To be a successful teaching laboratory technician you'll need a thorough and meticulous approach as well as strong scientific and technical knowledge

As a teaching laboratory technician, you'll work in all kinds of educational institutions including secondary schools, further education colleges and universities. Your tasks will involve supporting the work of science teachers and lecturers and their students to ensure that they:

  • make the best use of the time they spend in the laboratory
  • use equipment safely
  • accurately record the results of their work.

Your role will mainly involve providing technical support, ensuring that equipment is functioning properly and is ready to use, and that the right materials are available for particular lessons.

Sometimes laboratory technicians work closely with students to explain or demonstrate experiments or how to use equipment, as well as helping teachers with a class and supporting individual students on research projects.

The work of a scientific laboratory technician is similar to the teaching technician role but they tend to work more in:

  • environmental agencies
  • government-funded research institutions
  • hospitals
  • industry
  • large public limited companies
  • research
  • specific government departments.

Responsibilities

Tasks vary depending on the size and type of educational institution, e.g. experiments tend to be less complex in schools than in universities. However, you'll generally need to:

  • liaise with academic staff to discuss timetables, equipment requirements and work plans
  • run trials of experiments prior to classes and then demonstrate techniques for experiments
  • prepare equipment and chemicals before lessons - from test tubes to state-of-the-art microscopes
  • maintain and repair equipment and laboratory apparatus
  • keep records, e.g. for students' practical sessions, tracking methods and results
  • ensure that equipment is properly cleaned and that chemicals, drugs and other materials are appropriately stored
  • catalogue recordings and make them available when requested (if the department houses audiovisual resources)
  • support the work of teachers in classes and laboratory sessions and give technical advice to staff and students
  • work with individual students and support them on research projects
  • manage the stock control of chemicals and equipment
  • contribute to high-level research, if working at university level
  • ensure that all health and safety procedures are understood and followed correctly
  • coordinate work in the laboratory to ensure efficient use is made of expensive pieces of equipment.

Senior and lead technicians tend to take on more managerial work. This may include budgeting and ordering resources, conducting risk assessments and carrying out staff supervision and training.

Salary

  • Salaries for teaching laboratory technicians in schools and colleges are around £15,500 to £22,000, depending on your location and experience.
  • Senior/lead technicians in schools and colleges can earn in the region of £23,000 to £26,000.
  • Salaries for trainee teaching laboratory technicians in higher education institutions start at around £17,000 to £19,000, rising to between £22,000 and £28,000 with experience. Salaries for highly experienced technicians can reach £30,000.

Many posts are part time or term time only. In these cases, salary is pro rata.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are regular, though you'll often need to start before 9am to have everything ready for early classes. You may also need to stay behind at the end of the day to ensure equipment is put away, cleaned or recorded.

You may occasionally have to work at weekends or evenings to assist with demonstrations at parents' evenings or open days at independent schools or universities. Out-of-hours work may be necessary in higher education institutions, for example, supporting a research student who needs to monitor results at unusual times or on field trips.

What to expect

  • You're likely to spend most of your working day in the laboratory or prep rooms with some time also spent in the classroom.
  • There's a lot of teamwork involved in liaising with academic staff, students and laboratory colleagues.
  • Career breaks are often possible, though re-entering at a senior level after a long break is more difficult.
  • Teaching laboratory technicians are employed directly by the educational institution so self-employment isn't really an option.
  • Even with excellent health and safety procedures in place, if you have very sensitive skin or respiratory conditions you may find some laboratory work causes discomfort. You'll have to wear protective clothing when handling chemicals.
  • The only requirements to travel away from your work base are either for training events or field-work trips with staff and students.

Qualifications

Although you don't need a degree to work as a teaching laboratory technician, the following degree, HND or foundation degree subjects may improve your chances:

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

Any degree that has a technical, IT or scientific element is useful.

Entry without a degree is common as many posts ask for GCSEs in English and maths, as well as a GCSE, A-level or equivalent in a related science subject. An interest in science or practical experience is also useful.

Relevant vocational qualifications include NVQs in Laboratory Sciences and/or Laboratory and Associated Technical Activities (levels 2 to 4). You can also find work as a laboratory technician through an apprenticeship.

Entry requirements are likely to be more demanding in higher education, particularly for universities with prestigious research departments. Some teaching laboratory technicians have postgraduate qualifications in science, although this isn't essential.

For any job that involves working with children, you'll need to have a Disclosure and Barring Service check (or the equivalent in Scotland and Northern Ireland).

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • strong practical and organisational skills with the ability to manage your own workload
  • forward planning and the ability to use your initiative
  • excellent scientific and technical knowledge and good IT skills
  • written and oral communication skills to communicate with teaching staff and students
  • teamworking skills to work successfully with a team of technicians
  • the ability to cope with competing demands
  • a thorough, meticulous approach
  • knowledge of safe working practices.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience is useful and helps you develop the necessary practical skills, as well as showing your interest and commitment to 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. You could also try to secure part-time work in a laboratory or scientific setting, or approach employers to see whether shadowing someone in their organisation would be possible.

You can develop many of the skills you need in a number of ways, so consider joining groups or committees at university or undertaking voluntary work, particularly work with children and young people or in a scientific environment.

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

Teaching laboratory technicians may be employed in:

  • schools
  • sixth form colleges
  • further education colleges
  • universities
  • other higher education institutes.

Education providers in both the public and independent sectors offer technician posts. Some schools or colleges may specialise in the sciences and they could be a particularly useful source of employment.

Some of the larger employers, such as universities, have a strong scientific research tradition with excellent resources and laboratories that employ large teams.

Look for job vacancies at:

Universities produce regular online vacancy lists and sometimes have temporary posts attached to particular research grants.

Recruitment agencies occasionally handle vacancies. Local council websites also advertise vacancies.

Professional development

Training varies according to the type and size of educational institution you work for. In small laboratories training is likely to be carried out on the job with support from colleagues. Larger or specialist laboratories may have a more structured training programme.

You'll be trained in health and safety due to the potential hazardous substances that you will work with. You'll also receive technical training on the use of new equipment or IT systems. Sometimes this is carried out by the manufacturers through specific induction training.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is important and courses are run by organisations such as:

The IST, for example, offers several qualifications that are useful to teaching laboratory technicians. These include 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.

Membership of the ASE or IST can be particularly useful. In addition to providing resources and CPD events, they are licensed by the Science Council to award the Registered Science Technician Award (RSciTech) to eligible members.

Career prospects

Within schools and colleges you're likely to start your career as an assistant technician. With experience you can move into the role of technician, senior technician and then team leader technician.

In higher education institutions, especially those with large science faculties and a strong research base, you're likely to take the following route:

  • technician
  • lead technician
  • senior technician
  • laboratory manager.

To achieve promotion, you may need to move to a different educational institution or working environment. More senior posts may be more readily available in universities.

With plenty of experience in larger teaching laboratories, it's possible to move out of the purely teaching laboratory setting into other laboratory work in industry and technology. How possible this is will depend on whether you've specialised in certain areas in your teaching laboratory background, e.g. pharmaceuticals or biotechnology. You'll only get this type of experience in university laboratories.

As you gain experience in a classroom or teaching setting, you may consider a career in teaching. While a laboratory technician background doesn't shorten the route to qualification, it does make you a strong applicant for course places and subsequent employment. Find out more about teacher training and education.