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Post-Bachelor's ChemE: research assistant vs. lab technician vs. lab manager


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Hello GradCafe,

I want to pursue a PhD program but with a slight focus shift (materials science, or chemical engineering on the more materials side). Hence, I want to join a research lab in that field, either paid or volunteer, to get some good relevant experience and a recommendation letter before applying to grad school. It doesn't really matter to me so much what I'm actually doing (running samples, helping PI/postdoc/grad student) as long as I'm learning about techniques and the technology and being totally immersed in the topic. 

Before I do that,  I wanted to clarify some terminology. Do the terms 'research assistant', 'lab technician', 'lab manager' mean different duties and responsibilities? What does each entail?

Or, is distinguishing between the titles kind of meaningless, because they are all kind of the same thing?

*This is my first post here on Gradcafe...not sure which sub-forum to best put this.


Edited by pitapie
put in a disclaimer
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In my limited experience (~1 year) in the bench sciences, I do get the sense that they mean different things but the meaning can vary from place to place because each place may define these official staff ranks/positions differently.

I think research assistant and lab technician are more interchangeable, however, in the lab I was part of, the research assistants were researchers primarily. So they are usually grad students or people with PhDs, but they could include post-Baccs like you. Their main role is to conduct research. The lab technicians in my group were not academics: they were hired to run the equipment and prepare the experiments. There was only one lab manager and it was someone with a Masters degree. They were responsible for the administrative work of running the group, supervising undergrad students (like me at that time) and conducting a little bit of research. However, research was only a small fraction of their time.

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Thought of another question so adding on:


Has anyone had experience with being successful in volunteering in a lab as an alumnus? (especially more than a year out post-bachelor - It's annoying that most internships have a "no more than 12 months past graduation" qualification.) I'm worried I will run into issues with the PI thinking it will be a logistical hassle to deal with a non-registered student, etc.

I'm still looking at funded positions, but to be honest, outside of the bio sciences they are few and often not related to what I want to do. I'm thinking of choosing the volunteer option if I can be more selective with the labs and have an easier time getting my foot in the door while money isn't an issue for me at the moment.


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