How to be a Good Technician
For many field biologists, the start of a new year means that it’s time to get serious about summer field season preparation. There are supplies to order, permits to submit, and, almost certainly, technicians to hire. In fact, I have probably seen close to 50 advertisements for summer technician jobs cross my email this week. Tis’ the season.
If you are currently an undergraduate student, have recently graduated, or might be thinking about making a career change, these seasonal technician jobs are exactly what you should be looking for. They generally only span the summer, so they won’t interfere with classes. And, if you hate the work, you won’t be forced to do it longer than three months. In short, it’s a low-risk way for you to test the waters on a possible career path and gain experience that will move you up in the applicant pool for future jobs, all while getting paid.
But, don’t let the temporary status of the job fool you. Many (most?) biologists got their first “break” in the field by excelling as a technician. While your contract might end in August, there are often opportunities for excellent technicians to continue working part-time after the semester starts, get invited to join other crews, or potentially even have their name on resulting publications. And, great technicians get great recommendation letters for awards, scholarships, jobs, and graduate school. I even know several people who were directly offered graduate positions after working as a technician for their advisor.
So, what do I mean when I say “great” technician? It varies from job to job, and person to person, but I’ve tried to come up with a list of the top 10 things you can to impress your boss as a technician.
1. Be on time. And, by ‘on time’, I really mean at least 10 minutes early. This is especially true if you are doing field work, which requires a lot of packing, hauling, and planning. Supervisors try to prepare all of that in advance, but only rarely does everything go as planned. So, make a habit of showing up early and offering to help. Ten minutes of unpaid time before the start of the day can go a long way. And, it goes without saying, don’t make a habit of being late.
2. Ask questions. If you’re uncertain about what you should be doing, ask. If you want to make sure a number is right, ask. I would much rather answer the same question 50 times and know you are collecting the data correctly than months later find out it was all done wrong (and trust me, someone always finds out eventually). Likewise, if you want to know more about the research project or why the data are being collected, ask. No question is stupid. Personally, I think one of the most impressive things a volunteer or technician can do is ask questions about why I am doing my research. It tells me they are engaged in the science behind the effort, which generally means they are more invested in collecting good data and are interested in the project beyond just the paycheck.
3. Read my mind. Seriously. I know I just harped on asking questions, but eventually you should be able to think one step ahead of your supervisor and do things without being asked. If you go to five sites and the first thing you’re told to do at every site is to fill a bucket with water, then by the sixth site you should hop out of the car and immediately go get water. Take initiative, be proactive, and step-in where you’re needed. The best field crews are those where everyone knows what the goal is for the day and can fluidly, without much direction, work together to achieve those goals. It takes some time to settle into the routine, but, once you do, the work goes a lot faster and the day is much more relaxed and enjoyable.
4. Keep your head in the game. Technician work is often not the most fun or exciting work. It’s data entry, repetitive habitat measurements, video analysis, etc.- we’ve all been there, we can all sympathize with how endless the days feel. To make the work bearable, you’ll need to find something to keep yourself mentally engaged with the project. Maybe you can listen to music, talk with other crew members, volunteer for other projects, or just enjoy the fact you’re working outside. Do whatever it takes. People that can stick with the very monotonous jobs are often the people that I rank highest on my list because I know they are interested in the job beyond just the fun stuff.
5. Don’t be disrespectful. While true for all jobs, this tip is geared specifically towards technicians who will be working with a graduate student. The age gap may be small, and in some instances you, as the technician, may actually have more experience than the graduate student. But, don’t suggest you are more knowledgeable about a topic, try to dictate a schedule, or redesign their field study (this may seem ridiculous, but I’ve heard this happen on many occasions, particularly with Master’s students and their technicians). You can, and should, offer a suggestion about a better method or a way to save time. But, at the end of the day, this person is your boss and there’s probably a very good reason behind their study design and methods. Relatedly, if you’re working with a new graduate student, expect some degree of chaos. Leading a field crew and collecting data on your own is hard and stressful. They won’t always have a clear vision of what’s going on, but you can help them tremendously if you try to keep the project organized.
6. Be flexible. Sorry in advance. I probably don’t know what your hours are going to be, but it very likely will include night and weekends, and almost certainly over 40 hours a week. Sometimes you won’t get paid for all of those hours. I’ll cancel work within minutes notice because of rain, and sometimes ask you to live in sub-par housing. This entire profession is about being flexible and adaptable, and the more you are willing to roll with the punches the more you’ll impress your supervisor and be given more opportunities.
