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Writing Professional Lab Reports

  1. Sep 23, 2011 #1
    I have a lab report due a week from now. I want to go above and beyond of what is required of my class and to make it as professional as possible. This is to help me prepare for my future lab reports.

    I will be using word processor for equations and tables to the best of my ability. Would it be smart to invest in learning LaTex?

    I've read a couple websites here and there and picked up things such as: "reports should be written in the past tense in an impersonal style." But I don't have experience with lab reports, I'm only on Calc-based Physics I and this is my first serious lab report.

    Can anyone throw out some advice? It would be appreciated. :smile:
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 23, 2011 #2


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    Read and learn about what is a formal report. Formal reports have very distinct sections and this gives you a general outline making the composing of a formal report easy to do. I have no links or references to give you. Just try an internet search for "scientific" and "formal report". Usually a formal report, such as you find in scientific journals, will have sections of the abstract, introduction, experimental section, discussion, conclusion, and references. The exact format and style can vary among different journals, and different departments and institutions.
  4. Sep 23, 2011 #3
    What I googled before hand was "professional lab reports" and I got hits such as: http://www.thelinuxdaily.com/2009/09/latex-laboratory-report-examples-template/

    I googled "Formal lab reports samples" and I got: http://www.physics.mun.ca/~cdeacon/labs/simonfraser.pdf

    Which one should I use? What my professor asked of the class was:

    I A title page
    - Name
    - Course #
    - Experiment #

    II The Instruction Sheets
    - Describe the purpose of the experiment, the theory, the apparatus, & the procedure

    III All Original Data & Observation

    IV All Required Calculations

    V Graphs and Diagrams

    VI Summary & Discussion of the Results

    VII Answers to the Questions at the End of the Experiment
  5. Sep 23, 2011 #4
    Bear in mind that, if your professor asks you to use a specific format, and you do something different, there's always a chance you'll lose points--even if your approach goes above and beyond what was asked of you.
  6. Sep 23, 2011 #5
    Yes, I'm planning to follow the format exactly that I wrote above, just a minor change on how it looks. I wouldn't write an "abstract" if hes asking for a "purpose" without first consulting him.
  7. Sep 23, 2011 #6
    I'm habituated to writing in MLA style. Can someone verify what style is used for physics papers? AIP perhaps?
  8. Sep 23, 2011 #7


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    Absolutely... Eventually. It will make this first lab report take much longer and likely lead to a lot of headaches, but once you have done this formatting scientific documents is extraordinarily easy. For example, to write a physics paper you just tell it you want to use the RevTex package, and bam, all the style is exactly how you see in professional physics papers. Worried about citations? Just type \cite{articlename} and grab the bibtex off of arxiv or some similar source and it takes care of it for you!

    It's really fantastic, but has a bit of learning curve so likely the first time you try to write a report you'll constantly be googing 'how to do X in latex', but that's okay.
  9. Sep 23, 2011 #8


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    If this is your first lab report, don't get crazy. At this point, learning LaTeX is going to be way more trouble then what it's worth in the short-term. To write my first paper, I was screwing with latex for hours and days trying to figure everything out. So if it's something due next week, just write a normal lab report like everyone does and you can begin learning latex on the side. Further in the semester, you can switch over.

    It's pretty much a must if you want to be an actual scientist, but don't be too concerned about a lab report that your TA will probably give 3 minutes of his time to grade. Hell, the lab reports that students never picked up from my labs got turned into fuel for my fireplace :devil: . No one really cares what your undergrad lab reports look like, so any extra effort will be entirely for your own benefit (and a benefit it IS).

    In my experience, people couldn't give a rats *** about the intricate details involved in formatting a paper. In English classes, they go nuts if you use a period instead of a comma in a bibliography, but in physics I've seen people make citations in the most half-*** way and in the end I didn't care because enough information was there to be able to find what was being cited easily. Through experience, you'll figure out the best way to actually construct your reports and make them look better.
  10. Sep 23, 2011 #9
    Wow, sounds pretty helpful! I'm starting to learn a couple latex commands from Microsoft such as /theta and /frac.

    Well I already started a good deal of it. The one thing that drove me crazy is numbering equations on Microsoft. But else then that it should be practice for Latex. The quick commands for the equations seem to be a lot like Latex (is it the same). So if anything its good practice. Anyhow my professor is going to direct me to a research position in NY on weekends, I don't know much about the details of it but I might as well start now. Plus my experience should help me with my internships.

    But I see your point, maybe I'll focus more on the substance and worry less of the layout. I haven't begun to decode my calculations on Microsoft form but thinking about it gives me a headache.

    Maybe I should write my calculations on a separate piece of white paper and attach it as part of the report?

    Hmm, maybe I am caring too much. Part of me wants to please my professor and impress him. The other part just feels hella cool making a relatively professional lab report. :D Its a nice feeling doing a physics report. :)
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2011
  11. Sep 23, 2011 #10

    Vanadium 50

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    Let me point out one thing: a nice looking lab report is a good thing, but what's more important is the content on the inside.
  12. Sep 23, 2011 #11
    True, I'm putting a lot of time and on its present-ability perhaps I'm sacrificing some content. This is a big time-drain at the moment.

    Thing is though, I always see arXiv papers with flawless fornat. I just wanted to emulate its professionalism.
  13. Sep 23, 2011 #12


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    First year lab reports are generally pretty cookie-cutter type things. Your TA will get reports that have been formatted in LaTex and bound in a hard cover volume, and get hand-written labs condensed onto a single, loose leaf sheet of paper, with writing he or she can barely make out. As Pengwuino said, the TA will spend about 3 minutes on each, look for very specific points in the content, and move on.

    Formatting is the kind of thing earns bonus marks in high school. When I was marking labs I would occassionally dock a half mark or so if the report was formatted so poorly I had trouble reading it, but in general, so long as the content was there, it got full marks.

    The real trick to getting top marks on a lab report is figuring out what the TA's marking scheme is and making sure you address it. This usually isn't too hard. I always wrote out my marking scheme on the board.
  14. Sep 23, 2011 #13
    Oh thank you. I have a question, how much should I focus on the theory? Maybe just a little introduction instead of something that is a step-by step tutor type?
  15. Sep 23, 2011 #14
  16. Sep 23, 2011 #15
    Try using Lyx. It's a kind of like a cross of word and latex but it'll ease you into latex properly and is easy to learn. Just follow the built in tutorial.
  17. Sep 23, 2011 #16
    Thank you! I'm downloading it now. :smile:
  18. Sep 24, 2011 #17

    Vanadium 50

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    Then you are doing the wrong thing, and deserve to get a lower grade because of it.
  19. Sep 24, 2011 #18


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  20. Sep 24, 2011 #19

    Andy Resnick

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    I'm with Vanadium on this one- a good lab report (and paper) is all about the *content*- and Vanadium has been the only person to point that out.

    Formatting is the *last* part of writing a paper/report. It should not take precedence over anything else.
  21. Sep 24, 2011 #20
    Well that wasn't my intention, its just something that I noticed along the way that its really time consuming.

    I might finish off the rest as a learning experience (I love making things look neat and presentable and I want to learn LaTex anyways). Having trouble now with formatting the paper is beneficial because I would need less time grappling with format later and have more time to focus on more important things (content). When it comes to the calculations I can just hand-write it on white paper and attach. Does that sound like a good idea to write things on paper? I had the feeling that it would be too informal.

    Yes, that would make sense to me. But I have a question that nobody has answered. How much should I cover over the theory part of the report? Should it be a little introduction or something like a step-by step tutor type?
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