For those of you thinking about entering graduate school, or wondering what it’s like to be in grad school, be warned that there will come a point (if it hasn’t come already) when you look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “what the hell am I doing here?” Going to graduate school is kind of like having surgery–painful in the short run, but obviously beneficial in the long. Even if you go to the best hospital in the country, you can count on puking your guts out after that tosillectomy. That’s just the nature of the beast…and so it is with graduate school. Parts of it will suck, and many of those parts will involve lab work.
To minimize those parts of grad school that suck, I can recommend two things. First of all, talk to and gather the expertise of the senior members of your lab. They’ve been around the block, know all kinds of tricks (three cheers for the “Vogler syringe”!), and believe it or not want to help you. Think of them as your own personal cavalcade of “lab profs,” and harass them until it gets annoying. If they didn’t want to help you–prepare to be blown away–they would tell you to go away! It can be a humbling experience at first, especially if you’re a pompous ass like me, but asking questions of your labmates is well worth it.
Secondly, read as much as you can about the practice of your field. That brings me to the main thrust of this post, a review of Leonard, Lygo, and Proctor’s Advanced Practical Organic Chemistry. This book is a concise but wide survey of the everyday practical techniques that every organic chemist should know. I wish I’d read this book months ago, and I highly recommend it to any new organic chemist. Although LL&P recognize that every lab’s different, they provide procedures that are easily generalizable and laid out in clear, jargon-free language (aside from the occasional British aphorism). It’s also decently priced and easy to find used.
LL&P start things off with the usual discussion of lab safety, then segue into a detailed discussion of keeping laboratory records. Chapter 4 is a summary of common laboratory glassware, the fine China no chemist should be without. Chapters 5, 6, and 7 deal with purification and handling of solvents, reagents, and gases, respectively. Chapter 8 is everything vacuum. Chapters 9-11 are, to me, the most valuable of the entire book. These chapters discuss the anatomy of the average chemical reaction with painstaking detail and a number of practical insights. Every step of the way is covered, from setting up glassware to product purification. Chapters 12 and 13 generalize to the very large and very small, and chapter 14 covers characterization methods.
The one strike I have against this book is that it was published in 1998 and has kind of an “old fashioned” feel to it. None of the procedures are blatantly outdated as far as I can tell, although many are left rather vague. All in all though, a highly recommended buy.