From Full-Time Mom to Research Technician?

I received the following letter recently:

DrDrA:
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.

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10 thoughts on “From Full-Time Mom to Research Technician?

  1. It might also be worth mentioning that there are specific monies that the PI can apply for which are earmarked for hiring people in precisely this position (which makes you an even more attractive candidate since the $$$ doesn’t have to come from existing grants). I *think* that these are part of the ARRA stuff and can be applied for via the NIH. Not totally sure on the details; I think I read about this originally at the writedit blog.

    I think that this is the one I am thinking of: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PA-08-191.html

  2. AA- Excellent, excellent point. These monies I believe are available out of the NIH office for research on women’s health. Re-entry funds or something like that. Try this: orwh.od.nih.gov/pubs/Reentry_Factsheet-revised%202-4-09.pdf

  3. I can answer Reader of the Blog with first hand experience. I am career Tech/Lab Manager, (never got my PhD but have been at the bench for more than 15 years). I am 35 years old and have 2 small children and have continuously worked FT in the lab.
    It fits my lifestyle perfectly since I am 9-5 (usually), make decent (read: higher than a senior post-doc) salary and have enough independence to be happy. I have considered going back to get my PhD but would never choose that route now, mostly because my husband is already TT. All in all, as a working mom, it is a good fit for me.
    One thing to keep in mind is that if you are coming back at our ‘ripe old age’ after being out of the lab for a long time is that you are going to be dropped into an atmosphere where you will be at the bottom of the totem pole. Students who were born in the *gasp* 90s, will think you are working for them (which usually isn’t the case.) If you have any ego on the line, you may be in for a rough ride, at least at first. However, once you are established and know the ropes, it is easy to become a well-respected and crucial member of the lab.
    I definitely agree with the advice offered by drdrA. Get up to speed, get your feet wet and network. There are tons of positions available out there for techs of all skill sets and experience levels and the good ones are in high demand!

    Best of luck with you decision.. you can do it!

  4. RotB, I should put you in touch with my mom, who did exactly this!! She had been working as a lab tech but stopped to be a stay at home mom when I was born, and didn’t start back up again until I was 9 or 10 (and she was about your age). She’s been in the same lab since then (23 years!), and has been the lab manager for a long time. She pretty much runs the show there, and gets to do lots of awesome science. Her hours aren’t terrible–8-5ish plus an occasional stop in to lab some weekends.

    Now, granted she made her move during the Regan administration, and I’m not sure if times have changed lots or not with respect to this kind of thing. But I do know that in my experience, labs with a smart and competent career tech/lab manager are the best run–PIs should be falling over themselves to hire you!

  5. For a baptism of fire in the latest things molly bolly, I recommend the New Biolabs 2 wk summer workshop run out of Smith College, MA. Not something you can pay for out of pocket, though, at $4K a person, but if one can get a position and a bit of training monies it’s actually a bit of fun as well as informative.

    (Heh. That kind of reads like some of that targeted spam, doesn’t it?)

  6. Dr. Becca/ DSKS/ LabMom- See, this is what I love about blogging and blog commenting- you get connected to those rare people whose experience is valuable to you. Thanks to all of you for your suggestions.

  7. Another option is to get a masters degree to ease your way back. If you like the lab and they like you they could even hire you on when you get your degree. Then those brush-up classes are paid for and you get a stipend while you are getting back in the game.

  8. Also look into private and hospital pathology labs or blood banks for entry-level positions. They’ll usually work you into the ground and pay quite poorly but it’s a good way to become very efficient at what you do and to get back into the lab stuff. It worked for me when I took a break between undergrad and grad school.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for your answers to my question! You’ve given me some very helpful ideas. I have lots to think about, and how great is that?

  10. I’m late with a comment, and in a different field, but thought I would put my 2 cents in anyways.

    I was out of the work force for 9 years being a stay-at-home mom as well. I got my master’s degree while I was at home, which was a long and tedious process (took me 6 years). The benefit of it taking so long was that my graduation date was actually pretty close to when I started looking for work, so it didn’t look like I was too long out of the game.

    Getting a master’s while your youngest is in Kindergarten might be a better fit time-wise, because you would have flexibility in your schedule, and probably get to be home with them when they return from school most days.

    I was worried my years at home would be a detriment, but I got a job very quickly, and they were very happy that I was a “mature” person with lots of life-skills (multi-tasking, meeting deadlines, budgeting, etc.) that translated well to the work place.

    Good luck with your decision!

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