I received the following letter recently:
I have a career-related question that requires a bit of background information, if you’ll bear with me:
As an idealistic 18-year-old, I went to VERY prestigious university (VPU) with the intention of becoming a biological scientist. I worked in a couple of labs there during my time as an undergrad, and I was one of the teachers for the undergraduate laboratory course. I spent my summers working for researchers as well.
I decided not to go straight to grad school, but take a little career detour by teaching middle and high school science. While teaching, I researched grad programs and did some networking. Soon enough I was married and expecting my first child. I chose being a stay-at-home parent over starting the grad school application process. Two more children arrived. I have been a stay-at-home parent for nine years now, and would not go back and change that decision. My youngest will start Kindergarten soon, and I am starting to think about myself again… what are my goals?
I would love to be involved in scientific research, but no longer think being the primary researcher is for me. I’m wondering about lab techs.
I’ve finally arrived at my question!
What can you tell me about the career of lab tech? Is it realistic for me at this point in my life? (37 years old, big gap since last lab experience)
Thanks so much…
Reader of the Blog
Here is my reply:
Dear Reader of the Blog-
Thanks so much for sending me this question. I think that there are probably many like you that have an interest in biology, studied it at some level- but left formal study of questions of interest to you, in order to raise a family. But now that your kids are becoming more independent and you’ve got some time on your hands… you are asking yourself : Now what? I have some time to pursue my own interests again- is it possible to have a science related career (of which a laboratory technician is only one option). I think the answer to this, is yes. It is not an unqualified yes, but I will explain.
First, though, allow me to tell you a short story about someone I met a few years ago. It has been some time since I heard the story so I might not be 100% on details, but the big stuff is correct. Several years ago my department hosted a seminar speaker, a well-known female scientist with expertise related to mine. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with her one on one during her visit, and it was during this meeting that she told me her story. I remember that at the time that I met her I had two small children, and I was pretty darn sleepless all the time, so my science morale wasn’t the highest. I was a late thirties postdoc considering my next steps, and her story inspired me to realize that it doesn’t matter how old you are or how many kids you have, what matters is your goal, how much you are willing to work to get it, and how great and flexible mentors might help you along the way.
Anyway, she told me the story of her life. Which involved several children (3+ if I remember correctly), a stint in distant lands in the Peace Corps with multiple children in tow, and finishing undergraduate course work here and there along the way. But the remarkable part of the story was that all these parts of her life occurred BEFORE she attended graduate school. Yes, you heard me correctly, she was a late 30’s single mother of 3 or 4 kids (some of which were school age if I recall correctly), when she matriculated into graduate school at a highly prestigious institution, and entered the laboratory of a person who is unquestionably the most dominant person in my broad field. She got her Ph.D. in the early 80’s and then she went on to a tenure track faculty position and has been very successful. Why do I tell this story? Well, I think it perfectly demonstrates that it is possible to do what you want and be what you want, at whatever age and family status you are at- even if it means you want to continue a career in science that you might have put on hold for some time.
So, above you really had several questions. The first was … what are my goals? You know that is for you to decide. But I tell the story above, not to say TT is the WAY, but to encourage you to think carefully about what you want, make a plan to get there, figure out the logistics, and then get yourself there. I know you are taking those steps!
As for your second question, –
What can you tell me about the career of lab tech? Is it realistic for me at this point in my life? (37 years old, big gap since last lab experience)-
Sure. A good lab tech or lab manager is worth their weight in platinum. Technician jobs can be of all different flavors- from the running-the-logistics-of-the-lab variety (ordering, training people, managing the lab, taking care of compliance issues), to the doing-experiments-at-the-bench-full-time variety, and just about every shade in between. All of this depends on the needs of the lab, your background knowledge, and your skills. I have several technicians, and they all have a slightly different combination of duties, based on the needs of the lab at the moment, how long they plan to be with me, their level of interest and skill in working at the bench. There are lab techs that just stay in the job for a couple of years to get some hands on research experience, sometimes on the road to professional school, and some that are career techs- it just depends on a persons abilities, interests, and goals.
As for the second part- as to whether this is a realistic option for you, I think that we are only limited by our imagination in what we can do. If a tech job is what you decide that you want to do, figure out what you need to do to get it done. That is not to say that this transition and finding a tech job will be easy. Here are a few things I suggest doing- in no particular order. First, biology has changed A LOT since you last worked in a lab, and you may not have thought a lot about cloning (insert your favorite technique here) while you were raising kids. You may want to take a few courses here and there in molecular biology and basic techniques, with labs if possible (and other basics and subjects that interest you), before you go out cold looking for a tech job. Read whatever you can get your hands on that is science related and interests you. Second, read the job postings for techs at your local university and see what qualifications are for these jobs. I know people who hire techs right out of undergrad- and they haven’t had much hands-on lab experience at that point. Once you brush up on your new basics, I don’t see how you are that much different from these kids- except in the sense that you may be better because you have added maturity, multi-tasking, and organizational skills, and are potentially a long term hire if the chemistry is right.
Third, figure out what areas interest you and look at the faculty profiles in the related departments at institutions near you, read about what the faculty do- what projects they have going, look at their lab web pages and see who works for them, how big their groups are etc, and do they have external funding. This way when you look at the job postings, you might more easily pick out those in the departments you are interested in. Finally, I wonder if you had good relationships with, and might be able to get back in touch with those researchers you worked or taught for before you put science on hold. They might be a valuable source of support for you as references at least, actively giving you advice on what areas to brush up on, or even perhaps helping you in your search for a position… sometimes you can get lucky like that!
So- I hope I’ve answered at least part of your question- I think it is possible and realistic, but you are going to have to do some leg-work to get up to speed, and it may not happen instantly. I’m sure there are lots of things I have left uncovered and that commenters will correct me on. That’s the great thing about the blog- you’ll get lots of advice in the comments.