Laboratory technicians work in research facilities, hospitals, crime laboratories, and in private labs to analyze material samples and record data. Laboratory technicians typically work alongside scientists and laboratory technologists to set up and experiments, as well as interpret the results. Those who work in clinical laboratories collect and study blood and tissue samples from patients, while those who work in scientific research laboratories frequently perform tests on chemical or biological substances. Laboratory technicians in forensic crime labs analyze evidence from a crime scene to help solve cases.
Laboratory technicians also compose very detailed reports about their findings and communicate their results to the appropriate authorities, such as doctors, police detectives, or scientists.
Laboratory technicians are responsible for performing extremely careful observations and recording exact details of their procedures and results. In research laboratories they are responsible for setting up equipment, monitoring experimental procedures, cleaning up after experiments, and keeping labs well stocked. They must be comfortable handling potentially dangerous chemicals and other hazardous substances.
Clinical laboratory technicians are responsible for detecting the presence of abnormalities in a sample and passing on their findings to physicians, who can prescribe an appropriate treatment. They must be comfortable operating high tech instruments such as cell counters and microscopes. In addition, all laboratory technicians must be computer proficient, as they typically dedicate significant amounts of time to data entry, creating graphs, and analyzing mathematical and statistical results from experiments.
There are three academic paths to becoming a laboratory technician: a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Laboratory Sciences>, an Associate degree in science or medical technology, and a high school diploma coupled with formal laboratory training. In addition, clinical laboratory technicians must complete a certification program offered by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences.
The differences between these three educational paths are as follows:
- Bachelor of Science programs are offered by colleges and universities and usually take about four years to complete. Bachelor degrees are required for some laboratory positions, such as biological and nuclear technicians.
- Associate degree programs are offered by community colleges, junior colleges, and several accredited online schools. Associate degree programs typically take one to two years to complete.
- A high school diploma or GED is sufficient for employment as a laboratory technician assistant, though about two years of on the job training are required to advance to the position of laboratory technician.
Areas of Specialization
Laboratory technicians can specialize in three different areas, though many combine specialties. For example, a forensic science technician may use tools and techniques of clinical laboratory technicians when analyzing evidence. The three means of specialization are:
- By general discipline, as technicians typically choose to work either in clinical labs or science labs.
- By work setting, as technicians might work in research facilities, hospitals, or crime labs, among other settings.
- By working with one or more specific materials or substances, as do DNA analysts and plant scientists.
Below are general job categories for laboratory technicians:
- Biological technicians, who examine plant and animal tissue, study animal behavior, and conduct lab tests.
- Chemical technicians, who experiment with chemical solutions and analyze different compounds.
- Environmental science technicians, who gather samples of air, water, and soil and test them for traces of contaminants.
- Forensic science technicians, who analyze and interpret material evidence from crime scenes.
- Medical laboratory technicians, who work in hospitals or research labs to determine the presence of disease or bacteria in a human sample.
- Phlebotomists, who specialize in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of blood samples.
There are numerous career opportunities for qualified laboratory technicians. The list below is a small sample of potential career paths.
Blood Bank Specialist
Clinical Chemistry Technician
Food Science Technician
Forensic Science Technician
Medical Laboratory Technician
Molecular Biology Technologist
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), median annual earnings of laboratory technicians in May 2006 were $32,840, with the middle 50 percent earning between $26,430 and $41,020, the lowest 10 percent earning less than $21,830, and the highest 10 percent earning more than $50,250. The median annual earnings for the industries with the largest number of laboratory technicians in May 2006 are listed below.
General medical and surgical hospitals: $34,200
Colleges and universities: $33,440
Physician’s offices: $31,330
Medical and diagnostic laboratories: $30,240
Ambulatory health care services: $29,560
There are many professional organizations dedicated to the laboratory science field. These organizations can provide excellent resources and information for future clinical laboratory technicians.
AAB – American Association of Bioanalysts
AIBS – American Institute of Biological Sciences
ASCLS – American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science
ASCP – American Society for Clinical Pathology
NAACLS – National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences
NCA – National Credentialing Agency for Laboratory Personnel