By - September 19, 2023
Deciding upon a career path is not easy. There are many professional options and practical considerations facing young people today. To the detriment of the field of pathology, dwindling numbers of students are choosing a career in the laboratory.
Laboratories are also losing their seasoned workers with bench experience in too-large numbers. Burnout, lack of visibility, entry-level wages that aren’t commensurate with education, and the erroneous perception that bench-level laboratory work is a dead-end job with no attached career growth, all play a strong role in this exodus.
As any overworked laboratory professional will tell you, these trends must reverse themselves for the good of patients and the healthcare system. Letting students and young professionals know about career advancement options in the field may help turn the tide.
Robert Sautter, PhD, HCLD/CC (ABB), MS, MT(ASCP)SM and Diane Halstead, PhD, MS, M(ASCP), D(ABMM), FAAM, FCPP spent time on the bench early on in their careers. Years later, while collaborating on a paper, they discovered that many of their colleagues started out the same way. The two became interested in this little-talked-about observation and its potential implications for revitalizing recruitment.
To explore the possibilities, they disseminated an initial, brief survey of doctoral-level clinical microbiologists. A significant percentage of those surveyed “worked the bench” as students, or early on in their careers. Based on this finding, Drs. Sautter and Halstead designed an expanded, national survey for dissemination. The results were eye-opening. “We thought the two of us were anomalies, but our survey proved otherwise,” says Dr. Sautter.
Along with support from retired laboratory director, Susan Maynard, RPH, MS, PhD, FAACC, Drs. Sautter and Halstead recruited and sent surveys to 815 board-certified microbiologists and chemists. Of the 243 respondents, 41.3% were MLS certified, and 47.1% had worked the bench at some point in their careers. Of those, 51.99% became laboratory directors, and 63.5% became technical directors.
Their study, “The Importance of Medical Laboratory Scientists and the Number of Doctoral Scientists that Began Their Career by Working on the Front Lines of Laboratory Medicine,” published in December 2022 in Laboratory Medicine, highlighted these results. This report clearly dispels the myth that bench-working jobs lack career ladders or the potential for greater remuneration. Viable opportunities for upward growth and financial advancement do exist and can be accessed by bench techs.
Laboratory bench burnout is a real phenomenon that affects a significant percentage of workers. Keeping seasoned workers in the laboratory has significant benefits that support productivity, day-to-day operations, and high-quality patient care. But this may not always be easy to do. “The people who work on the bench are the most important people in the lab. If you have good MLSs and MLTs, you need to listen to them. You should also be a mentor for them so they see what they can aspire to. They are doing the job that’s saving patient lives,” says Dr. Sautter.
Bench tech experience provides a base for many meaningful career paths, both in and out of the laboratory. For that reason, mentorship within the lab is important. Dr. Halstead feels that one of the main drivers for doing laboratory work is the desire to help others. Altruism doesn’t supersede the need to make a viable living or to have time for other pursuits, such as a family life, however.
Laboratory directors and other professionals who have acquired bench tech experience are in the unique position of demonstrating upward professional mobility to workers who feel that leaving the laboratory is their only option for better pay and an enhanced quality of life. “Managers and directors should communicate with their staff about their career ladder options. They should ask if people want to stay on the bench or move up. Luckily, I had a director who encouraged me to go on for a master’s degree, and that made all the difference,” says Dr. Halstead.
Laboratory professionals are on the front lines of new discoveries, every day. They’re also trained to utilize the latest tools and technologies. “I enjoyed my time on the bench because I was always learning. Every day was a new day. I felt like a medical detective, sleuthing out the absence or presence of disease. Bench techs are also in a position to spot and help stop disease trends in populations, a lofty responsibility,” says Dr. Halstead.
Experienced bench techs who go on to leadership roles in the laboratory bring years of analytical sleuthing and problem-solving skills with them. They also understand the grueling nature of bench tech work. This enables them to better support their staff and colleagues to avoid burnout, and to stay motivated.
Successful doctoral scientists are required to analyze data, solve problems, and think through potential solutions that may benefit their institution and patients alike. Having experience on the bench supports these goals with light-on-your-feet critical thinking skills and hands-on knowledge, as well as practical know-how.
Mentorship, while a key piece, is not enough to end the current staffing shortage plaguing the field. Providing incentives that make becoming an MLS attractive is also necessary. These include more awareness of the field and in some instances, higher pay. “When I worked the bench, microbiology was in the basement. No one had a clue what we were doing,” says Dr. Halstead.
“Salaries for this population of workers are not indicative of the level of training and education required. To remedy this, sign-on bonuses would be helpful. So would student loan repayments and health insurance, especially for people over 26 who are no longer eligible to be covered through their parents,” she adds.
In addition to these real-life incentives, hiring practices should weigh bench experience highly when considering applicants for lab director jobs, and other types of jobs. The hands-on knowledge and experience garnered on the bench are unparalleled, valuable assets that can benefit laboratories, medical institutions, and the field of healthcare as a whole.
The work of bench techs can feel never-ending. Disease doesn’t stop, nor does the need for excellent patient care. Bringing awareness and visibility of career ladders within the laboratory to future generations of scientists may help fill empty benches, plus provide ongoing funnels of highly seasoned doctoral scientists for the future. It may also bring personal and professional fulfillment to those who answer the call.
Patient Advocate and Freelance Writer