Keeping a Lab Notebook
and Research Journal

Lab notebook

Research Journal


Your Lab Notebook and Research Journal are first and foremost meant for you. Make them useful! They should function as a source for you to look back through as you make progress in your research. When did I first start making measurements? What was that mistake that I don't want to make twice? Why did I decide to add in that extra step? It's impossible to remember all of the little details, but sometimes its crucial to have them on hand. It's also a lot easier to write a report after you've finished if all of the information is organized in one place.

Additionally, your notebook and journal could prove to be useful references for someone else trying to reproduce the same experiment or understand a topic that you've already mastered. My research advisor at Dickinson always used to say, the "lab" notebook belongs to the lab; it stays there long after you've left to convey your progress to future researchers. So after graduating and completing my senior project, I had to leave behind my notebook with my other research supplies. It was actually kind of hard parting with it, since that notebook was the product of many, many, many hours of hard work. That being said, I also know that since I gave it my all, it will be very valuable to future students.

But rest assured, unlike most situations, you will be able to keep your lab notebook upon completion of your LTC research!

Lab Notebook

The LTC will provide you with a standard, bound graph-ruled, computation book, complete with pre-numbered pages. This is the physical space where you write down information about your experimental apparatus, methods, results, and notes on pertinent literature research. Here are a few example pages from my Summer 2012 LTC research:

  1. Write your name on the cover

    Make sure the first thing you do is neatly label the front of the notebook with your name and the lab that you're working in. You might also want to put the year.

  2. Leave the first page blank

    Later once you start writing many entries, you can turn this first page into a table of contents.

  3. Title every entry and Date every page

    It's important to label each entry with a brief but descriptive heading. And always write the day, month, and year on the corner of each page, even if you use multiple pages for one entry - if that's the case, usually I'll make a note on subsequent corners: "19 June 2013, continuation of SLM notes." Getting into these habits will make it easier to find specific notes later on.

  4. Write in pen

    Your lab notebook is supposed to be permanent. If need be, you can draw diagrams and graphs in pencil first, but then make sure to copy over as much as you can in pen.

  5. Keep it neat

    Remember, this is your reference but other researchers and students may want to read it as well. Don't scribble out mistakes - try to just cross through them once. And use rulers and protractors whenever possible.

  6. Think about organization

    Before starting an entry, decide how you want to lay everything out. Try to arrange the text and diagrams in such a way that will make the page pleasing to the reader's eye. At first this may seem difficult to do on the spot, but it's the kind of thing that will improve through trial and error.

  7. Record everything

    You never know what may be especially useful later on, so you should write down all of your measurements, issues, breakthroughs, etc. no matter how monumental or insignificant they may seem at the time. Don't forget to also paste in figures or other printouts that will complement the content of your writing.

Optional: Keep a second smaller notebook with "To-Do" items to keep your research on track each day. This could also be used as scrap paper for brainstorming or making quick notes during a discussion that you want to copy into your main notebook later.

Research Journal

The LTC will also help you set up a personal webpage, which will contain your biography, ideas and resources, project report and abstract, and a "Research Journal" page. This is an online record where you can keep track of all your daily activities in the LTC. See my journal as an example here.

  1. Update it each day that you're in the lab

    It's important to establish a dialogue with your research advisor and mentors about everything that you're doing. The journal also becomes a tangible reflection of your growth as a student and, more importantly, as a researcher. Definitely include:

    • Progress on your research project

    • Explanations of difficult concepts or phenomena of which you came to an understanding

    • Acknowledgements of useful discussions, conversations relevant to your research, or outside lectures

  2. Document valuable finds

    Use this space to put in writing everything you'd like to remember or take note of for future reference. This means you could include:

    • Links to outside pages, articles, or other students' work

    • Pictures of setups, graphs of results, or other important diagrams

    • Any interesting new developments or facts that you read about or observed in the lab that you'd like to share

  3. Craft your entries

    Take some time to write out each entry in a clear and concise manner. Use this as an opportunity to practice careful sentence construction and word placement. Even though your journal isn't as formal as a report or other graded assignment, it's still important to practice putting thought into your writing.

    And remember, this journal is posted on your public webpage - anyone can read it! Take some time to proofread what you've written.