Planning an experiment - How to get started?

Planning an experiment - How to get started?

Table of contents


You are a young and enthusiastic scientist with a research idea, but you are struggling with how to get started or just stuck on preparations. Sounds familiar?

Not a fun place to be, but you are not alone! We have all been there (at least I know I’ve been). So I have prepared some tips that will give you a quick jump-start on your experiment planning and spare you some nerves.

Scientists looking at a computer

1. Read the literature

The first and probably the most obvious tip is to familiarize yourself with the topic. Having good knowledge of your topic is important! But knowing everything from the start is impossible.

So start by focusing on gaining overview knowledge of your broad topic and then focus on the details around your research question step by step. By approaching your topic step by step, you will systematically gain insight and you will be able to filter out and read through large amounts of published articles with a breeze.

Experiments will usually take a long period of time, leaving you with some free in-between moments, when you will have time to read additional articles and fill in your knowledge gaps.

2. Establish a knowledge gap

Each step in literature research will narrow down the information and make it more specific, finally leading you to establish the knowledge gap. This is where you apply your research to a wider more general background. For example; Why is this research useful? What questions that haven’t been answered yet will it answer? Is it useful for understanding a biological process or can these answers provide information for drug/vaccine/biomolecule development? Think about all the areas and aspects your research can potentially influence.

3. Formulate your research question

Next, you need to clearly formulate your research question and make it interesting and relevant. This will help you to stay on topic and not stray too far off, even when additional questions might seem interesting.

Having in mind the FINER acronym might be helpful when considering and assessing a research question. FINER stands for Feasible, Interesting, Novel, Ethical and Relevant. These are all important aspects to look at.

Formulating a good research question depends on good literature research. By writing down a focused research question you can more easily systematically plan your research project.

4. Define your approach

In this part explain how you plan on finding out the answers to your research question. Propose experimental methods you will use and what kind of data you will obtain with them.

If you do not know where to start, first look at some relevant research papers on your topic and read through their methods. The chances are they used a similar approach or at least it will give you an idea of how to obtain a certain result. This is a great start, as it gives you a base to build upon.

The second option is to browse through the wonders of YouTube and all the science videos it offers. There are some great videos and resources on how certain methods work, with great visual explanations! So take advantage of that, if you want to know more about some of the methods.

If you run into a wall and don’t know what you would do, you can always talk to your mentor and together find the next step. There might be methods or approaches that you don’t even know about but are used in the lab you are starting out.

5. Make an overall figure

People are visual beings, so having a figure to explain your idea and approach will engage the audience more. But what is even more important, while you will be summing up your knowledge in a figure it will help you connect the dots and paint the whole picture! This can be useful throughout your whole research, as you can look back at it anytime and refresh your ideas.

These steps combined (from Step 1 to Step 5) are usually what you would call a proposal if you would be starting your BSc/MSc thesis or applying for a grant/PhD position,… It is a condensed document usually varying from 2 to 5 pages, giving an introduction, explaining the scope of the research, and proposing an approach you would take to get the answers. In this way, you lay out the information you gathered in a condensed manner, which can be read by even the general public. Think of it this way, if you would give this to your mother, who has no idea about science, she could follow along and understand the main idea.

6. Prepare and perform

After you have finished all these steps it is time for the first experiment. Before you start with it, make all the preparations, including writing down all the materials you will need, calculating the amounts of solutions/enzymes/cells you will need, and writing out or printing out the protocol you will follow. This way you will have a nice workflow. By calculating and preparing your materials in advance you will avoid delays by missing a crucial component and having to prepare it while you already started.

Sticky notes for telling you to plan, prepare and perform.

It is better to be well prepared and have it go well the first time around, rather than having to do it all over again. This will just end up wasting your time and nerves as well as lab materials.

7. Ask away

As a new investigator, there will be a lot of times when you will be having doubts along the way. It’s normal!  Always ask if you are not sure about something, the chances are if you are reading this, it is your first individual experiment, so it makes sense you do not know everything. This is a learning process and your mentor/s understands this and will gladly guide you and share what they learned along the way. With each experiment, you will get more experience and become more confident!

Good luck and have fun finding out something new!