Lab Manager Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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Learn about a lab manager's job description, salary, training and education requirements. Get straight talk about the pros and cons of a lab manager career.
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A Lab Manager Career: Pros and Cons

Laboratories of all kinds require managers to oversee the activities of lab personnel and guide research projects. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of becoming a lab manager.

Pros of a Lab Manager Career
High average annual salary (around $64,701 in 2015)***
Jobs available in a variety of settings (private corporations, academic institutions, hospitals)*
Can specialize in a particular scientific discipline (chemistry, medical science, engineering, etc.)**
Can help guide technological innovation and scientific developments*

Cons of a Lab Manager Career
Slower-than-average projected job growth (6% from 2012-2022 for lab managers in the natural science field)*
May require a graduate degree*
Usually requires experience and extensive subject-matter knowledge*
Can be stressful (strict deadlines, budget constraints, etc.)*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net OnLine, ***PayScale.com.

Career Info

Job Description

Lab managers direct and support the work of scientists, technicians, technologists and other lab personnel. Depending on the scientific discipline (chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, etc.) and type of employer (research and development firms, private corporations, universities, etc.), some lab managers serve mostly as administrators, while others may also engage in scientific work of their own. Equipment set up, calibration, maintenance and purchasing may fall under the lab manager's list of duties, as well as keeping track of inventory. Scientific work often requires keeping facilities sterile and handling dangerous chemicals, so lab managers make sure personnel comply with established safety policies, procedures and regulations.

Lab managers might decide the direction of laboratory research by reviewing results and making sure that accuracy and quality are high priorities. Their prior lab experience and technical knowledge allows them to provide direct support to lab activities and monitor projects from a scientific and administrative standpoint. They must also train staff to use lab equipment and apparatus, especially when new technologies become available. While some lab managers are top supervisors, others may report to a lab supervisor or to other executives.

Salary and Career Outlook Information

Although how much money you could make as a lab manager depends on which scientific field you pursue and where you are employed, PayScale.com reported that lab managers in general had a median salary around $64,701 and that most made between $40,000 and $98,000 as of July 2015. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the average salary for lab managers employed in the natural science management field was about $136,450 in 2014, with quite a bit of variation depending on industry and employer type (www.bls.gov). Architectural and engineering managers, who may also have lab management duties, earned a mean salary around $138,720 in 2014, according to the BLS.

Lab manager positions are often filled by scientists with several years of experience and proven leadership capabilities; the BLS explained that the prestige, high salary and decision-making power that comes with the position makes competition quite fierce for these jobs. Consolidation of management positions and outsourcing to research firms will likely contribute to slowed job growth for lab managers, with the BLS predicting only an 6% increase in natural science manager jobs from 2012 to 2022. Similarly, architectural and engineering managers are expected to experience 7% job growth for the same period.

Education and Career Requirements

Although education requirements for lab managers vary from one employer to the next, a bachelor's degree in a relevant scientific field is the most common minimum requirement. According to O*Net OnLine, a bachelor's degree was held by 48% of natural science managers, 56% of clinical research coordinators and 68% of architectural and engineering managers in 2011 (www.onetonline.org). Just under a quarter of natural science and engineering managers held master's degrees (23% and 24%, respectively) and 29% of natural science managers held doctoral degrees in 2011.

Business management skills are often important for lab managers, since they may be tasked with a variety of administrative duties, including preparing budgets, setting long-term research goals and presenting research findings to top executives (who may not have much scientific knowledge). As such, the BLS reported that some lab managers might find earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) helpful.

