If you want to be involved in science, but are more interested in working with people, lab management may be a good fit. It requires a technical background and also significant interpersonal and “people” skills.
Typical Job Functions
Laboratory managers supervise scientists and technologists, which may include chemists, physicists, and biologists. They coordinate production, quality control, analysis, and testing and set the direction for research and development.
Typical job duties may include:
- Perform or review quality, design, and health checks on instruments to ensure equipment is functioning properly
- Prepare and process documentation and reports, involving writing, reviewing, and collecting data from others
- Provide technical troubleshooting and crisis management when problems arise
- Recruit, hire, fire, and supervise technicians, engineers, scientists, and other technical staff
- Encourage mentoring relationships, so new hires learn from experienced professionals
- Cultivate the careers of their direct reports and solve problems between team members as they arise
- Develop procedures to improve workflows and processes
- Manage up the corporate ladder, ensuring that your plans align with senior management’s priorities
- Identify technical and scientific objectives for your department that align with the organization’s strategic plan and mission; implement plans to achieve those goals
- Maintain awareness of TSCA, FDCA, cGMP, RCRA, and other governmental regulations and how they affect daily decisions in the laboratory
Lab managers usually start out working at the bench as a technician or scientist. After several years, they are promoted to a supervisory position (e.g., managing day-to-day activities). Over time, they will acquire more administrative responsibilities, including hiring, firing, budgeting, directing work in line with long-term goals, and ensuring the success of the organization.
During their initial years working at the bench, technicians and scientists discover whether they are more suited for a research/technical career or management. Considerations include:
- The management ladder involves moving away from the lab bench and more into sales/marketing or operations/production.
- Typically, scientists in management have more experience than those in research and earn slightly higher salaries.
- Once you move into management, it is difficult to move back to the lab, as your skills become outdated quickly
Several years of hands-on work at the bench or in the plant is required before being considered for positions in management. Education requirements vary.
- Most lab managers have at least a bachelor’s degree in a natural science.
- Many managers have a master’s degree or Ph.D. (especially in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries).
- Some positions may require a Professional Science Master’s (PSM), a graduate degree that combines advanced training in science and coursework in management, policy, or law.
- To manage a research division at a large company, a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) may be required.
While a technical background is required, being a good manager requires nontechnical or soft skills. Managers must build rapport with the people they manage and get them to want to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done. This requires skill in “emotional intelligence” (reading other people), including determining their motivations and values, and then assigning tasks in a way that lets each individual use their strengths.