There is a sort of energetic tension in the silence just after a conductor takes the stage. That lull between the clacking of their heels as they march to their place and the sharp crack of their baton against the edge of their music stand, calling the musicians to attention.
In many ways, a lab manager is just like the conductor of an orchestra. But how? And why aren't scientists actually the lone stars they're often perceived to be?
Science & the Laboratory
The collective human quest for knowledge is like an anthology of symphonies—our own species' magnum opus that we never stop adding to. But what's an epic road trip without an equally epic soundtrack?
A dreary, colorless commute not worth making, that's what.
If knowledge is our road trip, then science is our soundtrack. And since science is our soundtrack, it's only appropriate that we go with some of the classics.
And I mean "classic" with powdered wigs and harpsichords, which is where we run into a slight problem.
In the era of classical orchestral music, it wasn't an entire band that got the recognition. The rock stars of the day were the composers themselves. And in this analogy, the scientists are the composers.
They make the observations and devise the hypotheses. They design the experiments and interpret the results. They draw the conclusions and refine the hypotheses. They tell the orchestra what notes to play in the symphony of the scientific method.
The composer's name gets put on the sheet music for the same reason that the scientists' names get put on the research papers. And that's as it should be.
But would any of us know the name "Beethoven" if nobody had been around to pick up some instruments and transform his compositions into the sounds that ultimately made him famous? No. People have to play the music.
Likewise, people have to do the science.
And just as the musicians playing in an orchestra have a concert hall, technicians have a laboratory. In fact, the word "laboratory" itself comes from a Latin word (laboratorium) that literally means "the place where work is done." Note the root word there: labor.
The Laboratory Manager
Imagine the ear-shattering cacophony that would result from a musician trying to conduct their own orchestra while also trying to play in it. Now imagine how much worse it would be with no conductor at all.
You would soon make the unpleasant discovery of the line that divides "music" from "noise."
A lab needs a manager just as badly as an orchestra needs a conductor! Sure, musicians can play a piece of music on their own just as surely as laboratory technicians can perform their individual duties.
But coordinating all these efforts into a concerto, or a productive week of testing, requires that one special person.
Lab Manager Position Description & Job Requirements
The responsibility of lab management presents a unique and rewarding challenge to graduate students and early- to mid-career professionals alike.
A lab manager relies on their unique knowledge and skills to ensure that their technicians work well together in completing a given task. This includes hiring and training staff, devising schedules and organizing workflow, purchasing equipment and supplies, and seeing that their lab is kept safe and functional.
The particulars of these functions can vary drastically depending on the type of lab (or even the specifics of a given job). Thus, a lab manager may need to be able to perform maintenance on their machines, or they may need to be able to get involved in pricing or act as quality control for their techs. Lab managers are often tasked with developing the standard operating procedures by which their lab operates, and they may also need to act as a liaison between a scientist, research team, or other client and their own team of technicians.
It should be borne in mind that the scope of a lab manager's responsibilities can be as narrow as it can be wide. Someone with the "laboratory manager" title might run a lab with a handful techs focused on one specific operation, while another "laboratory manager" might oversee multiple operations in an entire building.
Companies typically prefer that lab manager candidates have at least a bachelor's degree; anything less would fail to lend a prospective candidate a satisfactory level of credibility. Furthermore, it is not uncommon that lab managers in the biotech and life sciences sectors have graduate degrees.
One thing that lab manager jobs of all sub-types emphasize is solid experience in a management position. Theory is important, but labs are results-oriented. Therefore, practice—in the form of a proven track record—still reigns supreme. Thus, the discipline in which a lab manager obtained their degree doesn't tend to be as important as the experience they've gained doing the actual work.
Now, there are broadly two progression paths to lab management. The first is that of the technician working their way up the ranks, taking on progressively more managerial responsibilities until they've acquired the knowledge and competence necessary to fully assume leadership themselves. This can be likened to a musician who, as they watch the conductor over time, gradually gains the skills of conducting and takes up a baton of their own.
The other path to becoming a lab manager is more like a composer taking an interest in conducting. In this case, a working scientist or recent PhD graduate might transition into a managerial role out of a desire to adopt a more operational role in the industry.
Each of the above approaches to lab management is highly advantageous in its own way
To manage a lab successfully, your experimentation, production, testing, etc. need to proceed smoothly from day to day and week to week. This doesn't happen on its own, and the smoothness of a lab's workflow depends on the lab manager's ability to plan well. This also applies to scheduling things like meetings your techs' shifts, vacations, etc.
There is a lot of emphasis on workflow, but what about the flow of people in the physical workspace? Streamlining where people are doing what they need to do is just as important as streamlining what they need to do and when.
An attitude of "if you want it done right, you've gotta do it yourself" has no place in the psyche of an effective lab manager. A good lab should run like clockwork, and that means every cog and spring needs to perform its own function. Assigning tasks is one of the lab manager's functions, not carrying them out!
In my experience, the best laboratory managers lead from the front. They set good examples for their techs by being willing to help them with their tasks (but only if need be), working diligently at their own tasks, and taking personal responsibility for meeting goals.
Communication is key in lab operations, so even technicians need to be competent communicators. But lab managers need to communicate with technicians, scientists, suppliers, clients, and executives and other professionals. Therefore, lab managers need to be excellent communicators.
A team of lab techs can become like a family. Unfortunately, not all families are without dysfunction; tensions develop among teammates just as they do among siblings. Since you need to keep your techs working together smoothly if you want any work to get done at all, the lab manager does occasionally need to step in and mediate when conflicts arise.
Everything, even science (unfortunately), runs on money. Keeping the lab's finances in order should thus be as high a priority as its efficiency and safety.
Adaptability & Problem Solving
You need to be able to think quickly about what to do and how to do it when the right machine breaks at the wrong time, for instance. As another example, the day-to-day operation of a laboratory can include a lot of monotonous tasks like writing out labels and tags for specimens or job trays.
This mindless busywork is a massive time sink, but it still has to get done. Competent lab managers can lighten this workload in various ways, but it takes excellent critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Lab Manager Salary & Job Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for lab managers was $137,940/year (or $66.32/hour) in 2020. Furthermore, the BLS projected a 5% growth rate for the occupation from 2019–2029.
Laboratory Management is Information Management
Even small labs running on a handful of staff can have tens of thousands of samples in their freezers, thousands of pieces of equipment, and closets brimming with supplies and consumables. All of this requires management, even with increasing automation.
Thus, in addition to leading their technicians to success every day, today's lab manager needs to be able to manage information. This requires them to spend a big chunk of their day on a computer rather than hands-on in the lab.
Fortunately, GenoFAB can help lab managers gracefully handle the information overflow that characterizes the modern laboratory. If you want to learn how GenoFAB can help you manage your laboratory information, schedule a demonstration.
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