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Feeling lost in new lab


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Hi Everyone,

So I recently got to grad school and joined a group that I was really excited about. I was really excited about the research, and the other group members seemed okay, so I made a pretty quick decision to join since I was also worried about not getting into one of the labs I was interested in, since my program is quite competitive).

The group itself is not new, but recently moved from a different university, and so all of their instruments and equipment had to be shipped and reassembled. As a result, not much is going on in the lab, since a lot of stuff still hasn't arrived. Originally, I was shadowing one of my lab mates, and he would tell me when he was going to work on something in the lab. He stopped telling when he was going to be doing something though, although he will still leave the office for long periods (presumably to go into the lab). I am left at my desk wondering if I am supposed to follow him, or if he does not want me around. 

Everyone in the lab is very quiet around me, and so I feel awkward asking questions or trying to even make small talk with them. They are friendly enough and always say hi when they see me, but I haven't really been able to talk to them much beyond that, since I'm afraid of bothering them or interrupting their work by starting a conversation. So I pretty much sit at my desk all day and do homework. I do not have a research project to work on yet, my PI told me to just get to know the different projects so I could figure out which one I wanted to do. But although I have read about the projects, I have not gotten to see anyone working on any of them.

Another first year student joined the lab at the same time I did, but he does not seem to be having this problem. He already has a project, and seems comfortable with everything and seems to know what's going on in the lab. I constantly get the feeling that everyone else knows what's going on, but no one ever tells me anything (like, when new equipment is arriving, etc.) 

I was going to just wait and hope that eventually I would figure things out and my lab mates would warm up to me, but right now I am so confused and miserable all the time. I feel like I'm missing something that I should be doing, but I don't know what and I don't know who to ask. I can't really talk to anyone in my cohort about this, since they all complain about how they are incredibly busy, while my problem is that I am bored out of my mind. I have been trying to keep up with reading the literature, etc, but I am losing motivation to do even that, since it seems like it does no good. 

Has anyone else felt like this? Any advice? 

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Just because the other first year doesn't appear to be lost doesn't necessarily mean he cannot be feeling that way. Perhaps he did what his PI told him to do and chose a project. Shouldn't you be doing the same, as that is what your PI told you to do. Do you need to see someone working on a project to choose one? Did the other first year watch people working on various projects before he chose one? If everyone is busy working on something, aren't there projects you could watch because you say everyone is busy? We are over a month into the semester and you can't wait for someone to offer to let you watch. Everyone feels lost when they begin a new program. Even though I'm in a different field, this is my first year also. I am taking a very difficult class right now (everyone is having the same difficulties) and I sometimes wonder if I made the right choice. It's natural to go through self-doubt and think that everyone else knows what's going on except you. 

I know I have asked a lot of questions, but these are things you need to be asking yourself. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

OP, I was in the almost-exactly-the-same situation, except, I was a postdoc and then there was the 1st year student.

At some point, during your Ph.D. (especially if you are in STEM with wet lab stuff), you are going to learned and realized that your priority is to complete a certain task (i.e. an experiment) before the day ends. That priority will be placed above you taking the initiative and teaching a new member/rotation student in the lab to do something that you do routinely. Having said that, I used to wait until a new member of the lab to show up, and then show them what experiment(s) I'm doing now/next -- not anymore. Because I realized 2 things:

1) it is to my own interest to complete my task ASAP, and there is absolutely no reason to hinder my own experiment/schedule for someone who isn't part of the project (unless I was instructed by my PI that this someone has to learn this experiment ASAP), and
2) I am not the parent of this new member -- I have no obligation to tell this student that "hey, I'm gonna do this now" for every experiment that I do, all day, 7 days a week.

That being said, my expectation (and my PI agrees) is the new student need to be proactive -- taking the initiative to shadow / learn from anyone in the lab (not just me). Others maybe busy, but scientists typically are happy to talk about their research/work, or demonstrate what they are doing to someone who is genuine interested, and seemingly passionate about their work.

The student that was in the lab was quiet and all. In the first week, I showed this student what (most of the) experiments I do, and the student get their hands on. After the first week or so, I started conducting the experiments at my own pace and schedule. I was expecting that the student would either follow up with the things that we did, or ask and/or shadow what I (or anyone in the lab) were doing. Instead of showing interest to learn what everyone was doing, this student sat and their desk quietly the whole time, for the whole week. They came in, sit at the desk, and left however many hours later. From the my perspective, this student isn't interested in what we are doing, to say the least. Granted that this student claimed they were interested in our work, but had absolutely no experience on any experiments that we do regularly.

In contrast, high school students and undergrads who I worked with were all passionate about everything that we did, and they typically stick around the lab long enough to have their own projects and go from there.

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