With a science background and the desire to support analysis, investigation, research and development, you could work as a scientific laboratory technician

As a scientific laboratory technician, you'll be involved in a variety of laboratory-based investigations within biological, chemical, physical and life science areas.

You may carry out sampling, testing, measuring, recording and analysing of results as part of a scientific team. Your job is to provide all the required technical support to enable the laboratory to function effectively, while adhering to correct procedures and health and safety guidelines.

As a scientific laboratory technician, you'll 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.

You'll be 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.

Responsibilities

Scientific laboratory technicians carry out the work that allows scientists to concentrate on, and perform, the more complex analytical processes in the laboratory.

Tasks can vary depending on the specific employer but typically involve:

  • performing laboratory tests in order to produce reliable and precise data to support scientific investigations;
  • carrying out routine tasks accurately and following strict methodologies to carry out analyses;
  • preparing specimens and samples;
  • constructing, maintaining and operating standard laboratory equipment, for example centrifuges, titrators, pipetting machines and pH meters;
  • ensuring the laboratory is well-stocked and resourced;
  • recording and sometimes interpreting results to present to senior colleagues;
  • using computers and performing mathematical calculations for the preparation of graphs;
  • keeping up to date with technical developments, especially those which can save time and improve reliability;
  • conducting searches on identified topics relevant to the research;
  • following and ensuring strict safety procedures and safety checks.

The actual nature of the work will depend upon the organisation. For example, within an environmental health department, the work may involve analysing food samples to consider prosecution and to protect public health, while within the water industry the work will mainly focus on the collection and analysis of water samples.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for scientific laboratory technicians depend on what qualifications are held on entry, but typically range from £15,000 to £19,000.
  • With some experience, you can expect to earn £20,000 to £25,000.
  • For highly experienced technicians in management or supervisory roles, salaries can be in the range of £30,000 to £40,000.

Large private companies or those which specialise in high-technology areas tend to pay more. Overtime or on-call payments may also be possible.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

The working week is usually 37 hours. Some additional hours may be required and working within some organisations, such as the NHS, may require shifts and on-call duties.

Technicians are likely to be employed on a contract basis for the duration of a particular project or funding. Part-time work is less common and career breaks are possible though not typical.

What to expect

  • Work is almost exclusively in sterile laboratories where you will have to wear protective clothing, but there may be occasional trips out to collect or deliver specimens or to take measurements.
  • You will have to follow strict health and safety procedures, due to the presence and use of toxic chemicals and the requirement to handle animals in medical laboratories. You may be exposed to hazardous chemicals, dust, biological waste, bodily fluids, fumes and toxic waste, so there is often a degree of risk involved.
  • Some degree of lifting and heavy work is common with the daily moving of equipment, machinery, samples and supplies.
  • Work is often carried out in teams with scientists and other technicians.
  • Freelance technical work, such as water and soil testing, may be possible but often requires expensive specialist equipment and significant experience.
  • Jobs are available throughout the UK as laboratories are situated in most towns and cities.
  • Some industries may require field work to be carried out, which may involve travel within a working day. Absence from home overnight and overseas work is generally uncommon, but may be required in some circumstances.

Qualifications

It is not essential to have a degree to become a scientific laboratory technician as many posts ask for GCSEs or science-related A-levels (or equivalent).

However, many technicians do have degrees and so holding a higher qualification in a relevant subject can be useful for securing a job, particularly if competition is high.

A HND or degree in one of the following subjects could be helpful:

  • biology;
  • biomedical science;
  • biotechnology;
  • chemistry;
  • environmental science;
  • forensic science;
  • materials science/technology;
  • pharmacology;
  • physics.

