What Do I Do When I Can’t Go to Lab?

Ways to move your research forward when running experiments isn’t an option
APR 2020
Stephanie
S.
Chemistry

Sometimes, going to lab isn’t an option. Whether it’s due to an injury, illness, family or, as in 2020, COVID-19, life often gets in the way of planned experiments. But that doesn’t have to stop you from working on your research! There are lots of ways to push your research forward without physically running experiments.

It’s important to reiterate, however, that the most important way that you can advance your research is to communicate with your PI and establish a plan of action. PIs are people too, and they understand that extenuating circumstances can prevent people from going to the lab. They likely have an idea of what kind of work you should be doing outside of the lab and are usually more than willing to figure out ways for you to stay productive.

That said, when you talk to your PI, it’s useful to come in with your own ideas on what you can be working on. Many PIs don’t have the time to analyze every single aspect of your research, and likely aren’t always 100% up-to-date as to what you need to be working on most. The following ideas may give you the guidance you need to come up with a solid course of action with your PI for your time away from the lab.

1. Work on a review

If you’re deep into your research, it might be a great time for you to work on a review! Writing a review allows you to dive into the literature and synthesize the information you find into a single document that can be of use to both you and your colleagues. In the process, it also helps you contextualize how your own work fits into the broader scope of the field. Reviews are also highly cited, padding your CV and advancing your career. Finally, writing a review helps develop your writing and reading skills, both tools that are necessary for success as a scientist.

2. Make figures and slides

Making detailed, well-designed figures and slides takes a surprising amount of time and is often considered a low-priority task compared to running experiments. However, having good figures is crucial for strong communication, and can really strengthen your writing. This makes it a perfect task to prioritize when not focusing on experiments. Spending some time designing figures and slides will give a real communications boost to your future publications and presentations. Plus, your PI might be glad to have some new figures to add to their own talks.

3. Learn a new skill you may need for your research

Swamped with gigabytes of data needing to be analyzed? Learn how to code in R or another statistics package. Suddenly working on an immunology project? Take a free online class (i.e. a MOOC, or massive online open courseware). The internet is great for learning new skills and subjects, and lots of universities, including MIT, offer free online classes. If you’re interested in learning a more technical skill, take a class on LinkedIn Learning, which offers tons of coding and business related classes. Bonus: MIT students get access to LinkedIn Learning for free!

4. Apply for fellowships

The only thing better than an army of graduate students is an army of free graduate students. We often forget, but our PIs not only pay our salaries, they also pay for our tuition and health care. Basically, grad students are expensive. Lessen the financial load on your PI by applying for fellowships. If you receive a fellowship, you cost your PI less money, and you get a nice fancy award to add to your resume.

It sucks not being in the lab. After all, most of us are in graduate school because we like running experiments. But a lot of science and career development doesn’t have to happen in the lab. Working together with your PI, you can ensure that your time outside of the lab doesn’t have to go to waste. The ideas above can help you and your PI come up with the best plan to keep you engaged and productive away from the lab, however long that may be.