Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
September, 2016

Do you want to work in higher education? Discover what three university-based lab technicians love most about their role…

Career security

Lab technicians provide support to lecturers and students, performing an essential role in universities around the world. 'Technicians are very important members of any research team,' explains Dr Emma Monaghan, senior research technician at the University of Warwick. 'They're heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the lab, and often have a critical role in generating data for several research projects.'

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 does make a world of difference and for a more stable working situation,' says Chris Durrant, molecular microbiology technician at Queen Mary University of London’s (QMUL) School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.

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 an extremely wide range of projects with colleagues, developing a broader subject expertise, and new skills and approaches. Larger universities may even offer structured training programmes.

Dr Durrant believes that this diversity keeps things interesting. 'You could never gain such a breadth of knowledge in any other academic job, and to use that to pull apart often very complex problems is a great feeling,' he says. 'In a more academically focused role, your vision becomes narrowed to work on a particular subject. This often isn't the case for a technician - you'll always have to learn something new.'

Dr Claire Walker is a core research technician in the University of Aberdeen's Institute of Medical Sciences. She rotates to a different lab every 18 months, and has learned at least two new 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 is custodian of the university's X-OMAT developer, and 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.

Developing students

Technicians often work closely with student lab members, and can be responsible for explaining or demonstrating new experiments and equipment. This, reveals Dr Monaghan, 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.'