Providing support to lecturers and students, lab technicians perform essential work - combining a love of science with working in higher education. Discover what professionals value most about their role
Heavily involved in the day-to-day running of a lab, teaching laboratory technicians provide technical support and work closely with students to explain experiments or demonstrate how to use equipment, as well as helping lecturers with a class. Scientific laboratory technicians do similar work, but they tend to be employed by government-funded research institutions, hospitals, industry, environmental agencies and large public limited companies.
'The job gives you an inside look of how the lab works and how research happens from the very start. Not only do you help with the actual experiments (or sometimes conduct your own) you're also involved in every step of creating them,' says Amelia Kowalewska, research assistant at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).
We spoke to three university-based lab technicians to discuss what they love most about their job.
Some posts are temporary and linked to Research Council grants, but many lab technician positions are permanent - with salaries of more than £27,000 not uncommon.
This job security extends to the typical career path of a lab technician. Those who work best on their own initiative usually gain the most enjoyment from the role, with many becoming lead technicians, then senior technicians and then lab managers. Promotions are often most easily gained by moving institution.
The range of continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities available positively correlates with an employee's level of seniority. More experienced staff often enjoy professional training in key areas of management such as budgeting, risk assessment and staff supervision.
Learning new techniques
Lab technicians are constantly enhancing their scientific and technical credentials. They work on a range of projects with colleagues, developing a broader subject expertise, and new skills and approaches. Larger universities may even offer structured training programmes.
According to Amelia the job is never boring. 'I take care of variety of tasks. Not only conducting an experiment or creating a set up, but also dealing with all the administrative parts of the lab.'
'One day I could be hosting a lab tour, the next I am looking for a copy of a paper from 1860 or supervising undergraduate students on their first time in the lab,' she explains. 'This job provides a variety of experience and you really learn a lot.'
Mareike Herrmann, research technician within the Department of Physics at the University of Warwick agrees. 'You're constantly learning, trying new things, solving problems and tackling new challenges - this is because research changes all the time. I like this aspect of the job as you never get bored.'
Dr Claire Walker is the leader of the breathing apparatus team and core research technician at the University of Aberdeen. She rotates to a different lab every 18 months, and has learned at least two techniques in each. This has allowed her to work on an array of intriguing projects, including isolating muscle fibres from the hind limbs of mice, and investigating the effect of performance-enhancing drugs on muscle fibre size and function.
She also enjoys the additional duties that are readily available to lab technicians. For example, Dr Walker has joined the breathing apparatus team that responds to and deals with serious chemical spills.
Dr Walker feels that assuming greater responsibilities allows lab technicians to network with expert colleagues from across the university, and contribute significantly to the smooth running of the institution - providing even greater job satisfaction. 'I thoroughly enjoy broadening my skillset and knowledge,' she adds.
Technicians often work closely with student lab members. This enhances lab technicians' CVs with teaching experience - and such exposure to the classroom can even inspire them into teacher training.
However, this means that teaching lab technicians can work irregular hours. They may, for example, begin work before 9am if classes are due, and potentially stay late to ensure that equipment is put away, cleaned or recorded. If they're supervising undergraduate or Masters degree students on their projects or dissertations, they may be required to undertake additional out-of-hours' work.
Dr Walker, who made the transition from postdoctoral student, says that helping new students to improve their research skills in the lab is her favourite part of the job. 'It's very rewarding to watch them develop, gain confidence and work independently as their projects progress,' she explains. 'Having been through similar experiences, I can relate to their worries and concerns.'
To secure a job as a lab technician Mareike advises 'Be interested in what you do and look for work within a research field that interests you. Be open to learning and always build positive relationships with your colleagues - they'll prove useful if you ever need help.'
Amelia also points out the importance of making connections. 'In this role you get to meet people from all over the university and beyond. Not only academics, but also administrators, technical staff, sales people and event organisers.'
Find out more
- See what the science and pharmaceuticals sector has to offer.
- Learn more about other graduate jobs in science and pharmaceuticals.
- Read about 10 alternative science careers.