Project Survival Guide

All of our final year students do an independent research project irrespective of degree. There’s little point in discussing how to select a project in the first place because most institutions ask students to pick a selection of projects and hopefully allocate one of them. Anyway, its an undergraduate project and while extremely important in the context of the degree, a second or third choice probably isn’t going to be a deal breaker. But what do you do once you start your project? It’s pretty big and overwhelming to tackle (in theory, hopefully in practice) something no one has done before.

The first thing is probably to know how you are going to be assessed. The project is probably some fraction of the final year mark, and there are likely guidelines. Read them. Figure out what you have to do right now, and on a regular basis to maximise the ‘easy marks’. For example, if there are guidelines on how often you should meet your academic supervisor and that you should take minutes of those meetings in your lab book, plan to do it. If there are guidelines on how to keep your lab book (e.g. contents pages, address, record of hours, references to literature, evidence of reading papers), come up with a plan to do it. Pay particular attention to whether you require signatures or other contemporary information in your lab book and put a note in your diary to get them.

Secondly, think about how you will manage the project, the information obtained and data generated. That’s what your lab book is for but you will also need some kind of file system for samples and electronic data. All file names and sample names should be recorded in the lab book and referred to at appropriate moments. For what it is worth, I have no preference whether lab books are kept in strict chronological order (but remember to cross reference so that it makes sense) or whether literature reading, or extensive spectral data interpretation is put at the back so as not to disrupt the flow of experimental musings (but remember to include it in your contents). For the duration of your project, your lab book is the sacred place where you will record everything you do, think, read and interpret. And stuff you do in October must must must make sense in March when you write it up so be detailed. Never ever keep a ‘rough’ lab diary in the lab and go home and write it up neatly. That is not the point. Your lab diary should be legible, you can always add additional information at your leisure but never transcribe into a different book.  Similarly, cross out with a single line, don’t use correction fluid, use some kind of ink pen that does not run if you spill water on it.

Thirdly, you are conducting research which may be published. It is imperative that you conduct that research with the utmost honesty and integrity. If you forget to write down a mass or volume of reagent added, record that in your book. While your supervisor may frown at the unreproducible procedure because you didn’t make a note, it’s nothing compared to what they will feel if you make up the value and the procedure doesn’t work for the next student. You must be able to produce, at any time during your project, your data in original format. There are requirements in each subfield of chemistry for what kind of analysis is required. It will depend on whether you are making a new-to-the-universe compound, or whether you are reproducing a previous prep. In any case, you’re trying to demonstrate your skills as a researcher, so doing a variety of valid and accessible characterisation techniques (unless told otherwise) is probably a good idea. If in doubt, ask.  Record your data accurately, print out and stick in complicated data sets if necessary, and hard copies of spectral data. Record your interpretations in your lab book – you’ll have to type them into your report anyway and that’s easiest if you have a hand written copy to start with.

Fourthly, your mark will reflect what you put in. Read only the papers your supervisor gives you? Walk into their office each day and ask ‘what am I doing in the lab today’? Your mark isn’t going to be fantastic because you’re not demonstrating your thinking, planning and general research skills. Find other papers (a good starting point is finding the papers cited by and citing the papers your supervisor gives you). Walk into their office and ask ‘I think I should do X next, how does that sound?’, or ‘I think Y is the next step but I’m a little unsure about Z’. Chances are you’ll ask your project supervisor to write you  a reference so you want to develop a decent relationship.

Finally, safety  and courtesy matters. You are obliged to follow your institutions health and safety requirements. That means no work without supervisor approval and a completed risk assessment form (at my institution, others may vary). That also means demonstrating exceptional chemical hygiene, researching your chemicals to understand their specific risks and how they should be handled, asking more experienced people as standard. It also means double checking your reflux condensers to avoid floods, not leaving the lab while your reaction is unstable (e.g. heating up, chemical adding unless at an extremely slow rate), and ensuring that every single item of glassware containing your very precious reactions are labeled clearly. Be courteous, there is always a limited quantity of glassware in a lab. Do not store products in reaction vessels – transfer to sample vials as soon as reasonably possible. Do not hoard glassware or equipment unless explicitly allowed to do so. Pick up your NMR tubes/other sample containers from the instrument after they have run, clean them and put them away for next time. Don’t nick other people’s stuff!

And just in case you were wondering, it should be interesting, challenging and enjoyable. It should at least let you figure out if research is something you might like to do in the future, and add some awesome skills to your CV for the job hunt.