I’ve been working at the University of Bristol as a research technician for the vet parasitology and ecology group since April 2016, and overall, I love my job. I’ve had a great supervisor/manager, I’ve gained lots of useful experience and skills, and it’s helped me decide definitively that I want to pursue a career in research (although I have found that academia as an industry has many shortcomings, I’ll write about this in a future post…).
So what is a ‘typical’ day like? Sounds cliche, but every day really is different. Some days I’ll find myself a bit quiet, whilst other days (the best days), I’m running around the countryside carrying out fieldwork whilst being nuzzled by donkeys, visiting poultry farms or deer parks to collect ticks, analysing data, writing papers, or identifying flies. I also carry out various experiments including pteridine analysis and trialling essential oils to test if they can effectively kill biting flies.
The main project I’m working on aims to reduce biting fly (Stomoxys calcitrans) populations by designing and developing a more effective trap. I’ve also worked on a sheep scab project, which resulted in a paper submission where I’m the lead author (I’ll stick a link to it here once it publishes).
I also demonstrate to undergraduate students, or take students along on fieldwork. This week, I’ve got a work experience placement all week, which is tiring but rewarding! I also test protocols for experiments, and I’m currently working on analysing the age structure of flies by analysing pteridine levels. Pteridine is a protein which accumulates with age in their heads; I basically spend a lot of time beheading flies and then sending a laser through them to measure fluorescence. I’ve also previously helped to dissect around 50 sheep abomasa; gruesome, but strangely enjoyable – see photo below at your own risk.
I have my own fly colony which I established so I can carry out experiments (e.g. insecticide trials, pteridine analysis), but they are quite gross. As biting flies, they need blood to reproduce, which means I have to make weekly visits to an abattoir! Not the nicest of experiences, and its’ probably contributed to me cutting out meat.
My particular role is not as varied as some other technicians, as many have to work across multiple grants to reach a full time position, whereas I’m employed on a single full time grant. Apart from the pressure I place myself under to successfully develop a trap, I haven’t found it particularly stressful working as a research technician; I manage my own time and as long as I get everything done, it’s all good. Freedom at work is a huge luxury!
I am most productive whilst not being strictly managed; I struggled working under office conditions where you’re often treated like a misbehaving school child (and even suggesting working from home is blasphemous even if it makes you more productive!) Very repressive, since having this position I’ve decided I’ll never work in an office environment again if I can help it.
I only have 2 months left in this position (I’m leaving in September to begin a PhD), and I know I’m going to miss it terribly. However, without a PhD, I won’t be able to progress with my career, and living on a salary which doesn’t seem to increase isn’t going to work in the long term; sadly, it just wasn’t realistic for me to stay. Hopefully one day Universities will realise the huge contribution made by research technicians and develop some sort of career progression.
If you’re looking for a scientific job which is varied (PhDs often aren’t as you focus on a single project) and will provide you with lots of useful experience, I would always recommend working as a research technician, just not necessarily as a long-term career whilst there’s no clear career path.
If anyone has any questions about what it’s like to be a research technician, feel free to comment! Bear in mind though that every position is different; it all depends on your supervisor, research area, funding body, and University – my experience may not be the same as any other research technician’s!