Get the most from a lab placement

If you want to have a career in science, it’s a big help to have some experience on your CV when you complete your undergraduate degree. This helps you know what you want and don’t want in a job, and it helps show the potential employers that you’re keen on the subject and that you know something about what you’re getting into.

Think hard about what you want to get out of your vacation placement. Is it experience of working in a lab?



1. Be professional. Find out what working hours your host lab expects, and stick to them. Arrive in the morning ready for work. Start off by dressing smartly. Don’t wear t-shirts with a slogan on that might offend your colleagues. Look at what your colleagues are wearing, and use this as a guide. If you’re behaving like a professional member of the team, they are much more likely to offer you additional responsibility and opportunities. Which leads us on to…

2. Take up the opportunities that they offer. You might be invited to have lunch with a visiting researcher, for example, or to attend a one-day conference. You’ll almost certainly attending meetings,  Be ready to listen, and to talk about your work. You may also be invited to social events – it’s a good idea to join your colleagues for these, as you’ll get to know them better, and understand more about what it’s like to be a PhD student or a researcher.

3. Be positive. Talk about the aspects of your placement that you’re enjoying. Accept that you may well have to do some things (maybe quite a lot of things) that feel boring or repetitive at times. That’s why you’re doing this placement – to find out what lab work is really like, and whether it suits you. But you’ll get more out of it, and you’ll make a better impression on your colleagues, if you emphasise what you do enjoy doing and ask to do more of it if possible, rather than moaning about what you don’t like. On the other hand, your placement should be a learning opportunity for you. So if you find that you’re not doing anything with a scientific challenge, have a chat to your supervisor.

4. Be willing to ask questions, and to say if you don’t understand something. No-one should expect you to know all the answers straight away. Ask people questions, listen carefully to their answers, and take a record if appropriate. You can note down what they say, or you might be able to take photos or videos of the correct way to use lab equipment. Try to choose the right time to ask people questions, though: if someone’s right in the middle of a tricky piece of work, they may not be able to break off and help you. If it’s going to take a long time to answer your question (half an hour or so), then you might want to arrange a time in advance to talk about it.

5. Think! Take time to really think about what you’re working on, and why it’s important. Why are you using that protocol, rather than another one? How does your research fit into the projects that other colleagues are working on? Ask your colleagues to recommend useful papers to read.


See our list of potential bursaries

Take a look R Science Magazine’s guide to summer research placements:

Take a look at Nature Jobs’ guide to internships: