical. It is very easy to convince yourself that there is a peak or signal or whatever when you want it to be there. Yet, no matter how much you want to have discovered a new phenomena or synthesized your final product, you have to double/triple check your results and use multiple measurements to be sure. If a result is to good to be true, it often is. There is nothing more devastating than to be “certain” of your results only to find out they are far from it.

6) Get a screw driver set. Although your research group may have public use tool, I strongly recommend keeping a personal set of both small and regular-sized screw drivers in your desk drawer. They will always be there and in good working condition when you need them (In consideration of point #1 – write your name on all personal items).

7) Buy Invest in a comfortable chair. Over the course of your graduate career (4-7 years) you will spend many hours in your chair, especially when writing up papers or your dissertation. Being physically sore due to a crappy chair does not help your mental well-being and thus can end up hindering your research.

8 ) Stagger your hours. No matter how close you are with your lab mates, make no mistake; you will be competing with them for lab space and equipment (rotovaps, spectroscopic machines, etc.). Although the idea of working from 6am to 4pm may not sound appealing, you can get a lot of work done when you have free reign over EVERYTHING.

9) Have a couple of 3 1/2” floppy disks in your desk. Working in a state of the art research facility does not always mean you are working with state of the art operating systems/software. In the event that you need to get data off of a machine without USB drives, running windows 98 it is handy to have your floppy disks readily available.

10) Screw up early and often and learn from it. You are going to make mistakes in lab. During your first year be prepared to fail. A lot. The key to success is to learn from your mistakes. As a senior group member I had no problem walking a first-year through a procedure or trouble shooting some issue, but if I had to do it three or four times I was less likely to help them in the future.

11) Pick and choose your battles. Although it is difficult to foresee what battles are important, especially when you are first starting your research career, the best advice I can offer is to ask yourself, “will this experiment support the narrative of my research/papers? Will it help me graduate?” For example, if you are not a synthetic chemist and only care about the properties of your final product it is not worth your time to optimize your reaction yields from 50 to 80%. If your product is valuable let someone else figure out an efficient way to make it. You should just worry about measuring pure product.

12) On your first day in lab figure out who the smartest member of your research group is and hit them with a lunch tray. Just kidding. Prison rules only apply 75% of the time in graduate school. But seriously, not every opinion from senior group members is equally valuable. Get a feel early on for who is able and willing to help you with your questions.


  1. I want to hear your lessons as a first year postdoc! So far I’ve been told to do the impossible with a turnaround of 2-weeks. Learn a new discipline. 12-hour work days are your friend.

  2. Here here to number 2, though honestly, my lab mates always thought I was weird for keeping an extra set of nice clothes in my file cabinet. Served a triple purpose:
    1. Regular clothes get damaged, can swap out.
    2. Forgot it was a presentation / visitor / multi-group meeting day, can swap out.
    3. Don’t have time to go home and change before date, can swap out.
    ( thankfully got more use as 2,3 than 1 )

    Also agree with Mitch, 12 hour days are the norm. 3 full time jobs: research, teach, classes, at least to start with.

  3. Nice list, but a few comments:

    ad 8) As resident safety officer, I will strongly urge you to the following: 1: Check what you are allow to do outside “normal office hours” and what they are.
    2: Think about what you work with. I our lab several people clean surface with pirahna (sulphuric acid and hydrogen peroxide) and I have told them only to do that during regular work hours. For one thing the quality of the emergency room staff is lover during night (If they are there..) And during wok day there are more people around the come and save your ass when thing go wrong.

    ad 6) get a full tool kit. You will be the hero of the lab when thing go wrong

  4. I would add to #6 a set of different-sized allen wrenches. You’d be surprised how often they are useful.

  5. #12 is great. The rest of the list is, too.

  6. First year grad student here. I’m finding suggestion 8 to be particularly valuable. Having instruments all to yourself is a wonderful thing.

    Plus when no one else is in the lab you can rock out to whatever music you want, as loud as you want. My lab mates just don’t appreciate electropop the way I do!

  7. Pingback: Chemistry Blog » Blog Archive » “Get a job, Ken!”

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