Talk about flexible. Last year my technicians were hired with the promise of doing laboratory genetics work. Needless to say they never touched a lab. Here, Nate tries to unlock the door after locking his keeps in the car just outside of cell phone service (we ended up breaking the window) and Laurel huddles under a bucket in a rainstorm. A shame they don't actually like fish, because I would rehire them in a heartbeat.
7. Hustle. Field work is all about packing 20 hours of work into a 10 hour day. That means there’s not much time for breaks (my crews are notorious for shocking with one hand and eating with the other), small talk, or correcting mistakes. Move purposefully between tasks. Be efficient. Be mindful. Stay focused. At the same time, make sure you aren’t sacrificing the quality of your work by trying to rush through it.
8. Volunteer to do the dirty work. Carry the heavy stuff, run back to the truck, stay late to prepare for tomorrow. Your supervisor can, and should, do some of this. But, it makes them infinitely happier if there is someone willing to carry the load.
9. Be willing to try new things. Yes, the average day will be too busy for your supervisor to show you a new skill. But, if your supervisor can tell you are committed and invested (because you have exceeded expectations in the areas above), they will find time. The whole point of a technician job is to gain experience, and you won’t do that by sitting on the sidelines. And, don’t worry about being good at everything when you first try it. Everyone starts somewhere, and the best place to learn is when someone is there to help teach you. By the time you start graduate school or take a full-time biologist job, your boss will assume you have certain skills that you can learn as a technician.
10. Have fun. There’s a chance you won’t fall in love with the work you do as a technician (but, you might!). And, you may be signing up for three months of bug bites, sunburns, sweat, and exhaustion. You need to find something to keep the days entertaining and fun. Luckily, you’ll probably be joining a crew of people who have done summer field work long enough that they’ve gone just a little bit crazy. Follow their lead, prepare to learn and work hard, and just have fun. In a few years you’ll look back with fond memories and great stories.
I tried to limit my list to things anyone, regardless of background and experience, can do to be a good technician. If you want bonus points, I would suggest you up your knowledge of species identification for the system you work on, know your way around a toolbox, be comfortable working in remote locations, and try to get a job as early in your undergraduate career as possible. Starting early means you have more opportunities to gain experience, and more chances for me to re-hire you on my crew.
If you think I’ve missed something, leave a comment below!
I was recently told that my blog is reaching several young scientists ranging anywhere from middle school students all the way to undergraduate. Welcome aboard! This post is for you and meant to both warn you about the life of a fisheries ecologist but also get you excited by how cool my job is.
The inspiration for this post was a trending hashtag on Twitter last week. When I saw #WhenIWas12IThought I took a moment to think back to my middle school self. I was a B student, hated science, and thought for sure I would become a medical doctor. While I looked forward to lazy Sundays fishing with my grandfather, I thought fish were gross and certainly not something you would (or should) ever devote a career to studying.
And here I am today, devoting my entire life to studying fish.
What changed? Honestly, a series of random events. I wanted to take an Advanced Placement class senior year of high school and Environmental Science seemed like the easiest option. I didn’t realize it until later, but that was the first class I took that I actually enjoyed. As a freshman in college I was randomly placed into another environmental studies class that focused on streams. Having now spent nearly 20 years in school, I can faithfully say that class was the hardest I will ever take and made me question weekly if I was smart enough for college. At the same time, I loved everything about it including long days in the cold rain collecting data and even longer nights in the library trying to write research papers for a professor with exceedingly high expectations. I then needed a summer job, and that same professor was willing to pay me to research trout behavior. I call this my “Monopoly moment.” From there I passed go, collected $200 (not really that far from the truth...fish research pays very little), and have been running laps around the game board ever sense (and even managed to stay out of jail).
The moral of my story is that career paths don’t need to be straight and paved. That’s probably not new advice. And, there are a lot of articles giving more great pointers about how to get a job in the field after you graduate college- volunteer at various organizations, do undergraduate research, and network with professionals in the field, etc. While I could reiterate all of those points, they won’t help you decide whether fisheries science is actually a good fit for you. For that, I have a few points of advice:
Another way to develop communication skills is by presenting an oral or poster presentation at a conference. You can usually get conferences paid for by your advisor, so these are actually like free vacations. Here I am standing at my poster at the American Fisheries Society meeting in Portland Oregon.
So, bottom line, the old adage has a lot of truth- if you pick a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.