Research Technicians – the silent partners?

Maybe a few decades ago that was the case. Has it changed?

Written by Bill Luckhurst, Technical Services Manager, Physics Research Facility

Over my long career as a research technician in Kings, I have gradually seen a blurring of the dividing lines between the differing roles in Research. The distinct boundaries tended to discourage mutual respect and collaboration between the different roles; however, these boundaries have been naturally eroded by wholesale changes in the way that research is conducted.  We all know how the changes have affected us: collectively we are far more collaborative and our role is more inclusive though I believe we do more with less, have fewer support staff and work within a highly competitive environment. The global reach of research at Kings has naturally attracted a diverse and talented range of staff who over a period of time have contributed significantly to the highly collaborative environment we all now work in.

The above changes have helped my career as a research technician but I too have helped myself. I am not one to be silent; I’m a person who wants to be part of a team, valued and respected. I have found a variety of ways over many years to get myself heard, the consequences of which have been my ability to move around and work with diverse research groups within Physics throughout many decades and through periods of change.  How did I do this?

Research technicians possess many skills, can multitask, and are fast learners; we may just not be aware of it or be prepared to demonstrate it. Self-belief might not be evident, a result of defaulting into the silent partner, undervalued mode.

I was always looking to spread myself about the various research groups, whether existing groups who saw their technical support dwindling, or new arrivals keen to get their research started. What could I offer? Technical skills, enthusiasm and continuity. If what I was offering did not match expectations I would be sent on courses; Electron Microscopy and Atomic Force Microscopy spring to mind. I would look at the arrival of new instruments large or small as an opportunity not to be missed; I would become involved with the installation and user training, skills that are essential and can be passed on.

I have seen the ability of many technicians to adapt to new situations. We have existing skill sets and core work that is the bread and butter of our research groups but I believe research technicians can be willing participants in taking on new responsibilities in a variety of fields. We may have qualifications that we feel define exactly where we should be placed within a Faculty or research group, our comfort zone. We can also step outside the zone because as Research technicians we can adapt to new situations and experiences as I have done. I have scared myself witless on a few occasions as I thought I had taken on too much additional responsibility.

I also looked beyond my own Faculty and department. What can I offer others? I have found that networking has helped here. Research technicians can often be the first point of contact from other departments’ research groups. Here’s a chance to offer advice or skills you have or to recommend another go-to person. Raise your profile at every opportunity, which could be by gently pressing for co-authorship of papers where you have had a significant impact on the outcomes, or by looking to have acknowledgement on papers where technical input has been essential to the complete package. Why should we be left out if we have contributed to successful publications? Although, to be fair, more recently over the last decade or so I have seen far more inclusiveness in the authorship and acknowledgements in papers.

Over many years I have used line managers and Heads of Department (HODs) to good effect. Push your line manager to place you in another department or Faculty research group for a two-week period during the summer or quiet period, maybe just to shadow. Try suggesting a research technician swap for a week or so: it could be a completely different experience outside your comfort zone that helps with your work portfolio and networking. Touch base with your HOD – remind him or her that you are there. I have the impression that HODs just don’t expect research technicians to make an appointment for a chat, an update on department research trends or the arrival of new researchers or groups, or a chance to offer your services.

I have found that very little just falls into your lap. By and large I have had to go and find the extras that have allowed career progression – the bits that get added onto the end of your PDRs, that add value, build career progression  and make you indispensable.

Ask your line manager or HOD if you could have a go at shadow short listing candidates for new technical appointments or maybe having an input into a JD for a research technical post. Why not, if you believe you have something to offer? If new labs are in the pipeline ask if you can participate in design meetings; if you have worked for some time in Research labs you know the faults and things which could be done better. You can be surprised what can be overlooked on a design brief!

To summarise, the only way to avoid being the silent partner is by using your voice – not just what you say, but what you do and contribute to the successful outcomes of research groups.