For graduate students and postdocs, it’s a glorious day when they leave their lab to start the next phase of their career. If that day is in sight for you, I congratulate you, but I also implore you to think of the many you will leave behind and the still more that will come to your lab after you. Too often, departing lab members neglect to pass on the precious knowledge and materials that they possess. It can be anything from knowing where you keep the unique antibodies you generated to how to coax the ancient PCR machine to actually finish a run. As the youngest graduate student in one of the most disorganized labs I’ve ever seen—in a rare clean-up we once unearthed a microscope that had been missing for half a dozen years—I have first-hand experience of the frustration that the chaos left behind by previous generations causes new lab members. Of course, career transitions are stressful, and in the moment cleaning out the freezer or teaching somebody how to operate obstreperous lab equipment does not seem that important. But it is, not only because it saves others frustration, but also because it makes it easier to replicate and build on your scientific accomplishments. Below I offer a few suggestions for guaranteeing the eternal gratitude and increased citation of your publications from those that will come after you.
1. Clean up after yourself
Hopefully, this is common sense. Space in freezers and on benches is valuable, and you know best what is safe to throw out. Please don’t make others toss your expired reagents and cloudy buffers. And for things that shouldn’t be thrown out, label the tubes and boxes clearly with the nature of the reagent, your name, the date, and ideally the volume and page in your lab notebook that has relevant information.
2. Teach your unique skills to somebody else
If only you know how to operate a piece of equipment or take care of a model organism, teach this knowledge to somebody else. Ideally, your advisor will hire someone to continue doing something related to your work and that person will overlap with you for a few months and will find the knowledge immediately useful. But that does not always happen. Remind your advisor of your unique skills and consult with her about who would be the best person to carry on that knowledge.
3. Leave your lab notebooks
This is the next best thing to personally teaching the student or postdoc who continues your project about your experiments. If you kept an organized lab notebook throughout your time in the lab, it should be straightforward. Just put your paper notebooks in a box labeled with your name and “Lab notebooks” in big letters or put your electronic notebook in a clearly labeled file on the desktop of the common lab computer. If, despite the many admonitions from the government funding agencies, and possibly your advisor, your lab notes are not quite so organized, it is well worth the effort to bring them into some semblance of order before you leave. A table of contents in the front or back of your notes is immensely helpful. And if you need the notes in your next position, you can always take a copy of the file or a photocopy of the page.
4. Leave your data
Increasingly, data in biology go beyond the image of the Western blot, the print-out of the gel, or even the scientific publication. Perhaps, you did some next-generation sequencing or high-throughput imaging. If you just leave an external hard drive in your boss’s office, it might get misplaced, the file formats may become outdated, or, as hard drives are wont to do, it may suddenly stop working. And even if the hard drive remains fully functional, after a few years no one, not even you, will remember the meaning of all of the symbols and abbreviations. To encourage sharing of scientific data, American and European government funding agencies have released guidelines for data management. Scientific institutions are responding and your university library or advisor should be able to help you get a permanent URL for your data, compose standardized annotations for them, and regulate access to them. In case you can’t find the information at your institution, I found it on the Stanford and Oxford websites. Your advisor will thank you for taking initiative because this will make his compliance with new data management rules easier.
5. Remain in touch
The less data management, lab-notebook-keeping, teaching, and cleaning you do, the more important this becomes. Replying to an email from the new graduate student about how to do the Western blot in your paper is not only kind, but strategic because that graduate student will more likely publish a follow-up paper to your work. And even if you are leaving academia, a few years down the road that new graduate student or postdoc in your lab may also leave academia, get a job in your profession, and be a valuable connection for referrals and job leads.
How have you dealt with leaving the lab or with the legacy of former lab members? Share with us any tips you have for leaving the lab in good terms.