Michael shares below his path to becoming a lab scientist which is a career that involves troubleshooting and diagnosing issues that arise at his biotech company. He shares details and examples of how he spends his time and gives insights on how his schedule may differ from other similar roles in the industry. This is a field that requires someone to really enjoy spending their time in a lab setting and Michael stresses that anyone interested in such a job should ensure they enjoy that type of setting and autonomy.
Date of Interview: 09/02/2021
Your job title:
A biotechnology company, more specifically in oncology.
Industry you work in
City you work in
[Compensation data was not provided by the interviewee. The below compensation information was retrieved from Glassdoor.com data. These averages come from compensation data that is self-reported by employees of various companies.]
$105,695 is the average base salary for an Application Scientist in the United States.
Years at your current job
I’ve been here a little over four years.
Years working in your field, including time at previous employers
I started working in 2012, so almost a decade of laboratory experience, though the last four years have been more specifically biotechnology.
Where did you work before your current job?
Before this, I only ever worked for small clinical laboratories, both of which were in the assisted reproductive technologies.
Did you go to college or pursue any other secondary education? If yes, was it required for your job?
What was your college major?
I got a Bachelor’s of Science in Genetic Biology from Purdue University and a Master’s of Science, lasting one year, in Biomedical Research in Barcelona, Spain.
Was graduate school required for your job?
It wasn’t required, but it helped me to get a foot in the door.
Do you have any other professional licenses or certifications?
I do not, as none are required in Illinois. But, a lot of people, in similar roles in other states, do.
Do you work in your field of study?
Yes, it’s about as closely aligned as one could be without working in academia.
What is the minimum required schooling or training for your job?
Do you feel that your school’s reputation had a significant impact on getting a job in your field?
Job Demand & Stability
How long did it take to land your first job in your field after graduating?
Do you believe the same would apply for new graduates?
It may be skewed by where I work, but I believe it’s [the general demand in the market] the same. My current employer is looking for people to hire all the time. Chicago, where my company is located, is not in the hub.
Where is the hub for these biotech jobs?
Probably 90% of jobs would be located in Boston, Massachusetts, the bay area in California, the Los Angeles area in California, or the Washington, D.C./Maryland area.
Did you have any internships?
No, I didn’t, but I worked in the same lab that I did undergraduate research in. I earned four credit hours there, during semesters, and earned an income there when school was not in session.
If you lost your job tomorrow, would it be difficult to get a similar or better job?
I don’t think I would be unemployed for more than a few months.
Advice For Success
What advice would you provide to someone interested in getting a job as a lab scientist?
If you really want to work in technology or a hard science career, make sure that you really like spending time in the lab and being by yourself. Sometimes it’s late nights or weekends. If that doesn’t bother you, it’s a great career. It’s so open-ended and you get a lot of freedom sometimes.
Nature of Job and Schedule
Describe what you do
I’m responsible for troubleshooting and diagnosing things that pop up in our laboratory. We have a number of workflows/samples that go through different processes and anything out of the ordinary that might come along that the tech team is not sure how to deal with, or if a machine isn’t working – anything like that – I’m one of the people that is called upon to try to figure out what’s going on and how to fix it.
My specialty is called next generation sequencing, using DNA from tissue samples that patients submit. We do a number of different tests to try to show a complete picture of the tissue submitted to determine if it’s healthy or unhealthy. The various tests results are depicted on machines that read and filter out high quality data and low quality data, which are most relevant to determining which is specific to the test being run. There are a number of statistical analyses that go on. Then what is specifically needed to make reports is sent to oncologists. The oncologists can then make decisions on which therapies or drugs or surgeries are appropriate for the patients. This is done comparing data of thousands of patients across the country.
Describe your daily and weekly schedule
I am expected to work Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. I think this is fairly atypical for this position at other organizations, where there are ebbs and flows, there are on-calls. If your boss calls and says there’s a problem, you have to go in and fix the problem, it could be midnight.
What parts of your job are repetitive and which parts have new challenges?
A bunch of the work consists of asking questions. A lot of the job is checking the boxes to go through all the tests for particular samples. Sometimes things happen in larger batches of five or ten samples. Weird stuff can happen. Problems may occur with the machines. Recently we were using magnetic feeds and they started shooting out of the equipment. We didn’t have an easy explanation for that. We had to run some tests to try to recreate the problems, then try to fix them, as a team. Other times there are on-off occurrences.
Describe the setting you work in most.
I spend 90% of my time at my desk. I do enjoy the 10% of the time that I get to step back into the lab, run experiments, and trouble-shoot a few things. During the pandemic, I’ve done a mix. I can access 99% of the data I need remotely. I can work from home most of the time, but I do tend to go into the office about three days a week, mostly as a sign of moral support to the clinicals who have to be there to do the work.
Describe the nature and frequency of working with other people while doing your job
It’s about 50/50. I can check most of the boxes by myself, but if new issues arise or if a group wants to take new responsibilities, that takes a lot of coordination and communication. We would be very specific about goals for our team. And there are times when we work collaboratively. If we are worried about the performance of a robot, or want to replace one with another, we work side-by-side to determine the best mission for a job. Everybody has their role to play in it.
Does your job require travel?
No, not now. We have a few laboratories across the country, but we’ve really just been handling things going on in our Chicago lab.
What is the most enjoyable or rewarding part of your job?
It is fun to dive into a new problem, take it apart piece by piece. I tend to work really methodically like that. It’s nice to be able to whittle away at something until you’re very confident that you have the solution.
What is the most challenging or stressful part of your job?
We live in the element of the unknown, so we never know when something is going to break. Something that we thought was a small deal could be a really big deal. We have to be able to be flexible. So, it’s a little bit stressful, not knowing exactly the decisions which are going to be made. Coming from a strict science background, I really like digging in and getting to the root of a problem. But sometimes decisions are made that we are not really given the time to do that for every problem that comes up. We have to be understanding of the business and its requirements.
Does your job provide work/life balance?
Yes. About four years ago, I was in the lab consistently working seventy plus hours a week. It was not atypical for people who were my peers as we started off the lab. The balance has gotten better since. I’ve moved to a couple of different roles since then. I definitely feel lucky to have the balance that I do right now.
How much time off do you take from work?
On average, it’s probably about four weeks a year.
Any interesting/enjoyable perks of your job?
I’m exposed to a lot of new technology. I can learn a lot of new things.
Why did you pick your job?
It was a process of elimination when I picked my field of study. I knew I wanted to work in human biology because it gets more immediate results for human health. I was fortunate to get an opportunity to work in undergraduate research. You never know if you want to spend hours and hours in a lab, unless you spend hours and hours in a lab. I had a really good experience and it all fell into place.
What would you do if you had to change careers?
I might be a technical writer.