Repost: You are not "just a tech"...

Aug 04 2010 Published by under Careerism, Tribe of Science

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.

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.
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(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?)


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*oh, I respect his FWDAOTI, oh yes I do.

13 responses so far

  • physioprof says:

    Dude, "titular" doesn't mean what you apparently think it does.

  • physioprof says:

    I should!

  • Ah, a repost of one of my favorites! ' Tis very true re: gender disparity among techs in academia, but I've found it to be more balanced in pharma.

  • nightsongfire says:

    Depending on the tech, and length of experience they may know more about a certain topic than the grad students, post-docs AND the PI combined.

    And yeah, I'm a tech. I don't want to fuck around with running a lab or teaching, so I have no real desire to go to grad school...even if I already has enough class credits for the degree requirements at my U.

  • TR Gregory says:

    I really don't follow you here. You call my post "idiotic", but you yourself have drawn major distinctions between PIs and postdocs in the past, and this post, which is about researchers working in a full-time lab technician capacity, has nothing to do with graduate students. Except, of course, this line -- "...who is not “in training” (such as graduate students and postdoctoral fellows)" -- which more or less agrees with my assertion that graduate students are still in training. If you want to define "professional" as "anyone who gets paid" (were you a "professional blogger" before leaving Sb?), then go for it, but that's not what I was talking about. That should have been obvious -- the word itself isn't the point, it's the notion of "having a profession or career", which I clearly said.

  • TR Gregory says:

    By the way, why do you guys feel it necessary to point out that you're "NIH-funded scientists" on your bio blurbs?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Well, that's what I'm thinking about expressing in another post if I get to it. There are *many* ways that we distinguish between Professors (of various ranks) and non-Professors, between PIs and "other" participants in the laboratory hierarchy. I do agree with what I think you were trying to get at with respect to the fact that a professorial rank lab head (or PI) does a distinct job. And of course we've had some of our feistiest discussions pointing out to senior postdocs that no matter how awesome they think they are, they don't do the same job and do not usually appreciate just how much *more* is involved.

    With that said, I just don't think the word "scientist" is the place to pivot those distinctions. Even with the modifier of "professional".

    I half suspect you of using the terminology you did just to troll up some discussion but perhaps I'm just projecting on that one..

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "necessary"? I don't think I ever said it was necessary. Does it bother you?

    That blurb functioned as one of the more neutral and pseud-protecting descriptions that I could come up with at the time we went to Sb. Profile blurbs were the default over there, so I thought we had to come up with something. It also functioned as a bit of a disclaimer before I decided I had better flesh the disclaimer aspect out a little more. As the readership evolved, I also think it has gained an alerting function to warn the NSF crowd that I don't really know what I'm talking about when it comes to NSF funding strategy and tactics. Finally, I suppose it is a bit of an appeal to authority, even if I didn't explicitly intend it that way.

  • pinus says:

    My guess is because they talk a shitload about NIH grant getting strategory....so the fact they have successfully obtained some lends some weight to the posts.

  • scicurious says:

    Love this post. I hate when people disrespect a good tech. Many of the people I have relied on for various aspects of training are tech, and they can GET some shit DONE. Also, all those papers you see where the PI is the only one on it, and there's data? Or where the PI is the first author? All that work was done by techs. Careful, meticulous, analyzing techs, who know how to get data, know how to analyze it, and know what it means. SCIENTISTS, I am sayin'.

  • DaveH says:

    On techs:

    Techs have a skill set of doing a protocol quickly and consistently every time, and knowing the ins and outs of the equipment, lab residents, the most commonly encountered problems, etc. And they run rings around any PI, post-doc, or grad student in a head-on competition. In a hospital, a nurse gives you an IV, not because the physician can't, but because the physician has other things to do, and the nurse can do it far better due to practice. Analogous with techs.

    On grad students:

    I think a little bit of clarification about the fallible English language is in order. "Professional" has two distinct meanings. From merriam-webster.com, Professional (adjective) : "participating for gain or livelihood in an activity [...]" or " of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession" which is "a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation".

    So, grad students. Here I must disagree with Dr. Gregory, we [yes, I am a grad student, and have in fact taken a class from Dr. Gregory] are "professional scientists". I certainly don't have any income outside of grad school, science and learning about science are what I do for a living. But am I "a professional" in that I have completed my long and intensive academic preparation? No. I both am and am not a "professional scientist" depending on how you define the word.

    The plain "professional scientist" without context would to me tend to imply the former, simple "doing it for a living" meaning. So unless you qualify it heavily about which meaning you are using, which I think Dr. Gregory did in his original post in a slightly roundabout way, I would agree with "grad students are professional scientists".

  • Kevin Z says:

    Great post! I've been a tech for the last two years and was treated like a postdoc. I was involved in the experiments and designs and troubleshooting every step of the way and trained undergrads in the lab. I authored a paper and am on several more. I had more knowledge of our system (hydrothermal vents-worked in the habitat for 5 years prior to hiring as an undergrad and a masters student) than anyone else save the PI and advised grad students experimental design and research questions. If I was not treated as a professional scientist and a collaborator I would have quite a year ago because of the raise freeze at my institution.

    I am now starting a PhD this Fall and making the transition from a professional scientist to a graduate student doesn't feel any different other than my pay is slashed in half. My new advisor seems great and our interaction feels more like a collaboratorship than a studentship. Having gone through a Masters and then a couple years of work experience has given my lots of confidence in myself and erased the student mentality from me. In my experience, its because professors expect certain behavior from "students" vs. "professional scientists", but really if grad students re to ever be professional scientists, they need to believe they are professionals and be treated like ones from the start. Training is not just about education and scholarship, but about getting students confident enough to manage their own labs and get funding for research and their own students. Attitudes like Gregory's towards graduate students denigrates them and propagates the notion of students in servitude rather than as professionals at the very beginning of their careers.

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