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How to Hire Your First Lab Tech

After enduring a long job search and interview process, you've finally landed a job as a junior faculty member at a research university. You're ecstatic! Until you look around at your newly acquired lab space, which is ... empty.

"I still vividly remember the first day at work when I was going around borrowing stationery items--minor things like sheets of paper to write on, etc.--from neighbors," remembers Ishwar Radhakrishnan, an assistant professor in the department of biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology at Northwestern University. "It was truly humbling, and that is when it struck me how tedious it was going to be to build a research program."

A junior faculty member's primary function in the first 6 months is to get his or her lab up and running ASAP. Leo Pallanck, an assistant professor in the department of genetics at the University of Washington, Seattle, recalls, "Progress in the lab was VERY slow in the beginning, primarily because I often had little time to get into the lab myself, and the lab consisted mainly of inexperienced graduate students and undergraduates." Because of this, he says, hiring a highly qualified lab tech to help get the operation moving is an important step in the start-up process.

Advertising is often the first step to hiring a lab tech. Peter Okkema, an assistant professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC), placed an ad in the Chicago Tribune and "was fortunate to hire a really good person." Word-of-mouth recommendations from colleagues are also important, "but there are a lot of talented scientists who may not be known by your colleagues," he notes.

Lab techs often follow two common paths. After getting an undergraduate degree with some research experience, some people want to take a break before continuing their career pursuits by applying to graduate school or professional school. Others prefer lab tech work to maintain their mobility. As far as career techs vs. "migrant-worker" techs are concerned, William Dietrich, an assistant professor in the department of genetics at the Harvard Medical School in Boston, thinks "there is ample room for both in a new laboratory, as long as you have the funds to pay them."

Dietrich believes that if you can hire only one type, it is best to hire the career tech. "As you begin your lab, you need some stability: someone who knows where everything is, who knows the biosafety and chemical waste rules, and who can train new people as they arrive. A career tech who will likely be around for a long time is someone you will feel confident about teaching these things to, and then you are relieved of those duties to focus on other scientific matters." It would be less ideal, he adds, "to have spent this time on a person, only to have them leave in a few months."

It should be fairly straightforward to interview potential lab techs: "I evaluated candidates who applied, spoke to their referees, conducted personal interviews, and trusted my instincts to select the best candidate," recalls Radhakrishnan. Pallanck found that the advice of colleagues can help: "I was able to thoroughly investigate the tech who I ended up hiring by talking to colleagues. This was extremely helpful." Junior faculty members should be alert, adds Dietrich: "Most of all, be patient. Don't automatically jump at the first applicant. Take your time and decide rationally how this applicant will fit into your scientific life for the next few months," he says.

So, how does a junior faculty member provide incentives to the right kind of lab technician? Pallanck suggests, "Independent projects. Make them authors on papers. Give positive feedback and encourage them." The money is still important, he adds. Although salary is often set by the human resources office, Pallanck notes, "there is some flexibility here, but the university sets guidelines based upon educational attainment and experience." Pallanck says he tries to pay well: "I want to keep my people happy and productive."]

Dietrich says he finds salary limitations damaging to the quality of tech applicants. "For those people looking to work as a tech in academia, there is relatively little wiggle room for negotiation." An especially frustrating aspect, he adds, is the "relative inability to compete with biotech industry on salary scales. ... You sometimes spend considerable time trying to recruit a person who ends up going to industry."

Radhakrishnan says he "strongly encourages lab techs to participate in group research activities." And as a lifestyle incentive, "a new lab is going to have lots of new toys." Okkema also recommends letting good candidates know that once they are in the lab they will continue to receive attention. He believes in "giving them enough attention when they're starting out so that they learn the skills that are important for your research."

The actual hiring process can be cumbersome, taking anywhere from "about 6 weeks or so," according to Okkema, to a frustrating "4 months" for Dietrich's first tech and even "6 months for a similar position without success." The process is typically rather straightforward: "Here at UIC," says Okkema, "the university approves the advertisement, making sure it fits their EEO [equal employment opportunity] criteria. Individual faculty receive and examine the résumés, do the interviews, and decide who to hire."

However, the process also can be convoluted. "There can be many rules and regulations to hiring that can get in the way," explains Pallanck. For example, he found he had to run a broad ad and look at a lot of people. And he also was informed that if a qualified job candidate applied to his lab after being laid off from a university job, he was required to offer a position to that person, regardless of how he felt about the person, or face a potential lawsuit. "Alternatively, I can choose to not hire anyone, pull the ad for a month, then run a more specific ad for the person I really wanted to hire if they are still available, or to eliminate the candidacy of a person or persons who I would be forced to hire," he explains.

Naturally, problems will sometimes arise with a new hire. "The hardest job we have," says Aixa Alfonso, "is managing personnel." Alfonso, an assistant professor in the department of biological sciences at UIC, advises faculty members to "follow the procedures of your institution. Specify there will be a regular review. Many [junior faculty members] specify a contract with a 1-year renewal." This type of contract allows faculty members to continue employing a lab technician based on performance.

Dietrich offers perhaps the most sage advice regarding the hiring of new techs: to include current lab members in the hiring process. "You'll be surprised how many times your lab will keep you from hiring totally inappropriate people."

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