Guest post: a career in departmental technical support

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from my Calgary colleague and friend Louise Hahn. Cheers for this Louise!

This post is the latest in our continuing series on non-academic and non-faculty careers for ecologists. See this post and the comments over there for links to previous posts in the series.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, what sort of ecology did you do in grad school, and what do you do now?

I’m Louise Hahn. I really love biology. All kinds of biology. Even as a kid, I knew I wanted to be some kind of biologist when I grew up, but it took me a while to realize that Ecology was the kind of biologist I wanted to be. My undergraduate degree was a general biology degree which I loved, as it introduced me to a very broad range of topics with no requirement for specialization. I became very interested in genetics, evolution and developmental biology and so my first jobs were as lab technicians in research labs that studied those topics.  It wasn’t until I started graduate school studying marine intertidal community ecology and food web dynamics, that I knew I had found my biological true love. I love how ecology encompasses aspects from all of biology’s subdisciplines. It makes me feel like I could keep learning about the natural world forever.

After graduate school, I was lucky enough to work for Jeremy as his lab technician at the University of Calgary, and then end up in my dream job, as technical support staff for the Ecology Undergraduate Program at the University of Calgary.

How did you get into your current career?

Well certainly having the academic background was helpful, but I also spent a lot of time volunteering with organizations and institutions that helped me develop skills and understanding that my degrees did not. I volunteered at museums, with research groups and in research labs. It meant it took a little longer to finish my degrees, but it was worth it (I got to put suction cup tags on killer whales!). Perhaps what got my foot in the door for academic institution based jobs, was the work-study program I participated in during my undergraduate. For two years I worked ten hours per week helping the undergrad lab technicians set up labs, make reagents, culture flies etc. This led to a part-time technician job after I graduated with my BSc. This led to another lab technician position, which eventually led to graduate school.

Tell us about your current position and how you got it.

I have to admit, that luck has played a big role in where I have ended up. My husband was starting his PhD with Jeremy at the UofC, and lucky for me, Jeremy needed a lab technician. I had just finished my MSc studying community ecology and had been working in my supervisor’s lab managing his experiments on protist community interactions in microcosms…luckily one of the systems that Jeremy studies. I worked for Jeremy for about a year, when the Ecology Undergraduate Program Technician at the UofC retired and needed to be replaced. Jeremy immediately alerted me to the posting and again, lucky me, I got it.  It is always good to be prepared for these rare opportunities, but I wouldn’t have gotten this job if not for Jeremy looking out for me.

So for the last ten years, I have been the technical support staff for the Ecology Undergraduate Program at the UofC, and it is the best job ever. It affords me a very diverse range of experiences, and is always evolving and challenging. My regular tasks include lab development, setting up labs, student field trips, training TAs, organizing events, serving on departmental and faculty committees, and generally helping wherever needed. I very much enjoy being a support person; I gain a lot of satisfaction from helping undergrads and grads, faculty and other staff. Everyone needs some help now and then, and I know that first hand.

Did you get advice (wanted or unwanted) from others about your career path? If so, what sort of advice did you get, and how did it affect you?

Not really…but I do like to tell our students about non-faculty jobs in academia, where their science background is an asset or a requirement. I think science might be the best thing we humans have come up with and the more scientists, or people trained to think like scientists, we have embedded in a broader range of careers seems like a good thing.

Are there aspects to your career that were a surprise or a “culture shock”, or that have required an adjustment on your part?

Well, I don’t do any real research anymore, but I do get to help undergrads learn about the process of science, and carry out their own little experiments. I find this very satisfying. The process of learning to do science teaches our students many other beneficial skills such as: learning how to ask and answer their own questions, critical thinking, communication of ideas, and presenting unbiased arguments. And because they are learning these skills in the context of ecology, I hope that along the way, they learn to understand, love, and take care of the natural world just a little bit more.

I can’t say there has been much culture shock or adjustment in my experience, since I haven’t ever really left the university environment.

In what ways (if any) has your academic background helped you in your career?

Since my job is focussed mainly on helping train young scientists, my academic background is a critical part of my job every day. However there are other benefits that might not be immediately obvious. For instance, having experienced the challenges of undergraduate and graduate life myself, has made me very empathetic towards the students I work with, both undergrad and grad.  Undergraduate and grad school might be the one of the most challenging and important things a student does in their life and I always want to respect that. It motivates me to keep making advancements in the way we develop and deliver course material so that our students maximize the benefits from their hard work. I think I have a decent appreciation for the amount of work, responsibility and stress that comes with being a professor, which motivates me to be as helpful as I can.

Any regrets not pursuing a faculty career?

Not one :-). I know my kind of job plays a valuable role on the academic team I support.

Anything else you want to say to readers considering your career, or a non-faculty career path more generally?

I think my kind of job is a lot less stressful and allows for a better work-life balance than that of most professors.  However, my job still affords many of the same benefits: it is embedded in an environment that demands constant learning, is always challenging, and I encounter new experiences regularly. For instance I recently had the privilege of serving on a faculty level strategic planning committee and learned a ton of new things about how a university works, that I never imagined I would. There seems to be almost limitless opportunities for me, and I cannot imagine ever being bored. I would say that being non-faculty in the academic world is a fulfilling career a person can feel proud of. Thanks Jeremy for giving me the opportunity to talk about it. 🙂




2 thoughts on “Guest post: a career in departmental technical support

  1. Oh wow, I would love your job! How many positions like this exist? Any advice on key words / job titles to search for, or does “technical support staff” cover it?

    • I would say that these sorts of positions are a bit more rare than professorships (for instance I am 1 technician for the entire Ecology Undergraduate Program, which is taught/serviced by around 12 professors), which is yet another reason I know I am lucky to have this job at all. But I think any college or university that offers undergraduate labs in biology will have these types of staff.

      In terms of keywords to search: technical support staff, scientific assistant, laboratory technician, lab coordinator, are all terms I have seen to describe my type of job, depending on the institution.

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