What does a research technician do?
Technicians are one of the unsung heroes of the science world. Throughout my undergraduate degree I never fully understood the scope of the technician but always appreciated them.
Responsible for providing routine and non-routine technical support to researchers by performing a variety of tasks in support of research. The research technician performs tasks in an agriculture or laboratory setting, in the field, or other research settings.
Technicians pass on knowledge and information to trainee students and become experts in the skills that keep the lab running. Technicians do all different things and the science Museum exhibit did an amazing job immersing you into the day to day of different roles. Technicians are both generalists and specialists and with the amazing exhibit they are no longer hidden across the range of fields you find them in.
The exhibit was an immersive experience, taking you through a range of different roles with a career questionnaire to pair you with your 5 best suited technician roles. To my surprise I was given “ clinical coder” amongst others that led to media careers. The experience got me thinking, why hadn’t I written a post about technicians having been one myself ?
What was it like being a technician ?
I haven’t been in it for 6 months yet so there is still a lot to learn ! A typical week or month will involve scanning animals, practicing surgery procedures, reading papers, lab meetings and finishing any other training I have to do.
Being a technician is such a varying role where you get to form relationships with a range of people. While some technicians can work on a singular project with the main PI ( Principal Investigator) in universities or industry, others are more of an all hands on deck and work between projects. That was my situation and I loved it because it allowed me to understand a range of techniques and gain an interest in so many scientific questions.
At the time I started my role, I was unsure if I wanted to do a PhD and that space allowed me to fully understand the research environment which weirdly taught me I liked being a multi-project person and also enjoyed the administrative sides of the role. I wouldn’t have applied for the role if I hadn’t interviewed someone on this very blog who was a scientific officer . This then taught me that the same role had quite a few different job titles.
The ways in which you view a technician career can differ based on your preferences. For me , it was an opportunity to engage with science without commitment. The short contracts can often be off putting as they don’t offer stability but it can also set a time frame for understanding “what next” ? Everyone becomes a technician for reasons personal to them but I can say a want for carrying out scientific research is at the core of the role. It is a perfect space to understand where you want to fit in the academic structure. In a nature article the views of various technicians highlight the paths that can be taken and the fulfilling things that can be done. Progression can involve managing the lab in the future or using it as a way to get into a PhD or starting as a technician in industry to open the entire world of Pharmaceutical research and management.
TCIM has interviewed a few technicians and while all got through after a masters degree. The technician pathway doesn't have to follow that route. There are apprenticeships that can lead to technician roles in school, laboratories in hospitals, pharmaceutical companies or universities. The National Careers Service and Royal Society of Biology(RSB) have information on the different entry routes and RSB also focuses on further training and more. The life science industry covers a range of scientific disciplines and technician roles will be specialised according to different topics making it quite difficult to pinpoint the exact skills needed. The skills taught at university should complement the common skills used. Because this is such a huge question, TCIM is creating a survey to make it a little easier to understand .
Fill out the survey here if you have a life science degree: TCIM What's next Project
Subscribe to the newsletter if you are a student or want update on the project : Subscribe here
Why become a technician ?
The ability to gain and perfect a range of skills over a short period of time
Not ready to commit to wanting to do a PhD and gaining a bit of insight into the academic environment
Gaining insight into a particular field
Being able to leave your work at the office and not be consumed by the pressure of academia
You enjoy science and working on different projects with a range of people
You learn skills that can pivot you into other fields within the university or job sector as it heavily overlaps with administrative tasks and working with de
Access to university/ organisational resources which can help advance your career
What are the downsides
Short term contracts: technician contracts in academic institutions can be dependent on the length of the grant funding the project.
You may not have full ownership of the project you are working on.
Progression as a fully independent researcher will need a PhD
Tasks can become repetitive
What is a typical day like?
Elicia: I am currently employed as a Scientific Officer at the Institute of Cancer Research. I assist in lab-based medical research to investigate a paediatric cancer known as neuroblastoma. Our overall goal is to discover therapeutic targets within neuroblastoma cells, which would lead to drug discovery for the affected patients. Many neuroblastoma patients have a genetic amplification of an oncogene known as MYCN. My colleagues and I attempt to target MYCN and its associated genes/proteins using techniques such as PCR, western blotting, and immunohistochemistry. If targeting these genes/proteins reduces the cancer phenotype, these results can be used for drug development.
Seun: A typical day for me is mostly lab-based, growing generated cell lines in culture, and maintaining them in their optimal conditions. I then harvest these cells, running experiments on them to see for example their gene expression dynamics (qPCR analysis), or running western blots. I also do some admin/lab management work, liaising with company representatives, as well as some science communication on social media (@seuninscience)
More Questions on the role
How did you get into your role and how does it differ from job roles such as "laboratory assistant" ?
Elciia : I applied to the Scientific Officer position straight after my Master's course in 2017. I was happy to get the position. I had just finished a Molecular Genetics Master's, which I believed helped me to get into working in cancer genetics (with neuroblastoma research). To be honest, I'd say that my role is a research assistant type role, but with a fancier name haha! I assist with lab work often. I've been privileged to work on the research elements a lot, because of my awesome team who gave me many chances. My role has technical aspects, but also gives me the freedom to think of, and test new hypotheses to investigate neuroblastoma cells.
TCIM Career Profile: https://www.thecatalystinme.com/single-post/career-profile-scientific-officer
Which parts of your role do you enjoy the most and what are some hard truths you have had to face in the role?
Seun: Enjoy the most: Tissue culture- culturing and maintaining the cell line we work with. Most people do not like TC, but I love it. Happy cells = good experimental data! Some hard truth I face in role is regarding the lack of representation of BAME (females especially) in higher roles in academia. Granted, it is not direct to my actual role as an RA, but it is an issue that academia currently suffers from.
TCIM: Career Profile https://www.thecatalystinme.com/single-post/biochem-to-research-assistant
What's your favourite part of your job?
Adama: I get paid to learn ! It was a weird concept to deal with at first. I genuinely enjoy reading papers and thinking ( I say this now because I don’t have loads of pressure on me) but as long as I am learning and challenged it weirdly sparks joy ! I love the fact that no week is the same !
Similar job titles: Research officer, Scientific Officer , Research technician , Research assistant.
What are the most needed skills in the UK life science technician market ?
Entry into the techncican world as a life scientist can be quite complicated. For technician roles in schools a professional qualification/ certification vs a degree will be enough in most cases but with the changing landscape of the job market a lot of people have degrees. Technicians in the university setting may even have to opt for masters degrees as many roles require independent research experience where an undergrad research project may not have taught the techniques in enough detail. This is something I don’t personally agree with but it’s just how it is at the moment.
If you like the structure of the research technician being a biomedical scientist may also be a good fit in terms of working hours, skills learned and potential flexibility in working hours. Entry level to these roles would be Medical laboratory assistant and roles that are similar
TCIM Career Profiles : All profiles did a masters before their roles as a technician.