You are not "just a tech", you are a scientist!!

Apr 22 2008 Published by under Careerism, Conduct of Science

The titular observation was the beginning of a good twenty minute rant from YHN during a lab meeting a few years ago after one of the technicians said something along the lines of "well, but I'm just a tech". I forget the precise circumstances but it was in the context of some doctor-credentialed person or other not paying attention to the knowledge and expertise of the technical staff. This pissed me off then and many years later I still get irritated by these situations.
I write today in praise of the research technician and, especially, the TurboTech™.


A "technician" in the biomedical sciences is an employee of the laboratory (well, actually of the University) who is not "in training" (such as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) and does not (usually) have a terminal doctoral degree. (For example long-term PhD scientist employees who are too far along to really be "postdocs" and are not PIs are not really "techs".) Most typically the tech has a bachelor's degree in a scientific major and a few will have advanced credentials such as Veterinarian Tech specialties or subject-based Master's degrees. It is not unusual for the tech to have continued her education while working in the laboratory by taking advantage of University educational repayment policies.
Beyond this basic outline, techs fulfill any number of roles to "help" with the ongoing science of the laboratory. From maintaining basic reagents and supplies to reasonably advanced scientific techniques, techs do it all. Many labs would come to a screeching halt without good quality technical staff. Nevertheless, being a human enterprise, labs tend to establish hierarchies. Pecking orders. With the PI at the top, then postdocs and grad students with the "just a tech(s)" at the bottom. This is a necessary and inevitable structure for certain practical reasons and in certain day to day operational ways. It should not, however, be an excuse to minimize the contributions of the research technicians.
The world at large, to the extent that they have a mental picture of "scientist", envisions the job of "being a scientist" as similar to that of the hard working scrubs- or labcoat-wearing tech, do they not? Comm majors envy and respect science majors, yes? These people worked hard in college and work hard with hands and brain in their jobs. They should be respected as professional scientists, not considered dismissively as "just a tech". Not in your mind. Not in their minds. Not in the minds of anyone.
In every way from the (typical) bachelor's degree in a scientific field, to the day-to-day experimentalist approach, to the acquired set of skills and knowledge...these people qualify for the label "scientist". One does not, most emphatically, have to be running the lab or "designing the experiments" to be considered such. It is no loss to those of us who have the extra responsibility for directing the science to acknowledge our technical staff as fellow scientists.
How does the PI manage to divorce herself from the hands-on lab work? The technician makes this possible. The TurboTech™ makes this especially possible.
STFU n00bMany of you will be familiar with the TurboTech™. The TurboTech™ has been in the lab for years, is inevitably skilled in numerous critical lab techniques and the PI depends on her for everything from tricky preparations to ensuring animal welfare (she is the one who knows those animals under the specific experimental and laboratory conditions backward and forward. Vets? Don't make me laugh) to riding herd on n00b trainees . This makes her the clear authority on an unending list of laboratory topics. Just a tech? Please. She has the expertise that makes her the one to listen to, fancy credentials or not. Heck, most of the time this person is much smarter than the average trainee to boot! (I joke. A little. Ok, not much at all.)
PhysioProf's advice to PIs to be decent human beings can be extended to trainees and institutional staff- don't be an asshole to the TurboTech™! She is the one that makes the science happen.
According to a chart Jonah Lehrer found recently, a technician job in the biomedical sciences (about $35K) results in about a median salary. Not fantastic, not lame....decent. Any PI with a brain figures out quickly that a new tech has the qualities of TurboTech™ and gives her sustained and generous raises because one wants to keep this person satisfied and happy. This leads to a common situation- irritated trainees.
When I started postdoctoral training it was before the big jump in NRSA stipends, so starting postdocs were making maybe $19,000. With a few years of experience it was gravy, maybe $25,000. Starting technicians were making similar money to the starting postdoc and of course the ones with a few years experience were up in the $30K's. I recall being a bit miffed and I was not the only postdoc pissed off about this. The thing was, I quickly realized exactly why the TurboTech™ was so valuable to the PI. This lesson stuck with me.
Find and cherish your TurboTech™, new PIs. This talented scientist is a critical part of your lab's toolbox.
__
(p.s., I use the feminine pronoun here for a reason. The high quality TurboTech™ is disproportionately female. I know one or two male TurboTech™s and a bajillion female ones. Feel free to speculate in the comments.)
[h/t: bill hooker's blog where I first ran across what is apparently a picture long detached from its original owner, original credit anyone?)

