How do I get lab experience?!

Without lab experience I definitely wouldn’t be doing my PhD. I wouldn’t have even considered it.

I owe my enjoyment of science and research to a lot of people who have mentored and taught me, but it’s probably having the chance to experience several research environments before the end of my degree that has had the most impact on where I am now.

There are lots of ways to gain experience and hopefully I’ll mention most of the routes, but this blog is by no means exhaustive.

*This is my personal experience*

How I felt looking for experience and PhD's!

How I felt looking for experience and PhD’s!

Age 16

School work experience. I wanted work at the hospital, but they weren’t enough spaces, so I spent a week at a community pharmacy. I decided I didn’t want to do a pharmacy degree.

Age 17

I did a week of work experience at GlaxoSmithKline in pharmaceutical development near my hometown. I enjoyed it, we got to do lots of hands on things. I particularly remember using a scanning electron microscope (SEM) and getting a tour of the pilot production plant. I knew I didn’t want to study chemistry or pharmacy, but I liked the work environment.

GSK offer work experience to school students and Undergraduate students

GSK offer work experience to school students and Undergraduate students

I got my own work experience in a NHS and private hospital. I decided I didn’t want to study medicine, but I still really enjoyed learning human biology.

I was invited back to GlaxoSmithKline to do a 5 week placement with a bursary from the Nuffield Foundation. I met other Nuffield students my own age working in different labs. I had a tour of my first animal house. I worked independently on my mini research project. I was allowed to use equipment and expensive microscopes on my own. In short, I had a great time!


Nuffield Research Placements

I decided to do a Biomedical Science degree, with a broad first year, at the best university I could get into.

Age 18

I presented my project at the National Science + Engineering Competition Final. I met like minded students who had also applied to study STEM subjects at university.

BSA_Max_415_411 National_Science_and_Engineering_Competition big bang fair logo


1st year madness. In 2nd year I chose the neuroscience stream on a bit of a whim because I disliked the other streams more. Luckily I enjoyed studying neuroscience, but I definitely struggled in the 2nd year of my degree. Interestingly, recent research has shown that this is common. I lost motivation mostly due to the emphasis on memorisation needed for exams and I didn’t feel like I was ‘smart enough’.

learn all th science

I got some lab experience with my personal tutor’s lab in the summer. I worked as an assistant with a bursary provided from the labs grants. I observed and had a go at some electrophysiology. I labelled, tidied and made up solutions. I attended journal clubs and went to seminars. I remember not understanding much (!). I went along to my first conference.

I enjoyed learning about diseases of the nervous system in lectures, so visited a lab working on Parkinson’s disease and decided to do my final year research placement there.

I started my project looking at reactive oxygen species (ROS) in Parkinson’s Disease. I spent two terms part time in the lab working on my project (before and after lectures). I had an amazing post-doc who was a brilliant teacher. I did cell culture, live cell fluorescence microscopy, immunocytochemistry and western blotting. I realised no one had to memorise everything and anyone could ask for help and advice. I decided I wanted to do a PhD. I presented my poster at a symposium. I applied for and was awarded an undergraduate prize and travel grant to present my poster at a conference.


Run undergraduate awards and provide a travel grants

I applied for some 4 year PhD’s and an MRes programme…then more PhDs

…and that’s how I got here!


Follow what you enjoy

This is probably the most important bit of advice.

I had no idea I would like neuroscience or research, I fell into it. A lot of people say that, but now I actually understand what it means. I followed what I liked and I did something new because I knew what I didn’t enjoy. Hopefully I’ll keep doing this and end up in a good place!

Use your contacts

Like everything, it’s a bit of a numbers game and don’t forget to use your contacts.
Personal tutors, teachers, favourite lecturers, careers advisor’s…
In my experience this is your best shot at getting a placement. For example tell your personal tutor you’re looking for experience, could they provide you with any? Do they know anyone who might be able to?…you get the idea!

Be persistent

You might hit a few dead ends, but don’t give up. If you’re keen you’re likely to get something to reward your efforts sooner or later.

Apply to schemes

Many large labs and institutes offer summer work experience placements, both in the UK and abroad. I’m not going to list them all here but it is definitely worth applying to these. They are competitive, but you have to be in it to win it and they’re undoubtedly incredibly rewarding.

Any experience is good experience

Quite a chunk of my experience was finding out what I didn’t want to do: inner ear physiology wasn’t for me, PET scanning isn’t my thing, behavioural modelling doesn’t suit. I only know all this from gaining experience and learning from others.

Getting 6 weeks work experience in one place is great, but if you can get 1 week or even a half day tour and a chat then go for it! There is no chunk of experience so small you can’t learn from it.

Be open minded

Similar to above, be open to different areas and interests. You never know where one thing might lead you. Don’t feel pressured to focus on one area too early. If you’re interested in science research I’d say having an idea of what direction you want to head in at the end of you BSc is more than enough.


As you can see lots of people and places influenced my journey so if you’re doing a PhD, I recommend looking back over what got you there, it’s really rewarding.

Big thanks to Rebecca at Train of Brain for inspiring this post.

How did you get experience?
Any other advice to add?
Comment here or tweet me @NeuroRach

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6 Responses to How do I get lab experience?!

  1. Rebecca says:

    Ah, this is so helpful! And reassuring to hear about how you were actually involved during your work experience – it’s really easy to just picture myself being in the way/an in inconvenience/not knowing enough (‘LEARN ALL THE SCIENCE!’ So, so relatable…although I’m actually loving my second year so much more than first year.)
    Work experience is a vicious circle but this has given me lots of ideas, thanks! 🙂

    • NeuroRach says:

      Glad it’s useful 🙂
      Definite love/hate relationship with second year –
      loved learning the neuroscience, hated the pressure for exams and deciding what to do in the future.
      Never worry about being in the way, labs that take students on want them to get involved and are used to teaching the basics.
      I’m sure you’ll find someone to take you on soon!

  2. Nice post. Another possibility: join a DIY-bio lab as volunteer. This is very valuable because these labs run on very small money and force you to learn the foundations of molecular biology: extracting DNA is cost-effective if you do not rely on patented kits. You will probably have access to old, used instruments. This is also great because the instruments will break apart and you will have to fix them. Biohacker spaces are usually frequented by biologists, engineers and designers. Unique opportunity to learn pipetting, soldering and communicating on the go.

    The projects are also much sexy. We are running a 1000 beer genomes project in Switzerland, compare it to the study of biophysical interactions between protein X and protein Y during the gastrulation of Drosphila melanogaster and you get the point.

  3. Pingback: My thoughts at the Alzheimer’s Research UK PhD Day 2015 | NeuroRach

  4. Pingback: Ada Lovelace Day 2015 #UoBInspired | NeuroRach

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