In the first part of this series I made the case that standardized operating procedures (SOPs), while completely routine in industry, are often missing from academic education. In this essay, I propose a way for you as a university student to not only write a standard procedure, but to make that experience part of your scientific education. The title is a little lighthearted – I don’t intend for anyone to do it all alone. And this isn’t a quick tip or a “lab hack” – it is hard work and it takes time. But considering how much time you’ve spent learning how to do science, it’s also worthwhile to learn how to apply that education where it matters – like in a job. Continue reading

Who cares about standard operating procedures?

Scientists from academia are often puzzled by the emphasis on standard operating procedures (SOPs) in industry. In one of my early R&D jobs, it felt like an obsession – as soon as I got a new result, my managers wanted to know about the process, and whether I had standardized it. I thought it must be due to their background in manufacturing, where everything has to be replicated from one factory to another. But with more experience, I’ve seen this interest in standardized procedures everywhere – manufacturing, R&D, medical devices, pharmaceuticals… everywhere, that is, except the university research lab. For scientists trained to answer questions by designing new experiments, question of process might not make sense, and even seem a waste of time: If standard procedures are so important, how do we explain the many successful research groups that never bother with them?
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Communication: the most important thing you learned to do badly

Most students would be surprised that the term “academic” can have a negative tone in industry. But it’s true – and one place it often gets used is in describing research presentations. For people trained in academia who want to apply their skills to industry, finding a good way to describe their academic experience can be hard. I’m not talking about slide layout or presentation style – I’m talking about the message. The general rule in communication, accepted everywhere outside research institutions, is KISS, for “keep it simple, stupid.” That’s harder than it sounds when you’re surrounded by people who have made their careers by studying complex fields in great detail. One consequence is that you get credibility by describing your work in all its complexity, it great detail. Continue reading