Why we must prioritise technical career paths

Anne Early, a principal laboratory research scientist here at the Crick, discusses the issues particular to developing a career along a technical path and how a recent event brought those issues into focus.

If you’re not quite sure what a laboratory research scientist (LRS) is, then that’s because at the Crick we have a new job title to go with our shiny new institute. At other research institutes, technically skilled staff have many other job titles, including scientific officer, research assistant, research technician and scientific manager. 

At the Crick, LRS are found in research labs and in the science technology platforms (STPs), our in-house expert facilities. Together we have formed the LRS Network to share information, expertise and good practice, as well as to promote visibility and recognition of our important scientific role.

Visibility and recognition are also two of the aims of Technician Commitment (TC), which the Crick signed up to in 2017. A TC initiative, the Research Institutes Technician Symposium (RITS 2019), recently brought together delegates from a network of six research institutes, the Crick, MRC Harwell, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the John Innes Centre, the Babraham Institute and the Institute for Cancer Research (ICR), to explore issues of career development and promoting professional identity.

We were advised to take opportunities when presented (or better still, create your own), and to be prepared to “take the plunge” or work outside your comfort zone.

These issues are highly relevant to LRSs at the Crick and equivalent staff at other institutes.

Navigating complex career paths

In the past, technical staff may have expected to remain in a similar role for much of their career but now, whether for reasons of career advancement and personal development, changes in technology and funding, or an institute model like ours where most labs will move on to other institutions, it is now expected that technical staff will likely move from one role to another, either within or between organisations. 

For many of us, this changes how we should think about and manage our careers. As well as acquiring skills and experience we need to consider our professional credentials and future marketability. 

At RITS 2019 we heard inspiring testimony about career paths from staff with technical expertise, ranging from enthusiastic apprentices at the start of their science career to those who had risen to the level of director at their respective research institutes. 

We were advised to take opportunities when presented (or better still, create your own), and to be prepared to “take the plunge” or work outside your comfort zone. The value of personal networks was also highlighted, as “you never know where they are going to take you”.

In a new and welcome development for technical staff, the Crick has introduced the concept of secondments, in which an LRS from an STP spends around six months in a research lab or conversely, a research lab LRS moves to an STP to acquire specialised technical skills. As well as benefitting individuals and labs, providing these training opportunities is an investment for the Crick in developing and broadening the abilities of its staff. 

The benefits of staying put

Research institutes are rightly proud of and dependent on their technically skilled staff who underpin their work.

In contrast to the idea of a bespoke, non-linear career path, Tatiana McHardy highlighted the advantages to both institutes and individuals of stability and continuity. During her 17 years as a higher scientific officer in the medicinal chemistry team at the ICR, she has not only gained experience and developed specialist skills but has also trained and supported many others. 

She is equally passionate about both her science and career development for technical staff, and helped to found the ICR Scientific Officers’ Association (SOA) in 2010. Earlier this year, members of the LRS Network and SOA delegates participated in an “exchange” to share our experiences and ideas. 

The advantage of retaining highly skilled staff was emphasised by the Crick’s director Paul Nurse, after first revealing that his scientific career began as a glasswash and media technician in a brewery at the age of 17! In addition to the specialist skills they contribute, he believes technical staff provide “institutional memory” and help to define lab culture in a setting where graduate students and postdocs move on after three to four years.

Recognition through registration

The Science Council Professional Registration scheme has been promoted as part of the TC to help address the career challenges faced by technical staff working in research. So far, a group of eleven Crick LRS at different career stages have successfully become registered. Both those with and without a PhD have expressed appreciation of the independent recognition they have gained, and the help it gives in thinking about career progression. 

Craft & Graft

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Their experience will be invaluable in developing the scheme to find how best it can positively impact on the careers of participants. At RITS 2019, research institutes were challenged to take advantage of the curiosity and drive of technical staff to put in place schemes or structures to help them and the institutions they work for benefit from professional development.

Research institutes are rightly proud of and dependent on their technically skilled staff who underpin their work. With their core funding and concentration of expertise, there is both an opportunity and a responsibility to invest in excellent training and career development for LRS and their counterparts. It is essential that we all work together to help achieve this aim.

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