Launching Your Lab Technician Career: Manufacturing or Research?
Biotechnology is booming. Pharmaceutical manufacturing is running 24/7 to meet demand. Research into new medical treatments is growing, fueled by increased government funding.
All those industries need lab technicians. And the challenges posed by COVID-19 will likely add to that need.
If you're a laboratory technician, you can choose what kind of work you want to do and what kind of environment fits you best. In a field where you're in the front lines of keeping people healthy, it also means you can do well by doing good.
We spoke with Alex Miller, a senior recruiting manager who specializes in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, to learn more about the two major lab technician career paths: manufacturing and research.
Lab technician jobs in manufacturing
- The fit. If you value career stability above all else, you'll want to consider manufacturing. That's because you're working on products that have already been approved by the FDA and are out in the marketplace. With that approval comes a detailed list of required manufacturing processes and testing you'll be responsible for. It's the path to take if you prefer established routines over surprises at work.
“Technicians in manufacturing like to follow established procedures,” says Miller. “They take satisfaction in making sure all necessary steps are taken to get the product out to the people who depend on them.”
- Requirements. You'll need to supplement your high school diploma or GED with a certificate program, which can be completed in a year or less. The programs that provide hands-on experience are best.
“One of the schools I work with has a 13-week program,” says Miller. “It's one of the better programs because students are exposed to the equipment they'll be working with in the field.”
- Opportunities for advancement. You don't necessarily need additional training to move up in your career. Your performance matters more than extra credentials.
“I see supervisors with a certificate and five years of experience — roles that used to be held by people with a bachelor's or master's degree,” says Miller. “You can even move into process development, because the skills you develop are easy to transfer throughout the industry.”
Lab technician jobs in research
- The fit. If you're a critical, analytical thinker who likes to come up with new methods and concepts, the research path is for you.
“Research is less structured than manufacturing,” says Miller. “You don't have a set of guidelines that you need to follow every day.”
Research does come with more risk, because clinical trials can fail, causing the project to be canceled. But with strong demand, it's a risk worth taking if you prefer the research setting.
- Requirements. Similar to manufacturing, a credential from a well-regarded bachelor's degree can get you in the door.
- Opportunities for advancement. Your experience and performance can lead to a senior associate or principal scientist role where you're running research projects. If you're looking to aim even higher, you'll want to obtain a master's degree.
“With additional education, lab technicians can run clinical trials for FDA approvals,” says Miller. “Because the different parts of the business interact closely with each other, there are endless possibilities for professional growth.”
Lab technician soft skills
You'll be expected to have the technical skills from your training and work experience, but you'll need more to get ahead. Miller points out two soft skills that are must-haves for successful lab technicians.
- Attention to detail. “Biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are among the most regulated industries in the country,” says Miller. “There's no room for error, especially when you realize the number of people who are trusting their health to these products.”
- Reliability. With production running around the clock, employers need lab technicians they can count on. “A missed shift or a skipped procedure could delay a product shipment by a month or more,” says Miller.
The takeaway: Identify your soft skills and highlight them on your resume and during your job interviews.
How to take the next step
Miller advises lab technicians to take advantage of the job market to try out multiple positions. Contract work is one way to gain experience across a wide range of roles.
“A lot of companies are more open to having somebody on contract whom they can train,” says Miller. “Contractors can gain Good Medical Practice (GMP) or Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) experience. Once that happens, you're in the club.”
And it's a great club to be a part of.
“I love working in an industry where people are genuinely excited to help others,” says Miller. “They're truly passionate about what they do, and they want to make a difference in people's lives.