Useful Career Skills

Lab managers are both scientists and supervisors, so they need to have leadership and management skills as well as in-depth scientific knowledge. They may be in charge of multiple research projects simultaneously, so they must be able to coordinate personnel, meet deadlines and make decisions that will be financially responsible and scientifically advantageous. Whether they run into issues with data or need to find alternative funding sources, lab managers need to be able to guide a team and use problem-solving skills to keep the lab running smoothly. Other essential skills include:

  • Knowledge of computer software
  • Interpersonal and written communication skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to think critically and analytically
  • Ability to work independently and as part of a team

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers look for applicants who have 2-5 years of scientific and laboratory work experience, as well as the ability to manage personnel effectively. Depending on the type of lab and scientific specialty, professional certifications and licenses may also be a hiring preference or requirement. A search of available positions on university websites and CareerBuilder.com in May 2012 included the following postings:

  • A public university in California advertised for a civil engineering lab manager to perform equipment preparation, maintenance and inventory. This manager would also help instruct students and help faculty with planning. Candidates were expected to have a bachelor's degree in engineering or natural science, although a master's degree was preferred.
  • A clinical laboratory in Tennessee needed a laboratory supervisor to manage, train and oversee laboratory staff. Additional duties included enforcing safety compliance, monitoring specimen integrity and maintaining instruments. A 4-year degree and two years of professional experience were required.
  • A water treatment facility in New York wanted a laboratory manager to serve as a liaison between laboratory activities and other company departments. Goal-setting, budgeting and product development were listed as key responsibilities. Candidates were required to have either a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or the equivalent work experience.

How to Make Your Skills Stand out

If you want a lab manager position that also includes technical, hands-on scientific work, you may need to pursue an advanced degree in a specific scientific discipline. Some schools offer master's degrees geared toward managing a specific type of lab, such as biomedical or clinical labs; these programs focus on the specific business skills needed to manage lab personnel and prepare budgets. In addition to a bachelor's degree, admission requirements may also stipulate that candidates have a certain amount of prior laboratory experience.

Maintaining knowledge of scientific developments relevant to your field is also a crucial part of succeeding as a lab manager, as you may decide the direction of the lab's research efforts based on technological advances. Attending conferences and seminars, reading or publishing journal articles, obtaining professional certification or joining professional organizations may aid in keeping you up-to-date in developments in your discipline.

Alternate Careers

Medical or Clinical Lab Technician

If you want to work in a scientific laboratory but don't want the stress of management or supervisory duties, you could enter the profession as a lab technician. Technicians assist scientists of all disciplines with preparing instruments, carrying out experiments, analyzing chemical samples and a variety of other tasks. The broad range of scientific disciplines means that you could specialize in a field you are interested in, such as biology, chemistry, physics, medical science or many others. Medical and clinical lab technicians, for example, work in hospitals, diagnostic labs or other facilities to assist with the collection and analysis of tissue or fluid samples.

According to O*Net, 58% of medical and clinical lab technicians held an associate's degree in 2011, while 28% held a bachelor's degree. The BLS further noted that professional certification and state licensure might also be required for lab technician careers. BLS employment growth projections estimated a 15% increase in medical and clinical lab jobs between 2010 and 2020. On average, medical and clinical lab technicians earned around $39,000 per year, the BLS reported.

General or Operations Manager

If you want to use your scientific knowledge and management experience outside of the lab in an executive role, you could consider becoming a general or operations manager or a sustainability officer. The education required to enter an executive role varies depending on the industry, company size and level of responsibility; for some executive positions, a bachelor's or master's degree might be required, while other executives assume the role with substantial industry experience substituting for formal education.

While the BLS predicted fierce competition and job growth of only 5% for general and operations managers, the financial rewards of a top executive position can be quite impressive, especially for companies involved in science and technology. In 2011, the average general and operations manager earned around $114,000; meanwhile, those employed by management, scientific and technical consulting services had an average salary around $145,00 per year. General and operations managers for scientific research and development services, meanwhile, had an annual mean salary just over $162,000. The BLS further noted that geographic location, company size and other factors could also influence earnings potential.

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Brightwood College

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The George Washington University

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  • MSHS in Clinical and Translational Research
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Kaplan University

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  • Bachelor: Health Science
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Virginia College

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Keiser University

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  • Graduate Specialization - Healthcare Administration

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Johns Hopkins University

  • Master of Science in Regulatory Science

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