Scientific laboratory technician
Scientific laboratory technicians are involved in a variety of laboratory-based investigations within biological, chemical, physical and life science areas. They may carry out sampling, testing, measuring, recording and analysing of results as part of a scientific team. Technicians provide all the required technical support to enable the laboratory to function effectively whilst adhering to correct procedures and health and safety guidelines.
Scientific laboratory technicians carry out work that assists in the advancement and development of modern medicine and science. The work plays an important role in the foundation stages of research and development (R&D) and in scientific analysis and investigation. They are mainly employed within industry, in government departments and research organisations.
The role of a teaching laboratory technician is similar although their work takes place in educational institutions where they support science teachers, lecturers and students.
Scientific laboratory technicians carry out the work that allows scientists to concentrate on and perform the more complex analytical processes in the laboratory.
Tasks often involve:
The actual nature of the work will depend upon the organisation. For example:
Salary figures are intended as a guide only.
Relevant subject areas include physical/mathematical/applied science, life and medical science, agricultural and horticultural sciences, and engineering. Although this area of work is open to all diplomates and graduates, the following HND/degree subjects may improve your chances:
A degree or HND is not essential for entry, although a science background is required. Arts and social science graduates will need science A-levels.
A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not required.
Although prior experience is not needed, previous laboratory experience and familiarity with lab procedures can be useful.
Candidates need to show evidence of the following:
Due to the nature of laboratory work, normal colour vision is essential. Excellent record-keeping skills are also required, along with basic maths and computing. As you progress through your career, you may also need to learn how to supervise other members of staff.
Competition varies from moderate, for biological and environmental sciences, to relatively low, for physical sciences. Recruitment occurs as vacancies arise, and speculative enquiries are often welcome.
In industry, the role of scientific laboratory technician was previously considered to be a role for A-level or HND holders, or those taking the modern apprenticeship route. However, more employers are now willing to accept graduate applications.
For more information, see work experience and internships and search courses and research.
The majority of training is likely to occur on the job. It is unlikely that you will need to take professional qualifications, but it may be possible to attend in-house training courses on topics such as:
National and Scottish Vocational Qualifications (NVQs and SVQs) are available in laboratory operations specialising in water, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, metal industry laboratory services, and forensic science, and for laboratory technicians specialising in education.
The technician's work will be supervised by the administrative supervisor, the scientist or senior science technician. This will include both formal and informal training on: the use of technical apparatus; conducting specific preparation tasks; methodology for sampling, testing and recording; and health and safety checks. Supervision will also include progress reviews and the opportunity to identify further training needs and areas for professional development.
Most A-level and HND students, particularly those working as laboratory technicians in large companies in industry, will be encouraged and have the opportunity to develop their academic studies by studying a degree part time or on day release. Graduates may also be given the chance to develop academic research at postgraduate level and may have the opportunity to take a relevant second undergraduate degree.
Careers develop slowly as structured career progression does not exist. It is quite common for scientific laboratory technicians to stay in a field for 15-20 years, gaining greater management and supervisory responsibilities over time. Although it is difficult to move from a laboratory technician position into scientific research, some opportunities do exist and recent evidence of having acquired specialist knowledge or undertaking academic research, such as a Masters degree or PhD, would help.
Technicians employed in industry and large organisations are likely to have better prospects for promotion and can move into management or become a specialist in their field. For example, in the healthcare setting, it is generally possible for medical laboratory technicians/assistants to develop specialist skills and become phlebotomists, cardiographers or physiologists. Senior/chief laboratory technicians undertake similar but more complex duties, which may involve some analysis and will generally include supervision and management responsibilities for a team of staff and the laboratory.
In addition, science and research companies have strong international links, and there are opportunities within large companies to develop a career in the European Union and further afield, including working in developing countries for periods of time.
Organisations with laboratories are likely to employ scientific technicians. These include:
Pioneering research and laboratory work is undertaken in the pharmaceutical industry by companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, who dominate the market.
There are many companies in the food manufacturing business where technicians could seek employment. There are also a range of companies involved in the manufacture of plastic, metal, oil, cosmetics, food and textiles.
Large city hospitals employ medical and biological technicians to assist in defined pieces of research.
Government departments (such as agriculture, health, defence and food) employ laboratory technicians and assistants, as do other government organisations with laboratories (such as public health, police and forensic science services, environmental and conservation).
Water companies require laboratory technicians to assist with the sampling and testing of water. Gas and electricity companies will also be involved in scientific analysis, testing and sampling.
There are research parks located throughout the UK, which house privatised or semi-privatised laboratories and employ a number of technicians, often on a contract basis.
Most vacancies for laboratory technicians arise in the education sector, particularly in universities and educational research centres, where technicians tend to be involved in externally funded research projects and supporting undergraduates and postgraduates in their academic research.
See also journals and websites of professional bodies and careers service vacancy lists. Recruitment agencies sometimes handle vacancies - see specialist agencies advertised in the New Scientist.
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