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A Day in the Life of a Research Technician

Lab assistant. The mere title can conjure up a picture of a hunch-backed, wide-eyed assistant that goes by the name Igor - a scary-looking shadow of a person, obediently following behind the mad scientist, as he collects bones and brains and other body parts for his nefarious experiments. But that’s only in the movies. In reality, the lab assistant, or research technician, is an important part of a scientific lab, participating in high-tech, high-profile research that, in some instances, saves lives. The research technician is the workhorse of the lab. They set up, operate, and maintain the lab equipment. They test, monitor, and keep detailed logs of the experiments. Most of the work is not glamorous, and can at times be mundane. More experienced technicians maintain complex computer equipment, interpret data, develop conclusions, and devise solutions to problems under the direction of the scientist in charge. There are almost as many different types of research technicians as there are industries. Biological technicians assist scientist in medical research – helping to find cures for diseases. Many work in labs that specialize in DNA research. Environmental technicians conduct field tests to monitor the air we breathe and the water we drink. Agricultural technicians do animal research, working with farmers to develop better crops and animal breeding procedures. Nuclear technicians operate nuclear research equipment to monitor radiation and radioactive materials. Technicians can either work in a lab or outdoors. Some duties of a research technician involve collecting plant samples, examining geological data, collecting weather information, assisting oceanographers, or even testing city sewer water. Research technicians are exposed to dangerous chemicals, toxic materials, and even infectious diseases on a daily basis. It takes a clear mind and a steady hand to work in a lab. The research technician may not get all the glory of the scientist; but without them, the scientist is like a conductor without an orchestra.

Paying Your Dues

Many employers prefer applicants who have at least 2 years of specialized training or an associate degree in applied science or science-related technology. Some technicians have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or biology or have taken several science and math courses at 4-year colleges. Some schools offer internship programs, allowing students the opportunity to work at a local company or other workplace, while attending classes in alternate terms. Participation in such programs can significantly enhance a student’s employment prospects. Research technicians need a strong background in science and math courses. Science courses taken beyond high school, in an associate’s or bachelor’s program, should be laboratory oriented, with an emphasis on bench skills. Because computers and computer-interfaced equipment are often used in research and development laboratories, technicians should have strong computer skills. Communication skills are also important; technicians are often required to report their findings both through speaking and in writing. Additionally, technicians should be able to work well with others, because teamwork is crucial.

Present and Future

Research technicians have long enjoyed a stable employment market. However, some statistics show that research positions will grow at a slower than average rate for the next ten years. Continued growth of scientific and medical research, as well as the development and production of technical products, should stimulate demand for science technicians in all areas. In particular, the growing number of agricultural and medicinal products developed from using biotechnology techniques will increase the need for biological technicians. Employment growth will also be fueled by demand for technicians to help regulate waste products; to collect air, water, and soil samples for measuring levels of pollutants; to monitor compliance with environmental regulations; and to clean up contaminated sites. Job opportunities are expected to be very good for qualified graduates of science technician training programs. In addition to opportunities created by growth, many job openings should arise from the need to replace technicians who retire or leave the labor force for other reasons. Interestingly, research technicians that are tied to universities usually work under the guidance of a professor. Once that professor retires, or loses funding, or simply leaves, these technicians face uncertain employment prospects.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Technicians usually begin work as trainees in routine positions, under the direct supervision of a scientist or a more experienced technician. Job candidates whose training or educational background encompasses extensive hands-on experience with a variety of laboratory equipment, including computers and related equipment, usually require a short period of on-the-job training.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Greater experience grants greater responsibility. As technology advances, the instrumentation and techniques used in industrial research, development, and production become increasingly more complex, some technicians find they may need to return to school, or take supplemental accredidations to keep up with the changes.

TEN YEARS OUT

After ten years experience, most technicians are considered senior researches. They manage the every day happenings in the lab, direct some research, and train lower level technicians.