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Lab Hierarchy

If asked, I will say I “work” in a lab, even though I’m just a student. I’m “studying”, but I do experiments and try to publish papers. It’s like an apprenticeship. You’re still a wee baby, but you’re also working at the same time. But, while I’m not actually employed by my lab to “work” in the lab, there are staff members who are actually employees.

Labs are a rather unique, dynamic environment with staff and students interacting with one another as part of a team. But there is a heirarchy, and it’s mostly based on qualifications.

Top Tier: “The Boss” (Lab Head)

The Lab Head is the official “Boss” of the lab. The lab is generally named after them, they are the face of the lab, and they’re usually the most qualified of them all. They have the most power and make the final decisions on everything that goes on in the lab. If you were applying for any position (whether it be empolyee or student), you would approach them (or their PA) first. Managing everyone’s individual projects in the lab while also making sure you’re performing more and more administrative/political roles (constantly applying for grants, teaching within the faculty, attending board meetings, etc) can be very draining if someone really enjoys the hands on, experimental side of research.

Generally speaking they will at the very least have obtained a Ph. D in their relevant field (so they’re Doctor “something”), and may even be Associate Professors or Professors (ie. further and further into the clouds).

Depending on their availabilities, they may even be student Supervisors (for instance, mine is my Lab Head), but sometimes it can be a primarily academic title, with a more available person acting in their stead.

Next level down: “Post-Docs” (Post-Doctoral Researchers)

Post-Doctoral researchers, or “Post-Docs” are in the employee category. They may be self-funded (they have a grant for themselves, so the lab doesn’t pay for their salary directly), or lab-funded (the lab’s research grant/s pay their salary). They have a Ph. D under their belt, so they are fully fledged, independent researchers of their own. They should be able to form their own ideas and map out the direction of their research, and only touch base with the Lab Head to inform them of their decisions and show results. Obviously the Lab Head can still have the final say on what Post-Docs get to do (especially if the lab is paying their salary, but also because lab consumables may still be lab funded), but they certainly have more independence than a student would. Generally they’ll have a particular research project they are working on, much like a Ph. D student would.

If the Lab Head is busy, the Post-Doc may be required to supervise students directly as they are always on the ground, so to speak. They may also cover more administrative tasks to keep the lab running in a Lab Manager type role, whether it be to order consumables, attend safety meetings, etc. Some Post-Docs may be aiming to become Lab Heads one day, and may be seeking collaborations or teaching positions to solidify their status within their research institution.

League of their own: “RAs and Lab Techs” (Research Assistants and Laboratory Technicians)

Technically they’re below Post-Docs, due to them not having completed a Ph. D (generally speaking), but may be more experienced. Also in the employee category, their primary role is to keep the lab running in every way possible. Whether it be administrative tasks, replenishing lab consumables (ordering items, making reagents to meet demand) or actually running experiments to help overall lab research, they are generally the Jack of all trades. They may have their fingers in everyone’s pies, in that they are helping with multiple different experimental projects within the lab. An experienced and efficient RA can be like the keystone in the arch that is the lab. When they leave (or go on holiday), everything collapses! Usually holds a wealth of knowledge about how to run a lab, they are certainly highly valued for their skillsets. They may also be asked to supervise students at the technical level, but predominantly lower tier students like undergraduate students, or Ph. D students just starting out in the lab.

Slave Student categories: Ph. D students

We now enter the student category. Ph. D students are postgraduate students who, especially if the degree is “by research”, will be trying to complete a Ph. D thesis by performing experiments to obtain data, and writing it all up in a scientific format. Essentially a Ph. D should be teaching you how to become an independent researcher (ie. Post-Doc), so you’ll slowly learn how to direct your project. You’ll still need to meet up with you supervisor/s to discuss your progress, and they will initially guide you along with your project. Over time (hopefully), you’ll learn to become more and more like Post-Docs, and end up going to your supervisor to tell them what you would like to do (and simply ask for the go ahead to do so). While you have your own project, later down the line you may end up supervising undergraduate students (usually pre-Honours), and collaborating with other researchers based on gained skilllsets, which, again, leads you to progress further toward a Post-Doc mentality.
A Ph. D student may be supported by a research scholarship (whether it be government, industry, or university funded), but could also be supported financially by the lab itself. For us in Australia, depending on the type of scholarship, our course fees may be subsidised or covered… which is why, for a lab, a student is beneficial- because it’s essentially free labour.

Next level down: Masters students

Also in the student category, these students are also postgraduate students who generally only have two years in their degree. They may be Masters by coursework students with a short stint in the lab, or Masters by research students who spend the majority of their degree doing a research project (with a little bit of coursework alongside). If I decided that I didn’t want to stay on to do a full Doctoral degree, I could convert it into a Masters degree to finish earlier. Admittedly the qualification will be lower, but if something happened and I just went- I can’t do this anymore, I could techically convert degrees. The opposite holds true if someone decides they’d rather do a Ph. D, provided they are already qualified to start the degree (e.g. has completed Honours or a previous Masters degree).

Peasant level: Honours students (which I think is unique to Australia)

Of the permanent members of the lab, this is the lowest tier (sorry Honours students). You’re (generally) fresh out of your Bachelors degree, but have not had much experience being in a laboratory setting. Being a 9 month degree and generally with less experience than the rest of the lab, everyone ends up treating you like the baby of the lab. But, if you enjoy your time, you could apply for Masters or a Ph. D. For a lot of students, this is the first time working full time in an actual work place, so the step from simple undergrad student can be quite big. Those that used to complain about three hour weekly pracs during their Bachelors degree are in for a nasty surprise when they end up working 10-12 hour days with no weekends.

… and trailing in at the bottom: undergraduate/high school students

Whether it be work experience, a research subject, an internship, or an award, you can get temporary students popping in who are looking to gain an insight into what life in the lab may be like. It could be a day, week, month/s, but they’ll generally be under constant supervision while they’re inside the lab.


Personally, I like labs where this hierarchy exists but isn’t strictly adhered to. Scheduled meetings should be respected, and if someone asks me to do something, I will do my best to do it (unless it’s to fill their tip boxes or such like- that’s just too much). There are always professional, respectful interactions which should always exist in the workplace. But, I like labs where the Lab Head takes us out for drinks and banters with us (even better if they buy us drinks). Labs where Post-Docs and students can joke and laugh with each other without feeling that status difference. It’s definitely a cultural thing, but I do like the relatively relaxed nature of the lab I’m in. It does depend entirely on the Lab and its people, though, and your own personal preferences.

Categories: General Lab

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A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬

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