27 responses so far

  • My career was launched under the tutelage of two TurboTechs, both female btw. My proficiency as a grad student was a direct result of their superb skills in training me while I was an undergrad and I still draw on them as examples when bringing new people into the lab. (They were also particularly adept at emasculating the cocky, arrogant, new male postdocs that showed up - the behavior lasted no more than a week).
    I've only had one male tech and he ended up doing quite well; left the lab, got his PhD and is now some huge deal with a multinational pharma company. However, my experience is far more like yours where the high quality TurboTech™ is predominantly female.
    I join you in your salute to the TurboTech™ - they are worth their weight in gold and then some. And, absolutely, they are scientists!

  • juniorprof says:

    RIght on! ITs looking more and more like I got lucky and found a TurboTech too. Couldn't be happier about it and agreed, she's a scientist, and a fine one at that.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Comm majors envy and respect science majors, yes?

    HAHAHAHAH! You are such a fucking troll!

  • bill says:

    TurboTech™, heh, I like it. And yes, a TurboTech™ is worth their weight in Platinum Taq.

  • caynazzo says:

    I'm not so sure about the Turbo part, but I'm one of those rare male techs working in a Molecular Genetics lab.
    Also, when I try to reproduce an experiment from a published paper, the contact for that paper is the PI. I know this because 9 times out of 10 that person will have to get back with me after conferring with their tech (usually female) to answer my often very straightforward question. I think papers should have contact information for those who want to collaborate on a project, and a separate person of contact if you're simply trying to reproduce some results.

  • Becca says:

    Bravo!
    I agree, the phrase "just a tech" (when not used 100% tounge-in-cheek) is often grating on my nerves.
    I wonder about the gender distribution of the TurboTech... optimistically, I'd say men are more hung up about hirearchy (a force keeping them from becoming, or at least remaining, techs), and I have known a lot more women that have expressed extreme love of benchwork (a force encouraging them to stay in this sort of role).
    Pesimistically, I'd say it's the case in a lot of areas that women in up in lower pay/lower prestige roles.

  • drdrA says:

    First, a good TurboTech will get you tenure (well not entirely but you get the idea).
    Second, don't dis the veterinarians among you.
    Third, I love the way you and PP are now referring to the PI with the female pronoun...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Second, don't dis the veterinarians among you.
    I gotta be honest with you drdrA. IME, vets have authoritah! really, really, really bad. Not all of them, sure. But plenty. And when they do have it...they have a raging case. I'm pretty sure the triggering event for the vignette I opened this post with resulted from a relatively less-specifically-informed vet dissing a tech's expertise.

  • GradLab was blessed with a multitude of TurboTechs (now if only they also did my taxes....that'd be awesome....) One of them did such a kick-ass job that he will be co-first-author with me on a paper we may try sending to a glamour mag. Rock on, techs of the world!

  • drdrA says:

    Ok, now you are trying to rock the boat.... since I know that you know that I am a veterinarian.
    As I have written somewhere else, you can find an example of anyone behaving badly- and believe me there is no shortage of this uncivilized behavior perpetrated by Ph.D. and M.D.s either. But most practicing veterinarians I have known have been very agreeable sorts- respectful of their technically skilled colleagues, and most are unbelievably hard working even when they are out in the rain at 3 am delivering a dystocia with tools only McGyver would know what to do with.
    I have noticed however- that in the tertiary care hospitals they do have a thing about being called 'Dr. so-and -so' ... even if their diploma is newly minted. That behavior is rather bothersome.... but then again you wouldn't think twice about it if they were MDs.

