Thursday, December 09, 2004

Experiencing technical difficulties....

I've been a technician in a biomedical laboratory for the last 30 years, only just recently moving to an office/admin type of position. Being a technician is an odd sort of profession, one where the vast majority of people don't have a clear idea of what you do. It's not like a nurse, which is probably its closest relative, because the "doctor" in charge is usually, but not always, a Ph.D. rather than an M.D., and people do have enough contact with nurses to understand what they do. Mostly, in biomedical labs, you are being paid on a grant, often from the NIH or NSF, but also perhaps from a drug company or other biomedical company. You will probably work at a university, occasionally directly at the pharmaceutical firm, and less often at a private R & D firm, and most rarely in federal labs like OSHA or a VA research hospital. Because you are paid on a grant, the funding for your job is often subject to the variabilities of the federal grant system, that is, you are often hired for the course of a three year grant, which must then be competitively renewed before you can continue working. Thus, while your work may be excellent, reproducable, cutting-edge, your continued employment is dependent on the "fundability" of the investigator who heads up the lab, and this depends on many factors-- the reputation of the university, the political climate of federal funding, the relevance to a specific problem (like cancer, heart disease, etc.), and lastly the reputation of the investigator, his 'track' record with funding, publications, associations, and awards. So even if your work answers exactly the question in the grant proposal, if the question is poorly written, irrelevant, or contradictory to accepted knowledge, the grant may not be renewed, and thus you are Fzzzt gone. Many labs have only one or two techs, and thus experimental days may run very long, or entail coming back late at night and on weekends to start/stop something, or to do the next step in a list of lengthy steps. What the technician gets out of this is a paycheck. Rarely do professional accolades follow a technician, even in Nobel laureate caliber labs. When you start a new job, you essentially start over, learning their variation on tasks you have done before, or learning entirely new skills; with luck, you may continue in the same university or company, in which case your 'network' of contacts and experts will be helpful. Otherwise, you'll start over there, too. You will always be considered a second class employee, because you do not have a Ph.D. (a Master's degree is no help at all over a BS) You will see secretaries get flowers, candy, taken out to lunch, and thanked fulsomely for typing a manuscript; you will receive none or few of these perks for doing the work that produced the manuscript. You will get bitten (by lab animals), risk your health (with toxic, carcinogenic and radioactive chemicals), and waste your social life (because you are expected to put in whatever hours are necessary to finish the experiment), all for the pleasure of knowing you have contributed to the advancement of human knowledge -- even if you don't understand exactly how. Your name will only be found in the "acknowlegements" section of a journal article, after "with the technical assistance of", usually just before the name of the secretary.

I never questioned why, when I first started out in this field, there were so few middleaged or older lab techs. The personnel profile of most techs is, the wife of a student in medical (law, etc.)school, working until his career is established and then retiring to have babies and do family life. I never thought that one day I would be one of those 'middleaged' techs that everyone goes to with questions about equipment, procedures, etc. I never realized, until the last few years, that I would gradually be older than the principal investigators, who prefer young eager technicians over one the age of their mother. I never guessed that the whole thing, interviewing, starting over every three or four years, working long hours, would gradually become unbearable. I never anticipated the number of foreign-born researchers coming to the U.S., ones with a fairly medieval view of working women.

I am so, SO glad that I don't have to do technician jobs any longer.

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