After the last couple of years, no one can be in any doubt about the life-changing work that laboratory scientists do – from conducting millions of Covid-19 tests to developing the life-saving vaccines that have allowed a return to a more normal life.
So it’s no surprise that the pandemic has led to a boom in lab scientist recruitment, making it one of LinkedIn’s jobs on the rise for 2022. But it’s not just about health and biotechnology: lab scientists with expertise in chemistry and physics are also in demand in everything from the cosmetics industry to government departments.
What is the job like?
Depending on the type of laboratory, you could be examining food samples for an environmental health department, carrying out forensic tests to solve a crime or analysing blood samples to help doctors make the right diagnosis.
Either way, you’ll be working with technical equipment carefully and precisely, preparing specimens, analysing results and following strict safety procedures.
Avril Wayte, who runs an NHS clinical biochemistry lab, says: “I love the detective work of undertaking tests to make a diagnosis.” Hannah, who works in a hospital’s virology lab, told the BBC the work is “fast-paced and intense”.
As well as scientific and mathematical skills, among the key qualities to succeed are good communication and an inquiring mind, says Avril, while Hannah stresses the need for good time management as some tests can take up to five hours to complete.
What qualifications do you need?
Some employers will expect a foundation degree or a bachelor’s degree in a scientific subject even for an entry level role such as lab technician, the National Careers Service says, although you can also get a start through an advanced apprenticeship.
The National Careers Service adds that biomedical scientists need a degree that’s accredited by the Institute of Biomedical Science and the Health and Care Professions Council. There’s also a requirement to do work experience in an accredited lab to register with the HCPC.
If you’d like to be a clinical scientist in the NHS – understanding genetic illnesses, carrying out tests on blood and tissue samples, or working on solutions to infertility – you can apply for the NHS Scientist Training Programme after your degree.
You can also do a degree-level apprenticeship in laboratory science with big-name companies such as AstraZeneca, makers of the Oxford vaccine for Covid-19.
What is the career path like?
Starting your career as a laboratory scientist could mean heading deeper into original research, climbing up into senior management or developing more commercial applications of science in product development, the National Careers Service suggests.
You could take up teaching in schools, colleges or university, move into science communication as a journalist or media manager, or work freelance as a scientific consultant.
Forensic scientists could also work as a reporting scientist, acting as an expert witness in court.
How much can you get paid?
With such a wide range of roles, there’s a similarly wide range of salaries. Lab technicians might start on about £17,000 a year, rising to £30,000 a year with experience.
Biomedical scientists starting their careers can expect to earn just over £25,000 a year, while salaries of more than £45,000 a year are available to experienced staff. But you may have to work evenings, weekends and holidays on shifts as lab results can’t always wait.
Entry level roles in forensic science offer about £18,000 a year and increase to £45,000 a year – but as the TV shows make clear, you may have to be on call at short notice.