The challenges of life as a lab manager

During my career in isotope ratio mass spectrometry, I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with lab managers in multiple labs and in a number of countries. I feel that their role, whilst highly valued by many scientists and researchers, doesn’t get much visibility, hence they are the subject of today’s blog.

I should point out that the inexact qualifier “lab manager” can encompass a variety of job titles requiring a variety of different skills, backgrounds and education, dependent on the lab, country and application. So, for clarity, when I refer to lab managers, I mean the people that lovingly maintain the isotope ratio instruments that are so critical to our understanding of the Earth and beyond.

Tidy lab, tidy mind…

With that point made, let’s explore what a lab manager really does. No surprises, it differs widely from lab to lab. I’ve known lab managers that spend their time maintaining the infrastructure that surrounds and support the instruments, yet leave the maintenance of the instruments themselves to others. In these situations it is possible the instruments are operated with service contracts in place, typically managed by the instrument vendor. Here at Isotopx we’re happy to maintain even very old instruments (we still look after some Sector 54 TIMS instruments from the 1990’s!) but equally some vendors prefer not to do this and pass on the maintenance to third parties.

Click the “+” button to read comments from a lab manager

Other lab managers I have known do take the responsibility of the operation and daily maintenance of the instruments as well. These people tend to become intimately familiar with the workings of the instruments, and become extremely employable by instrument vendors due to their unique skill set (more on this later).

What other tasks are involved? The list is long! I’ve documented just a few of them below.

A lab manager role is likely to involve some degree of sample preparation, or at the very least, the maintenance of the equipment and consumables used for sample preparation. This requires keen organisational skills. I know of one lab manager who has a sophisticated bottle labelling system, both by name, and by colour (to enable identification at a glance). Too much? Far from it! I think the type of personality that leads to this level of attention to detail (you will know if it is you…) can be very helpful managing a busy lab.

The role may also involve data handling, processing and storage. The value of the careful storage of geochemical data, including all of the parameters around that data, is being recognised more and more. A lab manager tasked with this is likely to need to learn multiple software packages and may even require some programming skills to ensure full data integration. But you’ll also have the satisfaction that you are helping enable future science.

Click the “+” button to read comments from another lab manager

The maintenance of the lab itself also requires a number of skills. You’re likely to need support from the institute that contains the lab – when there is a power outage you need to move fast! So developing a network of key people, particularly those that manage the site, is critical. You’re also likely to become handy with a spanner, as routine jobs (re-connecting the exhaust extraction, switching over a backing pump) are probably done quickest on your own.

Eureka! I have just invented the hybrid mass spectrometer – church organ

The last point highlights one of the most valuable skills to be a lab manager, that of people skills. Lab managers liaise with a huge range of people, from PhD students to professors, and from analytical instrument vendors to suppliers of chemicals and consumables. Each one may require a different technique to build their trust and get them on side. Just envisage a situation where the key mass spectrometer has decided to stop working. You don’t have a service contract, so where do you start? Perhaps call in a favour with an engineer at the mass spec supplier; maybe speak to another lab manager at a lab with similar instrumentation; or perhaps call the university technical team and see if they can help. In each case you’ll need powers of persuasion to make progress – people skills really are important.

Where do lab managers come from? In my limited experience they are often geochemists who already have a wealth of hands-on instrument experience and they see this is a tangential but equally rewarding alternative to pursuing a pure academic career. But I’m generalising here, and in fact each lab manager I have met has a slightly different background. What they have in common is a can-do attitude and an ethos of hard work.

How have I interacted with lab managers? I started my career in engineering, particularly in test and installation. During the installation phase, the lab manager was the key to my success. They were the solution provider to me, the “outsider” in a wide range of circumstances. Typical installation engineer questions such as “can you acquire a meter to measure the flow rate in this extraction line”, or perhaps “what are your typical daily temperature fluctuations in the lab” would always be directed to the lab manager. In my experience these requests were dealt with quickly and thoroughly, so I owe them a great debt.

Later in life when I moved to sales and marketing my relationship with lab managers would be more centred around what their analytical requirements were, and how well suited my particular instrument solution might be. The lab manager is commonly involved in the decision process for new instrumentation (as they should be). My experience here has been that the knowledge they bring to the table is different (and complementary) to that of the professor who submitted the grant proposal. The lab manager also has to answer the potentially awkward (yet vital) questions like; “will it fit in the lab?”; “will the floor loading be too high?” and “just how useable is the software day-to-day?”. So even in a sales role I find myself strongly reliant on the lab managers.

If you’re ever in the position to consider such a role, would taking the job limit your future career options? I don’t think so. My experience has been that lab managers maintain a close connection to the science, in fact some of them continue to publish articles and may even still attend academic conferences. At many of the UK labs I am familiar with, the lab manager is given respect and they have a seat at the table regarding major issues such as funding applications and choice of analytical tools for the lab.

Furthermore, the skill set that a lab manager acquires is highly valuable to the manufacturers of the analytical instruments, so an entire alternate career path can open up if you have lab management experience. There are several roles at your typical mass spectrometer vendor where a background in lab management would be very beneficial. One example is application development, a very hands-on role where you’d use the instruments to develop and refine methods to help customers make better measurements.

Another more “customer-facing” role would be giving customer demonstrations using the instruments. This is a very challenging role that requires exactly the skills that a lab manager develops. I’m sure Isotopx is not the only company that looks to recruit lab managers into this role! Taking this one step further, I’ve also seen lab managers move into sales and marketing roles with the instrument vendors. Their direct lab experiences and familiarity with the requirements of users is really useful, not to mention their prior role in academia engenders trust and respect with potential customers. As it happens, I’ve discussed the ins and outs of a move from academia to the commercial world in a separate blog that you can read here.

If you’ve got any thoughts, questions or comments about the challenging role of the lab manager, please let me know, I’d be keen to hear (

Steve Guilfoyle

Written by

Steve Guilfoyle

Steve is Sales and Marketing Manager at Isotopx. Most of his career he has worked in isotope ratio mass spectrometry, in engineering and application science as well as sales and marketing