Keeping a lab notebook

Your lab notebook is your external brain containing the exact details of everything you did in lab. You will consult this many times over several years to guide your research and to write the methods sections in your publications 🙂 It is a valuable resource as well as a
legally required document. Keeping a thorough, well organized lab notebook will help keep your research on track and allow us to avoid repeating mistakes. It is also a great way to gather your thoughts and figure out research plans. I suggest including the following sections:


  • What are you doing?
  • Why are you doing it? What information do you hope to gain? (both on a macro and micro level)
  • What previous work has led to this?
    • Include any relevant publications
    • Include links to previous relevant lab notebook entries (in Benchling, type the “@” symbol followed by the title of the note to generate a link)

Experiment details

  • What did you do?
    • Anything that was done differently than before, or anything unexpected happen?
      • Include anything you did differently, even if you think it shouldn’t matter (e.g., I used a different incubator today)
    • Use enough detail to be able to repeat this experiment 3 years later (e.g., if doing PCR, what recipe, what program, what template DNA, what primers)
    • If using plasmids or mRNA based off of plasmids, include a link to the exact plasmid in our database (include the plasmid database number)
      • We often have multiple similar versions of plasmids and it can be a nightmare to figure out which was used. Including the specific number will help!
    • If using mutants or transgenics, include the genotypes and specific tank number
    • If using a UDS shared protocol, include a link to the exact protocol
    • You may also attach PDFs to lab notebook entries using the “Add Protocol” function (e.g., relevant manuals, documents from other labs)


  • What were the results? Surprises?
    • Include screenshots of any images acquired or graphs / data analysis produced
      • Screenshots are your friends! You don’t have to search 10 different folders for 10 different images/graphs if you take screenshots and paste them all in one conveniently accessible location
      • e.g., gels, images from confocal or fluorescence scope, data plotted in Excel or Graphpad, chromatograms showing unexpected sequencing results
      • Screenshots can be annotated using e.g. Skitch or PowerPoint
    • Include anything needed to interpret the results (e.g., screenshot of relevant DNA ladder, image display conditions)
  • What do you conclude based on these results? What might explain any surprises and how might that be tested?
  • What are the next steps based on these results?