By: Brittney Ivanov
If you are undecided about a career in research or applying to graduate school, working as a lab technician, or lab tech, in a research lab is a good way to test whether research is for you. Typically, lab tech positions are temporary and they can either solidify your interest in research or lead you to other careers. I explain what a lab tech does, how to qualify, and what factors to consider for a lab tech job.
What does a lab tech do?
This is a complicated question because a lab tech position is a unique job and the day-to-day tasks of any tech are based on the type of research their lab does. For example, a tech working in a lab that studies adaptive mechanisms in cyanobacteria may focus more on lab maintenance, prepping solutions, and ordering lab supplies because the lab space and materials are regularly in use. On the other hand, a tech working in a lab that studies social behavior in zebra finches may be more focused on field work-- observing behaviors, building behavioral arenas, or maintaining video and audio equipment for recording behaviors. Generally, lab techs are hired to carry out specific tasks and activities for the lab to function efficiently.
My lab studies behavioral evolution in Anolis lizards and consists of 8 undergraduate researchers, 1 hard-working principle investigator (PI), and me--the lab tech. I manage almost everything that goes on in the lab: data collection, lab maintenance, assisting my lab-mates, and miscellaneous tasks my PI calls upon me to do. I enjoy the work that I do and I have developed a deep appreciation for the process of research that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Research has shown me the importance of scientific collaboration and communication with scientists and the general public.
Why you might consider becoming a lab tech?
When I graduated from college, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. Like many college students, I had spent most of my time studying, socializing, and soul searching, and less time figuring out what I wanted to do. A month before my college graduation, I found myself frantic and eager to determine my future. I applied for all sorts of jobs and considered graduate school until I received some very useful advice: don’t jump into a graduate program unless you’re certain that’s what you really want.
Fortunately, I came across a lab tech position at a small university in San Antonio, Texas. This job appealed to me because it was temporary and would give me time to determine my future. By some stroke of fate, I was hired and am still working here today.
Tech positions are usually transitional jobs because most labs do not have guaranteed funding for a lab tech. The length of a lab tech position depends on the lab’s source of funding, which is typically in the form of grants. The temporary aspect of a lab tech position makes it valuable for gaining experience without a long-term commitment. It could further help you decide if your interests truly lie in research and make you competitive for a masters or Ph.D. program.
How do you qualify for a lab tech position?
Previous experience working in a lab is important to be able to qualify for any tech position. If you are an undergraduate considering a career in research, look at professors’ websites and email those whose research you find interesting. Research programs such as REU’s are offered at many universities and give undergraduate students summer research experiences that can be helpful in qualifying for a tech job.
What traits make you ideal for a lab tech job?
If you are interested in working as a lab tech, the best advice I can give is to be flexible. There are three areas where flexibility counts the most:
- Who you work with:
I typically work alongside undergraduates in my lab, so the dynamics of my interactions with my lab mates may be different than they would be for a technician who works in a lab with graduate students. In the latter setting, a technician may do less to support their lab mates because everyone works more independently. In my lab, I interact with my lab mates regularly--I am helping them with their projects, teaching them new techniques, or giving them advice on managing their time. I learned that every individual requires a different level of attention or assistance and it is important to be able to adapt to the needs of all your lab mates.
- How you work:
Every lab operates differently, with its own methods, protocols, and equipment geared towards the research being performed. You should be open to working in new ways--don’t expect your new lab to operate the same way as your old lab. This kind of change can take a while to get used to, but chances are your new lab is going to be established in its own ways. At the same time, be ready to suggest new perspectives, techniques, and methods that would allow the lab to run more efficiently and could better assist in daily lab operations.
- When you work:
Be adaptable with your work schedule because you may need to work more hours depending on the needs of the lab. Special events like grant deadlines, field seasons, weekend or evening outreach events, and overnight conferences require longer work days. With unexpected events, like machines malfunctioning, I am expected to come into lab to provide a temporary “fix”. Generally a lab tech is expected to have flexibility with their time, so if you dislike spontaneity and prefer working a defined schedule, a lab tech position may not be the right fit for you.
All in all, I would say my job as a lab tech has been fun and worthwhile. It has given me time to consider what I want in my future. This is a job that can give you valuable insight into research. Working closely with your PI and other researchers in your lab is a way to connect with the science community and can develop your ability to learn, understand, and communicate science.
Brittney Ivanov is a lab technician in Dr. Michele Johnson’s behavioral evolution lab at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Prior to becoming a lab tech, Brittney worked as an undergraduate assistant in a plant biology lab at Michigan State University for 4 years. When she's not working in the lab, Brittney enjoys walking her dog with her three-year-old daughter.
Follow Brittney on Twitter @britt_the_witt