On Being a Lab Technician
How it makes you a better graduate school applicant, a better scientist, and a better person
by Olivia Goldman
Being a lab technician before you apply to graduate school will make you a more mature, competent, experienced, self-assured scientist and potential graduate student. The professors who will be reading your application for graduate school also know this. You could think of being a lab technician as another bullet point on your resume, but spending a year or more as a lab technician makes you a stronger applicant in so many more ways than just having another research experience under your belt.
Being a lab technician helped me get into a better graduate program than I could have hoped for as a senior in college, but also made me a better scientist and, I think, a better person.
Keep in mind of course that everyone’s experience as a lab technician is different (every lab, every investigator, and every lab technician are themselves different).
A better applicant
Simply put, applying to graduate school with a year or two of lab technician experience is an advantage, and is increasingly becoming the norm as the number of applicants increases and programs become more competitive.
While more research experiences always help, there are many more things that you learn working full time in lab for longer than for a summer (summer is often the least focused time in the lab, with many more students and interns, and when the presence of senior scientists and post-docs is staggered because of vacation). Not only are you more focused on your projects as a lab technician, but you get to really get settled into your identity as a scientist rather than a student.
While you are a lab technician, you become socialized as a scientist. As a lab technician, you form stronger relationships with graduate students, post-docs, your mentor, and even other principal investigators. Not only will this help you be more comfortable talking to principal investigators in your interviews for graduate school, but it will also help you communicate about science with much more fluency and detail than applicants that are still in school.
I believe that fluency is one of the most important things that makes you a better candidate for graduate school. While I was a lab technician, I was able to go to more talks, speak with more people from other labs (besides undergraduates) than I ever was in college, and even go to a Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference. Just by spending my entire working day with scientists further along in their careers, I learned so much more about research at the frontiers of neuroscience, as well as the structural elements of science such as grants, publications, and (unfortunately) the politics within and around it. I became better acquainted with the vast discipline of neuroscience as a whole, and my conversational knowledge was no longer confined to my own field or the experiments from the 1980s I had learned about in my courses. When I applied to graduate school as an undergraduate, I didn’t know what theoretical neuroscience was (which definitely made at least one of my interviews awkward).
Bonus: You can also apply and go on interviews without having to juggle classes and all the other things that come with being a student. Yay for personal and vacation time!
A better scientist
Not enough stress can be put on the sheer amount of hours you put in as a lab technician. With that time comes a lot of growth and experience.
As a lab technician, because you are around for longer and with more consistency, your lab and your mentors get a much greater return on investing in your skills and your autonomy, and you will be trained in a greater number of and much more sophisticated techniques. You’ll be given more trust in your ability to supervise your own projects, which will start teaching you the independence you are going to need in graduate school. Depending on your field of study, you will probably have the opportunity to see more complex series of experiments through from beginning to end.
You also have more free time than as a student. So on your own time, or even less busy days in the lab, you'll have the ability to study things on your own. For instance, you can teach yourself how to program, read papers on a topic of personal interest that you think you would like to pursue in graduate school, or do your research on programs and other opportunities
Being a lab technician also better prepares you for the psychological demands of graduate school and a career in science. Research is at times (for most, often) extremely stressful, time-consuming, and solitary. You should use your tenure as a lab technician to see if a career in research science is really for you. What do you do if you mess up a really time-intensive, expensive protocol, or how do you deal with the pressure and anxiety of being entrusted one? Where do you draw your professional and personal boundaries? Without grades hanging over your head, how do you spend your day in the lab? Are you OK with spending an evening in the lab for a protocol that requires some more attention? Do you come into work because science is your passion, or because you’re getting paid? Is it worth your blood, sweat, and tears? (Both literally and figuratively… I promise I shed all of these as a lab technician.)
You may also become acquainted with the negative aspects of your career that you will experience in graduate school and afterwards. Science comes with the inevitable disappointments and failures. Although you should try not let yourself become too discouraged by some post-docs or other senior scientists, try to really understand why some of them might be bitter. If you decide to pursue a career in science anyway, understanding the downfalls of being a scientist will help you make informed choices, might even strengthen your resolution to pursue a Ph.D., and will definitely make you a better scientist.
A better person
All the stresses, successes and failures of being a lab technician gave me maturity and perspective that have been valuable in all aspects of my life. If you are as lucky as I was, you will also develop a large network of very passionate, intelligent, and warm people, with whom you feel a really amazing sense of camaraderie and belonging.
Also not to be underestimated, no one warned me how hard the first year out of college would be. As a 22-year-old, my first time outside of the educational system made me realize how much my work ethic and drive to accomplish something in my life had been fostered and foddered by the constant reinforcement of grades, deadlines, and assignments. I was forced to develop a more internal and resolute form of motivation, that I hope will prepare me for the few and far between moments of gratification that accompany a career as a scientist.
As a first full-time job, it was also simply a time to explore. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I assumed graduate school was the logical next step in the trajectory of my life. Working in the lab led me through a healthy (and at times painful) process of questioning my conceptions of myself and my future, and led me to explore many other interests and potential career paths outside of research. Ultimately, being a lab technician renewed and deepened my love for research and my commitment to pursuing my Ph.D. If you decide to be a lab technician, you might learn something else about yourself, and that is OK too. But whatever the outcome is, I can promise you, you will learn a lot.
STEM BLOG CONTRIBUTOR
Olivia is a first-year graduate student at Rockefeller University and artist who studies sensory perception to better understand how the mind translates and integrates sensory signals into subjective realities. She is a STEM Co-Director for Científico Latino, and Chief Creative Officer of the virtual reality company NeuroStorm Studios. Previously, she received her Bachelor of Arts in Neuroscience & Behavior at Barnard College of Columbia University, and worked as a research technician in the lab of Nobel prize winner Dr. Eric Kandel. She is passionate about making science accessible to anyone who is curious. Originally from New Jersey, she believes that awe is the most profound human experience.