I'm working up a head of steam on T Ryan Gregory's idiotic* post which asserts that graduate students are not professional scientists. I disagree. Even as he tries to dance around in the comments and subsequent posts. Particularly with respect to the modifier "professional"; in my view that just means are you getting paid.
While I think about whether I need to add anything to that discussion, I offer up a post I wrote awhile ago which lays out my view about who has a right to the title of "scientist".
This post originally went up April 22, 2008.
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.
Many 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?)