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Lab technician: How I got my job and where I'm going

Brian talks about applying for jobs as a lab technician and opportunities for career progression in scientific research.

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Video transcript

When I was younger, I was always this curious kid. I stayed indoors a lot reading, both fantasy books and non-fiction. Just learning about the world around me, but also seeing what it could be in those fantasy and sci-fi books. And I remember when I was in fourth grade, so about 10 years old, learning about electrical circuits and really enjoying that. And that's one of my earlier memories of enjoying science. So, in high school, I was working in this neuroradiology lab studying Alzheimer's disease. And I started becoming really interested in cellular processes. How does the cell do what it does and how do we study that. And so, for me, the closest major that I could find to that was biochemistry. So when I applied for undergrad, I really applied for biology and biochemistry degrees. When I was in high school, I never really studied a day in my life, and my grades were okay, passable. And when I got to Northeastern, I figured I could do the same thing. And I remember I was in this biology class and the first exam was coming up. And I had studied a little bit right before. And I took the test and I completely bombed it. I got one of the worst grades in the class. And I said, oh my goodness, what am I going to do now? And I learned how to study. Which is not an easy thing to do. Had a good support network for study groups. And at the end of the class, I got a really great grade on the final. And the professor asked me to work in her lab. And, I joined this lab studying DNA repair in zebrafish, which is a model organism we use commonly in labs. And I worked in that lab for many years at Northeastern. And that professor is not only a mentor to me, but also became a good friend in the later years. And really helped me decide on what direction I wanted to go in my science career. So in December, 2015, I graduated from Northeastern. And, I had an idea of what type of job I wanted. Definitely all lab tech positions, but what did I want to study. I mean, I'm in this Boston area, which is a hub of science. And so I had a lot at my disposal to work at. And I chose a few jobs studying a process that I was interested in. And the big thing for me was that I personalized each application. And there's a give and take there between spending the time personalizing your cover letter and your resume for a job and getting as many applications out as you can. And I was lucky enough to find a few people that wanted to interview me. And in January of 2016, a month later, I was hired here. So when I got a call back, I guess, for this job, I was really excited. And they had told me to come in and that we would have coffee first. And I had never had a lunch or coffee interview before. And I had a lot of trepidation about what to do. How do I take having coffee? Do I pay? Do they pay? Do I offer to pay for them? I had no idea what the proper protocol was for a coffee interview. How do you do that with someone? Just like any interview, you sit down, except you have a hot mug of coffee in your hand, and you talk about yourself and you talk about the job. And, hopefully, they like you. And so at the end of that, the post-doc who I was interviewing with, who I would be working under, brought me up to the lab to meet the team that I would be with. And I sat down with each of those people and spoke with them in a more traditional interview. And I guess they liked me very much. And I was hired. But other jobs that I've had, have had different interview systems. Like I said, when I got my first academic lab job at Northeastern, the professor approached me, and said I like your work, why don't you work for me. There really wasn't too much of an interview, besides starting from nothing in her class and doing really well in the end. When I applied for my co-ops at Amgen and EMD Serono, both of those were traditional interviews where I had one-on-one with each of the members of the team. But there were other co-ops where I wasn't hired at those, and I was meeting with a panel of people and they were all shooting questions at you. And that was daunting and tough to handle. And, well, I didn't get that job. Interestingly, there is no certification exam for becoming a lab tech or really any lab job. Whenever you're first hired at a job, based on whatever merits you have, there's a whole lot of EHS, environmental health and safety, classes that you'll take that very first week. A lot of training that'll be done. How to be safe, how to manage your waste and whatnot. Anyone can follow a protocol or a recipe. We liken science to baking a lot of the time. And so the first step to baking a good set of cookies from scratch, is you have to know your instruments or the tools you have at your disposal. You have to know how to use an oven properly, and you have to know how to measure out all your ingredients using cups. And then similar in science, you have to know how to use your centrifuge, how to use your pipettes, which will move liquid from one area to another. You have to have good sterile technique, so you don't contaminate your samples. There are basic skills that you need to have that you will