If you have a science background and want to support scientific analysis, investigation, research and development, consider a career as a scientific laboratory technician

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

You'll be involved in a variety of laboratory-based investigations within biological, chemical, physical and life science areas. This can include sampling, testing, measuring, recording and analysing 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.

Your work will assist in the advancement and development of modern medicine and science. It plays an important role in the foundation stages of research and development (R&D) and in scientific analysis and investigation.

The role of a teaching laboratory technician is similar, although this work takes place in educational institutions, where it's their job to support science teachers, lecturers and students.

Responsibilities

The nature of the work will depend upon the organisation you work for. For example, within an environmental health department you may be involved in analysing food samples to consider prosecution and to protect public health, whereas within the water industry your work will mainly focus on the collection and analysis of water samples.

However, you'll typically need to:

  • perform laboratory tests in order to produce reliable and precise data to support scientific investigations
  • carry out routine tasks accurately and following strict methodologies to carry out analyses
  • prepare specimens and samples
  • construct, maintain and operate standard laboratory equipment, for example centrifuges, titrators, pipetting machines and pH meters
  • keep equipment in a clean and serviceable condition and ensure the safe removal of waste
  • record, and sometimes interpret, results to present to senior colleagues
  • use computers and perform mathematical calculations for the preparation of graphs
  • ensure the laboratory is well-stocked and resourced and that everything is clearly and correctly labelled
  • keep up to date with technical developments, especially those which can save time and improve reliability
  • conduct searches on identified topics relevant to the research
  • follow and ensure strict safety procedures and safety checks.

Salary

  • Starting salaries typically range from £15,000 to £19,000, depending on your qualifications at entry.
  • With some experience, you can expect to earn £20,000 to £25,000.
  • For senior, 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.

What to expect

  • Work is often carried out in teams with scientists and other technicians. You'll usually work in sterile laboratories where you'll have to wear protective clothing, but there may be occasional trips out to collect or deliver specimens or to take measurements.
  • You'll have to follow strict health and safety procedures and may be exposed to hazardous chemicals, dust, biological waste, bodily fluids, fumes and toxic waste.
  • Some degree of lifting and heavy work is likely with the daily moving of equipment, machinery, samples and supplies.
  • Jobs are available throughout the UK as laboratories are situated in most towns and cities.
  • Some industries require field work to be carried out, which may involve travel within a working day. Absence from home overnight is generally uncommon, but may be required in some circumstances.

Qualifications

Although a degree isn't essential, many scientific laboratory technicians hold a degree or HND/HNC in subjects such as:

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

Some employers prefer a graduate, and having a relevant degree or HND/HNC may improve your chances, particularly if competition is high. A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not required.

Entry without a degree is often possible and some posts ask for GCSEs or science-related A-levels (or equivalent).

Relevant vocational qualifications include NVQs in Laboratory Sciences or Laboratory and Associated Technical Activities. You can also find work as a laboratory technician through an apprenticeship.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • the ability to learn specific, practical techniques and apply this knowledge to solve technical problems
  • good hand-eye coordination, to use technical equipment with accuracy
  • the ability to maintain and calibrate technical equipment
  • time management skills to work on several different projects at once
  • 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'll also need excellent record-keeping skills, along with basic maths and computing. As you progress through your career, you may also need to develop 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. Some degrees come with a placement year, which can be a good opportunity to see what working life in the sector is like.

If your degree doesn't 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 organisation.

It's also helpful to stay up to date with developments in the sector. You can get membership or access to useful resources and news from relevant organisations such as:

Employers

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

  • large public limited companies in industry in areas such as cosmetics, textiles, metal, oil and plastic
  • hospitals and public health organisations
  • specific government departments and agencies or government-funded research institutions
  • environmental agencies
  • utility companies
  • research and forensic science institutions
  • food manufacturing companies
  • pharmaceutical and chemical companies.

There are research parks located throughout the UK, which house privatised or semi-privatised laboratories and employ a number of technicians. Science and research companies also tend to have strong international links, which could provide the opportunity to work abroad.

Look for job vacancies at:

Recruitment agencies sometimes handle vacancies.

Freelance technical work, such as water and soil testing, may be possible, but often requires expensive specialist equipment and significant experience.

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.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is important and the IST runs events and networking conferences throughout the year. It also offers relevant qualifications such as the Certificate in Laboratory Skills, which is offered at different levels, and a higher diploma in the disciplines of analytical, chemical, biochemical and microbiological laboratory techniques.

It's possible to work towards the Registered Science Technician Award (RSciTech) through the IST, which provides formal recognition of your knowledge, experience and professionalism.

Career prospects

Your career is likely to develop via the following route:

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

As you progress you'll take on more responsibility, as well as supervision and management of a team of staff and the laboratory. You'll carry out more complex tasks, which could include some analysis, and are likely to spend more time in the office.

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.

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