Laboratory Management

Chemists in the Field

Ian Henry

Ian Henry
Capability Leader,
Procter & Gamble

Jessica Brozek

Jessica Brozek

Lab Manager/SQF Practitioner,
Hydrite Chemical Co.


lab management workers

Lab managers usually start out working at the bench, as a technician or scientist, and spend many years there. Over time, they may become more specialized in a particular technique, or may learn a broad variety of techniques. After gaining sufficient experience, they will be promoted to a lead or supervisory position—assigning tasks, offering guidance, and managing day-to-day activities such as meetings, attendance management, performance reviews, and so on. Since supervisors are generally promoted from within, instead of being hired from outside, they typically have a relationship with and the respect of those they supervise. Over time, they will acquire greater and more administrative responsibilities, including hiring, firing, budgeting, directing work in line with long-term goals, and ensuring the success of the organization.

While a technical background is required, the majority of the managerial job involves using nontechnical or soft skills. They 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. For example, some people prefer their work to be predictable and straightforward and want the same type of tasks every day. Others would find that boring and are much more interested in projects involving continuous improvement and crisis management.

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, including writing, reviewing, and collecting data from others
  • Provide technical troubleshooting and crisis management when problems arise, which may require being on call 24 hours/day, 7 days per week
  • Encourage mentoring relationships, so new hires learn from experienced professionals, in line with both personalities and learning styles
  • Recruit, hire, fire, and supervise technicians, engineers, scientists, and other technical staff
  • Conduct individual and team meetings to develop skills and solve problems between other team members
  • Develop procedures to improve workflows, share best practices between shifts, and make current processes better/faster/cheaper
  • Manage up the corporate ladder, ensuring that your plans align with senior management’s priorities, and avoiding costs and delays associated with changes
  • Identify technical and scientific objectives for your department, in line with the organization’s strategic plan and mission, then create and 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



Most lab managers have at least a bachelor’s degree in a natural science, and many have a master’s degree or Ph.D. (especially in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries). Another option is a Professional Science Master’s (PSM), a two-year graduate degree that combines advanced training in science and coursework in management, policy, or law. Several years of hands-on work at the bench or in the plant is required before being considered for positions in management. A Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree may be required for those managing research divisions at large companies.


  • Project Management as a Bridge Between Roles in Science and Business




meeting in a lab

Lab managers spend most of their time in an office, usually located near the laboratory they are supervising. Most lab managers work full-time, regular hours, but they may work additional hours when there is a short deadline or tight budget on a particular project. They spent significant amounts of time arranging and running meetings and persuading and motivating other people.


Technical Skills

Analytical Vision Interpersonal Communication
  • Problem-solving skills to analyze complex technical questions, an inherent understanding of root cause analysis, and troubleshooting skills
  • Critical-thinking skills to evaluate the work of others and ensure their methods and conclusions are based on sound scientific principles
  • Well-developed emotional intelligence and situational awareness
  • Interpersonal skills to lead the research team, resolve conflicts, critically evaluate people, and ensure each member can grow and be successful
  • Persuasion and negotiation skills, with people at all levels of the organization
  • Leadership skills to coordinate, direct, and engage team members, while setting and enforcing priorities and timelines
  • Communication skills, both written and oral, to discuss ideas at the appropriate level with subordinates, as well as upper management, and technical as well as nontechnical people
  • Time management and prioritization skills to monitor multiple projects and set priorities

Career Path

In industry, most chemists start out in a more technical position, then advance by climbing either the research/technical or management career ladder. The research ladder involves staying close to product development and taking on more supervisory responsibilities and larger projects. The management or business ladder can involve moving away from the lab bench and more into sales/marketing or operations/production. Depending on industry, products may be simple or highly technical and may be sold to consumers or to other businesses. Scientists in management generally have slightly more experience than those in research and thus earn slightly higher salaries.

Once you move out of research and into management, it is difficult to move back to the laboratory, as your technical knowledge and skills become outdated quickly.


Future Employment Trends

Opportunities for lab managers are expected to grow slightly slower than average for all occupations over the next 10 years. This is due to the fact that managers can take on more workers, and outsourcing of research and development causes consolidation of management. Competition is expected to be strong, since many bench scientists would like the control, flexibility, and resources that come with management.


Is This Career a Good Fit for You?

If you want to stay somewhat involved in science, but are more interested in working with people, lab management may be the career for you. It requires a technical background, so you have a common language and can earn the respect of your coworkers, but also requires significant interpersonal or people skills.


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.


Most lab managers have at least a bachelor’s degree in a natural science, and many have a master’s degree or Ph.D. Many years of hands-on experience are required before being eligible for management positions.


  • Median annual wage: $120,160 (2015)