Whether you are in lab for general chemistry, independent work, or senior thesis, almost all lab experiments will be followed up with a lab report or paper. Although it should be relatively easy to write about an experiment you completed, this is often the most difficult part of lab work, especially when the results are unexpected. In this post, I will outline the components of a lab report while offering tips on how to write one.
Understand Your Experiments Thoroughly
Before you begin writing your draft, it is important that you understand your experiment, as this will help you decide what to include in your paper. When I wrote my first organic chemistry lab report, I rushed to begin answering the discussion questions only to realize halfway through that I had a major conceptual error. Because of this, I had to revise most of what I had written so far, which cost me a lot of time. Know what the purpose of the lab is, formulate the hypothesis, and begin to think about the results you are expecting. At this point, it is helpful to check in with your Lab TA, mentor, or principal investigator (PI) to ensure that you thoroughly understand your project.
The abstract of your lab report will generally consist of a short summary of your entire report, typically in the same order as your report. Although this is the first section of your lab report, this should be the last section you write. Rather than trying to follow your entire report based on your abstract, it is easier if you write your report first before trying to summarize it.
Introduction and Background
The introduction and background of your report should establish the purpose of your experiment (what principles you are examining), your hypothesis (what you expect to see and why), and relevant findings from others in the field. You have likely done extensive reading about the project from textbooks, lecture notes, or scholarly articles. But as you write, only include background information that is relevant to your specific experiments. For instance, over the summer when I was still learning about metabolic engineering and its role in yeast cells, I read several articles detailing this process. However, a lot of this information was a very broad introduction to the field and not directly related to my project, so I decided not to include most of it.
This section of the lab report should not contain a step-by-step procedure of your experiments, but rather enough details should be included so that someone else can understand and replicate what you did. From this section, the reader should understand how you tested your hypothesis and why you chose that method. Explain the different parts of your project, the variables being tested, and controls in your experiments. This section will validate the data presented by confirming that variables are being tested in a proper way.
You cannot change the data you collect from your experiments; thus the results section will be written for you. Your job is to present these results in appropriate tables and charts. Depending on the length of your project, you may have months of data from experiments or just a three-hour lab period worth of results. For example, for in-class lab reports, there is usually only one major experiment, so I include most of the data I collect in my lab report. But for longer projects such as summer internships, there are various preliminary experiments throughout, so I select the data to include. Although you cannot change the data, you must choose what is relevant to include in your report. Determine what is included in your report based on the goals and purpose of your project.
Discussion and Conclusion
In this section, you should analyze your results and relate your data back to your hypothesis. You should mention whether the results you obtained matched what was expected and the conclusions that can be drawn from this. For this section, you should talk about your data and conclusions with your lab mentors or TAs before you begin writing. As I mentioned above, by consulting with your mentors, you will avoid making large conceptual error that may take a long time to address.
There is no correct order for how to write a report, but it is generally easier to write some sections before others. For instance, because your results cannot be changed, it is easier to write the results section first. Likewise, because you also cannot change the methods you used in your experiment, it is helpful to write this section after writing your results. Although there are multiple ways to write and format a lab report or research paper, the goals of every report are the same: to describe what you did, your results, and why they are significant. As you write, keep your audience and these goals in mind.
— Saira Reyes, Engineering Correspondent