  • Chad says:

    Maybe I'd feel more like a scientist if some of the bastards I work with actually listened to me once in a while.

  • Laura says:

    As a tech... (who is also saddled with the secretary-esque role of lab manager, which does not lead to an excess of respect)
    THANK YOU!

  • Curiously enough, when my lab moved the SuperTurboTech didn't want to leave Sunny Paradise for Shitty Crime-Ridden Hellhole. We feel the lack rather.
    We do have a takes-care-of-everything tech who's retiring this year and I am so glad I'm graduating before she leaves. Because without the tech who makes the stuff, there is no stuff to do experiments with. I'm always very polite to her.
    And, although I am tempted to write an entire post about our Anti-Turbo-Tech, aka Waste of Oxygen, I will merely say that she earns $67 K, does only things my untrained 18-year-old sister could learn in a week (and does them wrong), and works three hours a day. Now THERE'S a cushy job.

  • ecoeofemme says:

    I totally agree. Now, if full-time, permanant technician positions were considered part of the infrastructure (so every faculty could hire one), we'd be in good shape (I don't know about biomed fields, but full time techs are extremely hard to get in the ecogeosciences).

  • rat-terrier says:

    What a coincidence, I'm a Turbo Tech chemist who just finished his last day at a research institute associated with a university's department of chemistry. It looks like I'm bound for a private R&D lab with a big boost in pay. A lot of our faculty has extensive industry-connections, and their references are powerful things.
    See they treated us techs properly

  • Jimmy says:

    I'd add to this, be nice to the technical staff who maintain shared equipment but don't necessarily work for one particular PI. In some of the places I've worked, there are a few people whose job it is to take care of the SEM, TEM, and other ultra-expensive instruments, and train and assist the scientists who use them.
    These people often understand a wide variety of experimental and characterization techniques better than anyone else at an institution, but are regularly abused by trainees who are rude, obnoxious, and always insist the instrument was broken when they found it (but after they've used it for an hour). This kind of behavior is right up there with yelling at librarians for not having a copy of the book you wanted...

  • Beaker says:

    I'm a former turbo-tech who managed to get his butt back to school to gits him one of them fancy PhD thingys. Now I'm a Jr.PI, and there's nothing I'd like to recruit more than a turbo-tech. I'd treat her/him right because I've been there.

  • TreeFish says:

    From the urban dictionary, for those who don't know what STFU NOOB means (like me before Google), it means "shut the f*** up, newbie"
    My favorite definition from the Urban dictionary:
    a gay ass term used to insult a person who plays an online multiplayer game less then 12 hours a day. Used by really scary, big mouthed, "internet tough-guys" who seem to be playing video games the majority of their time.
    Normal Person: How do i shoot?
    Fat Chode Internet Tough Guy: omfg lol u suck noobie fag
    Normal Person: ?
    Fat Chode Internet Tough Guy: STFU NOOB
    Credit and blame for visceral language goes to
    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=stfu+noob

  • Julie Stahlhut says:

    I started my postdoc in a lab that had a TurboTech. She got me oriented to the lab in record time, saved my butt on numerous occasions, and then, like many other T^2s, left us to obtain a professional degree. She was replaced by a person who grew into the TurboTech role in record time, but will probably also go into a professional program eventually. My current lab has one T^2 who loves being a T^2 and will probably remain in that role for a while, and a second one who has just been lured away to a higher-paying position in the private sector and will be leaving us soon.
    Anyone who disses a TurboTech in my presence usually gets his or her head bitten off posthaste.

