my ode to lab notebooks

Last week, I started a new lab notebook.

My first lab notebook was a gift from my MS advisor.  On our first official meeting together, he seemed a little concerned that I wasn’t taking notes during the meeting.  He promptly gave me a lab notebook.  It was a high-quality notebook that was also given to undergraduates taking a senior design course.  I liked it.

After I filled my first notebook, I replaced it with a composition notebook.  I have continued to use composition notebooks ever since.  They are sturdy, frugal, and small–they are exactly what I need.  The pages are small enough that I am not tempted to write two ideas on the same page.  Early on, I discovered the benefit to keeping a Table of Contents (two pages at the end of the notebook).  It doesn’t take much time to maintain, since I can write an entry into the back of the book in just a few seconds after writing a page in the notebook.

I use my notebook less often these days, but I still find it vital for doing research.  In the past few years, I no longer use my lab notebook to crunch numbers, since it became too hard to find mathematical arguments that were correct given all of the dead ends.  I now write endless pages of math on scrap paper, and then copy the legitimate ideas into the notebook.  I also jot ideas into MS OneNote on my tablet PC.  OneNote is a great program that can certainly double as a lab notebook if backed up frequently, but I stick to a real lab notebook.  I print out my OneNote notes and staple them into my lab notebook.  However, I still frequently write down many of my research ideas directly into my notebook before I forget.  That is, after all, why I have a lab notebook in the first place.

The lab notebook seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur.  Are they still needed today?  I think so.

It is still a great idea to organize research thoughts and to write down research ideas before they are forgotten.  The lab notebook is perfect for that.  Dr. Rod Beavon (who offers advice for maintaining a lab notebook) reminds us that “science does not take place on the pages of textbooks or learned journals, but it is recorded [in the lab notebook]. The quality of any work is only as good as the report that remembers it when the test-tubes have long been washed up.”

Another benefit of lab notebook is that they teach students how to be organized researchers.  I have observed first-hand that grad students are not always naturally bent toward organization, partly because we professors often have low expectations for organization (compared to what students can expect in industry).  Organization builds character, and students need it to learn how to approach research in an organized way.

I have found that one drawback to using a lab notebook is that some ideas do not lend themselves to the lab notebook, since they are too sprawling or complicated or better summarized in a snippet of code.  If an idea cannot fit on a page, it is hard to understand later.  Another drawback is that research ideas for pursuing later can get lost in a notebook.  I try to copy those ideas elsewhere so I don’t forget about some of my more interesting and speculative ideas.

These days, my desk, computer, and schedule are cluttered with various tasks and obligations (teaching, service, research, personal).  But my lab notebook remains a special place just for research ideas.  I appreciate the simplicity of that.

My stack of lab notebooks

My stack of lab notebooks


Tell me about your lab notebook!

2 responses to “my ode to lab notebooks

  • Tallys

    It was very interesting to read your post because I also use a composition notebook to keep track of my research ideas. It all began when I was in grad school. One day I entered my advisor’s office for a meeting and he was writing down some notes about a problem he was working on into a composition notebook. I was immediately struck by the thought that it was a great idea: safe, simple, easy, and old-school. (I’m a believer that sometimes going the old-school way has its advantages. I’m still debating whether to replace the white board in my office with a chalk board.) Since then, I’ve been keeping track of all of my research ideas there, even if they sound crazy at first. I take it with me to conferences and seminars also because I often have ideas while listening to research talks: “what if we tried this other method?”, “why didn’t they do it like that?”, “what a cool technique! I wonder if I can use it for problem X”, etc.

  • Stephanie "Frozone" Frost

    Thank you for this post, I enjoyed reading it. I am a new grad student (starting fall 2010) and I am trying to use my blog as a sort of lab notebook, and wanted to share my experience too. 🙂 I have had success with automatic indexing by date and category, and also with using a smart pen for easy and rough diagrams. Drawbacks are that I am totally lost without an Internet connection, and I have only 1 smart pen, and it must be used on special dot-paper. Example:

    To rough ideas and half-developed equations, whatever form they may take!!

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