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 will 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

Your tasks will vary according to the size and type of educational institution, e.g. experiments tend to be less complex in schools than in universities, however in general they include:

  • liaising with academic staff to discuss timetables, equipment requirements and work plans;
  • running trials of experiments prior to classes and then demonstrating techniques for experiments;
  • preparing equipment and chemicals before lessons - from test tubes to state-of-the-art microscopes;
  • maintaining and repairing equipment and laboratory apparatus;
  • record keeping, e.g. for students' practical sessions, tracking methods, results, etc;
  • ensuring that equipment is properly cleaned and that chemicals, drugs and other materials are appropriately stored;
  • cataloguing recordings and making them available when requested (if the department houses audiovisual resources);
  • supporting the work of teachers in classes and laboratory sessions and giving technical advice to staff and students;
  • working with individual students and supporting them on research projects;
  • managing the stock control of chemicals and equipment;
  • contributing to high-level research, if working at university level;
  • ensuring that all health and safety procedures are understood and followed correctly;
  • coordinating 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

  • Teaching laboratory technicians in schools may start on salaries of around £15,000 but this is dependent on the level of the job. In universities, salaries tend to start at around £19,000.
  • At a senior level with demonstrating or teaching responsibilities, technicians can earn nearer £30,000. Job opportunities in this upper limit are less common and are mainly in the university sector.

Workers in London usually receive a salary weighting of £2,500 to £3,000.

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 are often required to start before 9am to have everything ready for early classes. You may additionally need to stay behind at the end of the day to ensure equipment is put away, cleaned or recorded as necessary.

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 are likely to spend most of your working day in the laboratory or prep rooms with some time also spent in the classroom.
  • There is much 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 is not 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 will 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

You do not need to have a degree to become a teaching laboratory technician as many posts just ask for GCSEs or A-levels (or equivalent) in a related science subject. However, many technicians do have higher qualifications and having a degree, HND or foundation degree may improve your chances of securing employment.

Subjects that would be useful include:

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

Any degree that has a technical, IT or scientific element may be helpful.

Entry requirements are likely to be more demanding in higher education, particularly for universities with prestigious research departments and some teaching laboratory technicians have postgraduate qualifications in science; although this is not essential.

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

Skills

You will need to have:

  • strong practical and organisational skills with the ability to manage your own workload;
  • excellent scientific and technical knowledge and good IT skills;
  • communication and teamworking skills;
  • the ability to cope with competing demands;
  • a thorough, meticulous approach;
  • the ability to work using your own initiative.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience can be useful, not only to demonstrate necessary skills but to show 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 if it would be possible to work-shadow someone in their company.

Many of the above skills can be acquired in a number of ways so you should consider groups or committees that you could become involved in at university or any voluntary work you could carry out, particularly that which involves working with children and young people or in a scientific environment.

It is 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. See specialist agencies advertised in New Scientist.

Professional development

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

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

It is possible to work towards gaining a vocational qualification such as an NVQ/SVQ in Laboratory and Associated Technical Activities at levels 2 to 4 (depending on your experience). Several institutions offer NVQs for laboratory technicians working in specific settings.

The IST offers several qualifications that are useful to teaching laboratory technicians. They 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. For further information see IST Training.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is important for all laboratory technicians and there are many courses and events that can help with it, run by organisations such as:

  • The Association for Science Education (ASE);
  • CLEAPSS;
  • Science Learning Centres.

Varying in size, some are designed specifically for technicians, while others are suitable for anyone involved in science education. The IST also has a structured CPD programme for its members to help plan and record activities.

For senior technicians, training in more managerial aspects may be a requirement of the job. This might include:

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

Career prospects

The ASE recommends the following career structure for science technicians in schools and colleges (although employers are not obliged to follow this):

  • assistant technician (level 1);
  • technician (level 2);
  • senior technician (level 3);
  • team leader technician (level 4).

You could consider becoming a member of the ASE. It provides resources and runs CPD events, as well as being licensed by the Science Council to award the Registered Science Technician Award (RSciTech) to eligible members.

In higher education institutions, especially those with large science faculties and a strong research base, there is likely to be a more defined career path. A typical route might be:

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

To achieve promotion, it is often necessary 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 have specialised in certain areas in your teaching laboratory background, e.g. pharmaceuticals or biotechnology. You will only attain this type of experience in university laboratories.

It is possible that by being exposed to a classroom and teaching setting you will be encouraged to consider teaching as a profession. While a laboratory technician background does not shorten the route to teacher training, it does make you a strong applicant for course places and subsequent employment. See teacher training.