How to Be an Excellent Trainee

By Susanna Stroik

We’ve all either been there or are going to be there – undergraduate students, rotation students, joining a new lab at any career stage, learning a new technique while visiting a lab, or maybe even training on a new technique with a coworker. Being a newblugene_pencil trainee (even if youre an oldbe trainee!) can be pretty nerve-wracking. So how can you be the best trainee possible? Its not a mystery there are some practices that can really help!

Following best trainee practices gives twofold benefits: you may learn faster and retain more information plus your mentor will get you up to speed easier and faster when youre an active participant in the training. In this blog we will review the preparation and planning you can do to build a bench mentor-mentee relationship and bring your best self to the training experience. 

The ins and outs of being a trainee

There is a lot of advice out there on choosing a quality mentor, and rightfully so! They can provide you with high-level career advice, open doors for you, and teach you valuable lessons along the way. We think it’s so important that we have written plenty of articles on building successful mentor relationships, asking for mentor support, and choosing your mentor. What isn’t discussed often enough is the hands on mentoring you receive after you’ve found your mentor, though. Typically, you will identify a ‘scientific mentor’: someone who provides career advice and offers direction on your scientific project. Your scientific mentor is typically a professor who operates a research group. Within that research group, you will also typically receive technical mentorship from a ‘bench mentor’. In some instances, the bench mentor is also the scientific mentor…but usually the bench mentor is a staff scientist, postdoc, lab manager, technician, or a graduate student. This is the person you report or talk to on a daily basis who will help you get on your feet with techniques in the lab (and possibly much more, depending on the mentoring style within the research group).

The bench mentor-mentee relationship is extremely important – without a good set up it could be very difficult for you to become proficient in lab techniques, which will hinder your progress. You will also probably have a lot more face time with your bench mentor than your scientific mentor. Thus, this relationship will probably define your experience in the research group more (at least at first) than any other one. Luckily, you can do a lot to contribute to the relationship dynamic and set yourself up for success!

Getting the most out of the training experience

In research there is a saying that if the sample prep is poor, then the data will be poor. The same is true for training in the lab! If you don’t do proper preparation and pay attention during training, then you won’t be very proficient afterwards. Below we highlight how to prepare and things to keep an eye out for during training.

Preparation before bench work

Are there any relevant papers you can read prior to the start of your training? These could serve two purposes – familiarize you with the techniques you will be learning and the biology you will study. (You can also check out Addgene’s blog, eBooks, and other educational resources to help you get started!) Are there protocols you can familiarize yourself with? If your bench mentor hasn’t sent you papers or protocols yet, don’t be scared to ask for some! You can email or ask in-person “Are there any papers you think would be useful to read in advance?” or “It would be great if you could send me the protocol we’ll be using next week so I can familiarize myself with it.” It won’t be a bother to them, and it shows you are motivated – plus it’s a big timesaver for them if you come to a training having already read a paper or protocol. If you have questions while reading these materials (maybe a step in the protocol you don’t understand the purpose of, or a different way of doing something then you’ve done previously) you can bring those questions to your training! All of these things will help you get more out of the in-person training component.

Documenting during training

It’s hard to recall a lot of details, especially when you are in a new place, learning something new. So how can you remember everything? Write it all down! And I mean everything! The bare minimum should be taking notes on general protocol steps and other tips and tricks your mentor shares. Additionally, go ahead and write down where that one drug is stored or how to access the shared server. The blue box labeled “A5” on the second rack in the corner freezer sounds easy to remember in the moment….but you’ll probably forget and end up asking your mentor later if you don’t write it down. And don’t be afraid to ask your bench mentor if/when you need to double-check a detail!

Training follow up

After your training session (ideally in the next few days or weeks), look over your notes and protocol(s). Is there enough information there for you to be independent performing the technique you trained to do? Walk through the protocol mentally (or physically where relevant) and identify any gaps or questions you have, then bring them to your mentor.

Pro tip! Consider physically walking through the protocol, by going to each space in order to double-check you remember where the equipment, reagents, and samples are.

Do: Ask your bench mentor if they have time to answer outstanding questions you have, well before experimental crunch time.

Don’t: Wait to ask questions and/or receive help until you’ve already started a time sensitive experiment.

Ready to fly solo? Let your bench mentor know when you will be attempting a technique on your own for the first time. They can then plan accordingly in case you have questions or need a little assistance at some point during the procedure.

Be an active partner

Everyone’s learning style is different, so let your mentor know what yours is! For instance, some people like to ask questions throughout training, while others prefer to review their notes, process what they’ve just learned, and ask questions later – maybe even the next day. In the latter case, you can say “I usually need time to gather my thoughts, but always have questions once I do – would it be okay if we meet later to discuss?” You can also ask for a copy of the protocol if you prefer to take notes on a printed protocol, or maybe you would like to take pictures/videos of a machine set up while your mentor is demonstrating it. Requests like this are both very normal and very helpful; don’t be afraid to ask!

Especially for those new to the bench, remember to let your bench mentor know what you don’t know – i.e., if they use a term or acronym you don’t know, or if they assume you have done a technique before, but you haven’t, say something. It can be intimidating to ask for clarification at first, but in the end everyone wins. Your mentor learns where you are at and the level of support you need from them, and you can understand the information in your training.

Bench mentor-mentee relationships

Training can be a very fulfilling experience; even the grumpiest of researchers can enjoy it at times! What makes it rewarding is when you can tell a trainee is understanding and things are ’clicking’ for them. It’s often easiest to train individuals who are polite, appreciative, and clear about their needs. Remember, your bench mentor’s training time is time set aside just for you – so do your best to show up as your most prepared, can-do self and make the most of it!

So, what can you do to build a positive work relationship with your trainer?

  • Adopt the schedule of your bench mentor during training. Don’t expect them to work around your schedule, be respectful of theirs!
  • Show up prepared and take training seriously, as reviewed above.
  • Offer to help clean up and/or make necessary reagents for the experiments. Unlike in lab courses, where everything is magically made up by helpful TAs or assistants, and sitting out on the bench waiting for you, prep for research work has to be done by the researchers themselves. 
  • Be mindful that your mentor will still have their own deadlines and priorities to attend to. Being mindful looks like: “When you have time, would you mind helping me with….” vs. “I need help with…now”.
  • Ask for feedback so you can make adjustments. This could look like “What are some things I could pay attention to, so my dissections go smoother next time?” or more generally “How am I doing? Can you tell me what’s going well and what I could improve on?”

Having someone in lab to go to with questions and concerns is invaluable. With a little thought you can build meaningful relationships in your new lab, learn the required techniques, and be ready to take on trainees one day when you are the senior personnel! Happy training!


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Topics: Early Career Researcher

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