Surviving Lab Classes

Extended version of this! Oh and sorta this too!

daa412c3f51cf7c76447dfb4fc8a2480As a STEM major, there is a high probability that you’re going to have at least one class that has some sort of lab component. Whether it’s a three to four hour lab once a week or in the worst case (read: as a chemistry major), two four-hour labs a week. 😦

Of course, the difference between lab-based courses and lecture-based courses is that there is a significant portion of your grade is no longer based on exams and problem sets. Rather, a large chunk is now based on three other things: (1) how accurately and efficiently can you do your experiment in the allotted time, (2) how well you can remember your lab manual for quizzes, as well as (3) how well you can write it up (read: defend your results) on your lab report.

Unfortunately, for those that are starting on their first serious lab courses, it’s always these components that can sometimes be the trickiest to master. So, having survived quite a few lab courses as a chemistry major, here is my take on how I survived my lab courses in hopes that it helps you too! 🙂

Good luck & science away!

Read the lab manual (!!!)

First and foremost you should always, always, ALWAYS read the lab manual before stepping into the lab. Not only will this help you if you happen to have a quiz on the material, but a lab manual should always lay out the general procedure you have to follow, as well as explain what results you should be expecting from the experiment. Knowing these two things will allow you to finish the lab as quickly and painlessly as possible, or at least make you notice when something isn’t going right so you can fix it as quickly as possible.

Keep up with your lab notebook

Well first, some lab classes don’t allow you to use your lab manual during the actual experiment. Rather, they expect you to write the procedure out on your lab notebook. Therefore, it is really important to make sure that you have written out everything you will need before the experiment begins. It is also important to remember that your lab notebook is also where you will write down all your observations and results. This can include things from the starting material and product weight, to the color of that weird goo on the flask, or even to a casual  “Woops, I spilled something.” These things may seem trivial and annoying to jot down as you’re busy trying not to mess up an experiment, but sometimes the most trivial thing may be important when you’re writing up your results and error analysis in your lab report.

Note possible errors

Speaking of lab reports, I find that the most important section of your lab report is typically your error analysis section. This is the section usually after your results where you explain anything that could have caused error in your results and prevented you from getting that impossible 100% yield or r2 = 1.0000 on your graph. Therefore, it is important to be aware during your experiment of any place that error could occur. Did some product get stuck in the reaction flask? Did you spill something on one of the steps? Did you forget to calibrate the instrument? Did your stupid lab partner think that it was waste and dump your hard work in the waste container? Shit happens. Be prepared to defend crappy results. This will save your grade on lab reports.

Slow and steady

Yeah, I know three to four hours is a very long time to be stuck in a lab. Especially if it’s an 8am lab or one that is late in the evening. However, rushing to finish up the experiment isn’t going to help anyone and is just going to cause a lot of error, which you will have to explain in your lab report by saying something other than “I messed up because I wanted to go home.” So, work efficiently, not quickly. I recommend getting all the materials you need ahead of time and making sure all the necessary glassware is cleaned and ready to be abused used before you start the actual procedure.

Find a good partner

I’ve gotten stuck with plenty a bad partner. Ones where I had to essentially do everything and ones where they did things but they were slow as hell and made stupid mistakes by not paying close enough attention. Though sometimes you do get assigned partners, when you have a choice in the matter make sure you choose someone who you know is competent and will work well with you. (Note: this doesn’t always mean choosing a friend as a partner, but you know how you work the best, so it’s completely up to you.)

Your TA is your friend

Last, but not least, your TA will be the number one resource you have when things go horribly, horribly wrong. In most schools I’ve heard of, most TAs have either done the experiment themselves, or at least know the general idea and what to expect at each step. Therefore, if anything every goes wrong in your experiment or even if you are just confused by the procedure, you should always consult your TA. Even more, your TA is also the one who is probably grading your lab report. Therefore, if you want to get a good grade on your report, it’s important to go to their office hours and ask questions so you get an idea of what to expect.

That’s all I have. If anyone feels that I have missed anything, please let me know! Or, if you have any questions feel free to go to my contact page and ask away at any of the provided media! 🙂

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