develop in your first or second lab job. But from there, once you are able to know the instruments that you have you have to be able to follow a protocol or a recipe. Do step A, step B, step C, and follow through on that. And at the end of following the protocol, you get your product, your cookies. You'll taste the cookies and maybe you're satisfied with your product, your cookies, and maybe you're not. That's part of where the degree comes in. Once you have your final product, how do you go from there? How do you improve it? What went wrong? What didn't? And so that's where your knowledge of the underlying processes will come in. Because you can't just say, in order to make something sweeter, I'll add more chocolate chips. You have to know more about what's going on in your recipe. In order to actually get that job, every employer, every PI, principal investigator, person in charge of a lab, is gonna look for different things in their students or employees. Obviously. But, everyone is looking for curiosity, and desire to be there. Again, you're doing stuff that no one else has done before. And so, you have to be willing to really dig in your heels and go for it. And so some of that could be, if you don't have a network to approach, it could be just cold emailing or cold calling a person saying, hey I wanna work in your lab. This is my skill set. These are my interests and I think this is how you can fulfill this for me and this is what I can do for you. Because every job relation, not just in science, is a two-way communication. What I can do for you and what you can do for me. And it's important to stress both sides of that. Cause, you're not going to be a fit everywhere. A big thing that happens, at least in the science field, is going to conferences. And, at conferences, you can present your own research as a poster or as a talk. But there is thousands of other people doing that as well. And so if you see something you're interested in, go up to that student, or go up to that professor and say hey, you're stuff is really cool, I like it. This is what I do, but I really wanna do what you do. And talk to them. And if you show that interest in their research they want you. Now, people love to talk about themselves and what they do. So if you can really play on that, there's your in. As a lab technician, growth opportunities will vary based on your environment. Unfortunately, in academia, there is definitely a ceiling that can be tough to get past as a lab tech. A lot of jobs in academia require really a Ph.D. and, some, a masters. But there are still different ways to go. Mostly in administrative or advisory roles. There's a lot of people in environmental health and safety. Making sure that each lab is under compliance with the current rules and regulations at local, state and federal levels. There are lab managers who take care of day-to-day tasks as well. And then, you can also be a lab tech in an industry or government setting. And there, there's a bit more room for growth. But something else that a lot of people don't talk about in science careers is also being sales people. There are a lot of companies out there that both manufacture chemicals or different instruments or assays that are important for other labs to be using. And so you have scientists going around giving sales pitches about their products. And that's something that not a lot of people consider as well as a career path. My long term goals, I'm still figuring a lot of that out, but throughout my current career path I've always known that I want to do research and probably head my own group at some point. Either in an academic setting, or industry perhaps. And so that was one of the reasons why I chose to get a Ph.D. Because that's one of the requirements to being in charge of your own group now. Being the head of your own group is a fairly traditional path when you go on a Ph.D. And it's a big undertaking. There's a lot to happen. A Ph.D. could typically take anywhere from four or five, to eight years. Which is quite the range. And then, normally after your Ph.D. you'll do what's called a post-doc. A post-doctoral program. And traditionally, it's for people who want to end up heading their own groups, but can go in other directions as well. It's really a training period for managing your own group. So at least here in the Weiss lab, you'll have post-docs that are in charge of a small group here. And they'll report back to the principal investigator here. People that are interested in being a lab tech or being in a research role, as I've been saying, the best thing you can do is have previous lab experience. That can be tough to get the first time. For me, I was fortunate to have a program in high school that allowed me to do that and then a professor in early undergraduate my freshman year that gave me that opportunity. Talk to professors Talk to your teachers if you're in college. If you're in high school or earlier, just send out emails. Anything that you see that's interesting. If you read Scientific American, and you read an article that's really cool, send an email to either the author of that article, or the person that they interviewed. People love to talk about themselves, just tell them, hey, this is who I am, and can we talk about this. And if you're local, have a one-on-one with them. If you're not, emails or Skype or phone call are a great way to communicate with people.