This is the first in a new series for the Think Ahead blog — check back each Friday for a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story. They accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.
Job title and company: Senior Teaching Technician, The University of Sheffield
Salary range: Grade 6 £25,298 – £32,004
My first ‘proper’ job was a Departmental Technician post in the Virology Department at Reading University where I essentially worked as a Research Technician in Prof. Wendy Barclay’s Influenza lab. I enjoyed my work but had no idea how Science would come to shape my life. After a couple of years I moved to The Westlakes Research Institute, a scientific consultancy, to experience ‘Industry’ (and Cumbria) and work as a Research Technician. I wanted to become more involved with project planning and design, and to ‘get on’, so decided to do a PhD, and this brought me to Sheffield and Dr Lynda Partridge’s lab.
Doing my PhD was truly one of the joys of my life. After I’d finished I took a post doc position working on kinases, an area new to me. I intended to learn new techniques in a lab that had published interesting work whilst I pursued funding to continue the work from my PhD. I was candid about these facts in my interview. The next four years were in equal measures great and terrible. I felt stupid for not knowing the area, but loved project work and self-management. When my PI relocated his lab to Liverpool I realised that I was not portable, I had a life in Sheffield.
I was ready for a change and didn’t want to be an academic or fall into the eternal post doc trap. So I applied for and got a maternity cover post in Research Support at Sheffield Hallam which was followed by a Project Officer role in R&IS.
I learned a huge amount from these posts but ultimately missed the variety of tasks afforded by lab work and thinking about science. When I saw a Bioengineering Teaching Technician post advertised I dismissed it at first, but when I looked at it again realised it might be an opportunity for me.
There are two aspects to my current role, teaching and technical. As a teacher I lead and support UG and PG bioengineering labs, develop new and existing practical classes, write lab scripts and supporting documents, create learning resources, set assessment tasks and mark work. I work with a University Teacher and team of (excellent) teaching technicians to coordinate and deliver the Bioengineering practicals that run in The Diamond. I also manage the Bioengineering Tissue laboratory in The Diamond and am responsible for H&S and lots of lovely equipment. I supervise project work and run out reach and open day activities.
Changes in the HE sector are forcing Universities to focus more on teaching and I think my role is fairly new. That said technicians have always carried out specialist roles, including in teaching, and ‘Technician’ can mean so many different things even within one department. My role overlaps with the University Teacher role, albeit with less of the teaching admin and responsibility for learning outcomes, and with that of a Lab Manger.
The main function of my role is to ensure that high quality laboratory practical classes run that are safe and meet the learning objectives of the students that attend them.
I work in The Diamond, a building that polarises opinion. What ever you think of it, it is a fantastic building to work in and the labs are world class, check out a 3D rendering of them here. My colleagues are great and the management structure fairly flat, especially given that we work in a University.
The University of Sheffield is an excellent employer when it comes to policies on workplace diversity and inclusion. There are still more white males than any other group but I do feel my employer is aware of its responsibility as an employer and is working to address imbalances.
On a day to day basis I mostly interact with faculty of engineering staff and students. At the moment I am developing MSc level practical classes and planning for the coming semester, as well as doing management tasks including work planning and preparation for recruitment.
The pros of this job are that it is 9-5 and the department are keen to enforce this, although it is still flexible. I always found the flexibility of academia an illusion since I was always working! I do not worry about looking for new jobs and there are lots of things going on that are interesting and for personal development. My colleagues are great and we work as a team. The cons are that there is not always enough time to develop interesting new experiments and Technical progression on paper is not straightforward. Also, although teaching is rewarding it is also mentally and physically tiring so term time is hectic and teaching commitments are not flexible.
Transferring from academia was very hard! I found the difference in culture and slower pace hard to adapt to and missed the intellectual challenge in my initial roles. This was probably not helped by remaining in the University environment. I was also frustrated because my postdoc project had been fraught with technical problems and the publication that I was working towards was not complete. It still bothers me that much of my hard work remains in the dark.
If you want to apply for a Teaching Technician post I’d suggest you get as much teaching experience as possible and take responsibility for lab management tasks. Make sure you have written a Risk Assessment and CoSHH form and know why you are legally required to do this.
My generic advice would be not to worry too much if you can help it, after all it is only work. There are many other fulfilling careers although you might have to fight to find them, but you will, but they might not be where you expect and it will take time. Talk to people who do the job you are interested in and look for gaps in your cv relevant these roles.
Where can researchers look for jobs like yours? University web sites and sites that advertise university jobs such as http://www.jobs.ac.uk
What professional/accrediting bodies, or qualifications are relevant to where you work?
- The Institute of Science and Technology
- a PhD (not essential) or an educational qualification relevant to HE
Michael is a mentor on v i s t a mentoring so University of Sheffield researchers can connect with him there.