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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.