Ensuring the smooth running of teaching laboratories, university-based lab technicians provide vital support to staff and students. Discover what lab technicians love most about their job
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.
'This support can range from basic in more junior roles to highly skilled and world leading in some specialist areas. Technicians often take the ideas of their scientific colleagues and turn them into practical workable solutions,' says Malcolm Holley, director of faculty technical services in the faculty of science at the University of Bath.
Gracie Adams, research technician at the University of Sheffield's Department of Animal and Plant Sciences explains the variety in her role.
'I'm a research technician in a Drosophila (fruit fly) lab. One day I could be preparing media to feed the flies, and another I could be sorting flies under the microscope by different phenotypes (sex, mutations such as eye colour and curly wings).
I specialise in molecular genetics so I am often found in the molecular lab looking at differential gene expression, extracting DNA for genotyping, or using SMRT-sequencing technology to look at whole transcriptomes. I need to be organised, good at multitasking and confident at learning new approaches and testing new protocols.'
Some posts are temporary and linked to Research Council grants, but many lab technician positions are permanent - with salaries of more than £28,000 not uncommon.
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 skills and being at the forefront of research
As well as enhancing their scientific and technical credentials, lab technicians focus heavily on research and making discoveries. They work on a range of projects with colleagues, developing a broader subject expertise, and developing new skills and approaches.
'My supervisor and I discuss ideas, and then it's mostly up to me to figure out if it can be done and how we can do it,' says Gracie. 'It can be quite intimidating constantly having to learn and figure new approaches out, even coming up with whole new protocols and methods, and a lot goes wrong. However, the problem solving is really enjoyable and I am carrying out primary research, contributing to journal articles and being there right at the start of some really exciting projects.'
Some research technician roles allow you to rotate to a different lab every so often, meaning you'll learn new skills and techniques in different area, which can open up a range of new opportunities. It can also give you the chance to work on an array of intriguing projects and to take on increased responsibilities.
'In order to provide robust solutions and answers you need to experience and learn new things on an almost daily basis,' adds Malcolm.
Lab technicians often work closely with student lab members. This enhances a lab technicians CV with teaching experience - and such exposure to the classroom can even inspire them into teacher training.
However, teaching lab technicians can work irregular hours meaning a degree of flexibility is required. 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.
However, the flexibility needed to carry out her role is one of the things Gracie likes best. 'Lab work often doesn't fit into a nine to five schedule, so you need to be good at time management and planning. This means I can decide my own working day. I can work when it suits the research or me.'
Malcolm agrees 'The work is seldom rigidly structured, you will have deadlines to meet and things to be delivered on time, but how you meet these goals and objectives rarely involves being sat down at a desk or bench for hours or days at a time.'
To secure a job as a lab technician Gracie advises 'The most important skills you need are time-management, organisation, planning, and independence. Don't worry if you don't know loads of different protocols and approaches - just show you have an aptitude for learning and picking things up quickly.
If you can, get some lab technician experience, even if it’s in a different field to what you're interested in - showing you are keen to learn new approaches and improve your technical skills, no matter what field, will help you.'
It's also important to make connections to aid your progression. As a lab technician 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.
'Treat every day as a learning day,' explains Malcolm. 'Even if you can't initially find an exact fit for your desired interests or career path, most technical roles allow an ever increasing opportunity to increase your skill levels and broaden lab experience, which can help get you to where you want to be. People and facilities that have all sorts of interesting knowledge and experiences will surround you. These connections should be used to the best of your advantage.'
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.