  • DEFINITIONS
    By Lawrence and Gail Bloom
    Appeared in J.I.R., December 1974
    CHAIRMAN OF DEPARTMENT
    Leaps tall buildings at a single bound
    Is more powerful than a locomotive
    Is faster than a speeding bullet
    Walks on water
    Gives policy to God
    PROFESSOR
    Leaps short buildings at a single bound
    Is more powerful than a switch engine
    Is just as fast as a speeding bullet
    Walks on water if the sea is calm
    Talks with God
    ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR
    Leaps short buildings with a running start
    Is almost as powerful as a switch engine
    Is faster than a speeding BB
    Walks on water in an indoor swimming pool
    Talks with God if a special request is approved
    ASSISTANT PROFESSOR
    Barely clears a quonset hut
    Loses tug of war with locomotive
    Can fire a speeding bullet
    Swims well
    Is occasionally addressed by God
    INSTRUCTOR
    Makes high marks on wall when trying to leap buildings
    Is run over by locomotive
    Can sometimes handle gun without inflicting self-injury
    Dog paddles
    Talks to animals
    RESEARCH ASSOCIATE
    Runs into buildings
    Recognizes locomotive 2 out of 3 times
    Is not issued ammunition
    Can stay afloat with life jacket
    Talks to walls
    GRADUATE STUDENT
    Falls over doorsteps when trying to enter building
    Says, �Look at the Choo-Choo.�
    Wets himself with water pistol
    Plays in mud puddles
    Mumbles to himself
    TECHNICIAN
    Lifts buildings and walks under them
    Kicks locomotives off the track
    Catches bullets in his teeth and eats them
    Freezes water with a single glance
    Is God �

  • CC says:

    In industry, professional techs are responsible for the vast majority of the wet lab work, particularly in biology but also in chemistry. That's how you get what we corporate types call a "career ladder" instead of a bonfire that consumes smart, driven young grad students and postdocs as fuel.
    Many labs would come to a screeching halt without good quality technical staff. Nevertheless, being a human enterprise, labs tend to establish hierarchies. Pecking orders. With the PI at the top, then postdocs and grad students with the "just a tech(s)" at the bottom.
    Well, naturally. The techs make more money (I don't understand how that dismal $35K figure was arrived at, and Jenny's $67K seems more on the mark for a pro), get proper benefits, work 40 hour weeks, aren't prisoners to the LPU, and have better career prospects than the large majority of the "scientists". There needs to be some bone thrown to the grad students and postdocs to keep them from changing positions and doubling their salary overnight!

  • JustaTech says:

    As the only tech in my lab, I occasionally wish for a hat that says "Just the tech" or "Not a PhD" so when our super PI comes to lab meeting he won't shred me quite so throughly. I understand his confusion, since I've done most of the actual output for a couple of months, but if I'm not getting a degree, then I'd rather you didn't go all dissertation defense on me. But yeah, between me and the lab manager, we run the lab.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I don't understand how that dismal $35K figure was arrived at
    That's about the starting salary for no-prior-experience techs where I am. The chart Jonah picked up was for the first year out of undergrad so I thought it comparable. Sure, after a couple of years the good techs are making much more than this but $67K for an academic position sounds like a LOT of experience to me...well over 10 yrs on the job, no?

  • Lab Rat says:

    I think we should have an International Lab Technicians' Day.
    In my neck of the woods, alas, upper management doesn't quite view techs as necessary. So we end up having PIs having to maintain lab equipment, on top of juggling their projects, and the sad consequence is that equipment downtimes are measured in months.

  • Bill says:

    "When I started postdoctoral training it was before the big jump in NRSA stipends, so starting postdocs were making maybe $19,000. With a few years of experience it was gravy, maybe $25,000. Starting technicians were making similar money to the starting postdoc and of course the ones with a few years experience were up in the $30K's. I recall being a bit miffed and I was not the only postdoc pissed off about this. The thing was, I quickly realized exactly why the TurboTech

  • DrugMonkey says:

    So are you saying its right for a technician to make more money than a postdoc?
    Nope. I'm saying that really good technicians are worth every penny they are paid and then some.

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