Any degree that has a technical, IT or scientific element will be useful. A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not required.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • the ability to learn specific, practical techniques and apply this knowledge to solve technical problems;
  • good hand-eye coordination and the ability to use technical equipment with accuracy;
  • the ability to maintain and calibrate technical equipment;
  • time management skills in order to work on several different projects at the same time;
  • flexibility in order to work with and provide support for a number of people;
  • excellent oral communication skills in order to work effectively with colleagues from all parts of the organisation and to explain complex techniques to interested parties;
  • experience in providing demonstrations and writing technical reports;
  • teamwork skills and patience;
  • attention to detail.

You will also need to have excellent record-keeping skills, along with basic maths and computing. As you progress through your career, you may also need to learn management and leadership skills.

Work experience

Employers value pre-entry experience in a laboratory, as it not only demonstrates your familiarity with lab procedures, but also shows your commitment and interest in the field. If your degree does not include a year in industry, try to gain some part-time or voluntary work in a laboratory or scientific setting. You could approach employers to see if it would be possible to work-shadow someone in their company.

Any previous work experience, even if it is not science-related, will be advantageous if it demonstrates that you have some of the above skills. It is helpful to stay up to date with developments in the sector and becoming a member of a professional body can help with this. Relevant organisations include:

Competition varies from moderate for biological and environmental sciences, to relatively low for physical sciences. Speculative enquiries are often welcome.

Employers

Many public and private organisations employ scientific laboratory technicians. These include:

  • large public limited companies in industry;
  • hospitals and public health organisations;
  • specific government departments and agencies or government-funded research institutions;
  • environmental agencies;
  • utility companies;
  • research and forensic science institutions;
  • pharmaceutical and chemical companies.

There are many companies in the food manufacturing business where you could seek employment. There are also a range of companies involved in the manufacture of:

  • cosmetics;
  • food and textiles;
  • metal;
  • oil;
  • plastic.

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.

The education sector is a large employer of laboratory technicians. For more information on the role in schools, universities and educational research centres see teaching laboratory technician.

Look for job vacancies at:

You could also try journals and websites of professional bodies and careers service vacancy lists. Recruitment agencies sometimes handle vacancies - see specialist agencies advertised in the New Scientist.

Professional development

The majority of training is likely to take place on the job, with supervision from a more senior member of staff. This will include:

  • training on the use of technical apparatus;
  • conducting specific preparation tasks;
  • methodology for sampling;
  • testing and recording;
  • health and safety checks.

You may choose to work towards a vocational qualification such as the NVQ/SVQ in Laboratory and Associated Technical Activities, which is offered through the IST. The Institute also offers the Certificate in Laboratory Skills at various levels, and a higher diploma in the disciplines of analytical chemical, biochemical and microbiological laboratory techniques. For further information see IST Training.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is very important for scientific laboratory technicians and the IST offers a CPD programme to help with this. It runs several events and networking conferences throughout the year, which can also contribute to CPD.

It is possible to work towards the Registered Science Technician (RSciTech) award through the IST. This recognises high standards of professionalism and is achieved through a process of peer assessment. Entry standards are based on knowledge, professional competence, conduct and CPD.

At a senior level, managerial training may be given in areas such as:

  • budgeting;
  • employment law;
  • finance;
  • team building;
  • time management.

It may be possible to study for a degree on a part-time basis or to develop academic research at postgraduate level.

Career prospects

As a scientific laboratory technician, your career could develop through the following roles:

  • assistant technician;
  • technician;
  • senior/lead technician;
  • team leader technician;
  • laboratory manager.

As you progress you will take on more responsibility as well as supervision and management of a team of staff and the laboratory. You will carry out more complex tasks, which could include some analysis.

In order to gain promotion you may need to move to a larger employer or a role in industry where progression is typically more defined. Teams are often larger and therefore provide more roles and management levels.

It may be possible to become a specialist in your field. For example, in healthcare with experience and possibly further training, you could become a phlebotomist, cardiographer or physiologist.

Taking further qualifications such as a Masters or PhD and acquiring specialist knowledge may enable you to move into scientific research.

Science and research companies tend to have strong international links, which could provide the opportunity to work abroad.