I previously wrote an article for BsB detailing my experience transitioning from lab-bench research into research administration roles after a particularly unhappy experience as a postdoc. About a year into my second research admin role some restructuring occurred and I decided to try to move back into the lab. I am now working again as a lab based researcher and I want to share my experiences in order to show that moving back into research is possible and advice on how to make the leap back in.

1. Consider Part-time

When I first realised I wanted to make the move back to research I expressed interest in returning to the lab on a part-time basis and contributing to ongoing research projects. I felt this was a good way to ease myself back into lab-bench based research without becoming overwhelmed too quickly.

2. Shadow a Scientist

I began shadowing a number of scientists in our institute to become familiar with some of the relevant techniques regularly used in the institute. This was very helpful and exposed me to some laboratory techniques I was not experienced in as well as reacquainting myself with more familiar ones. I think lab work is like riding a bike even if you haven’t ridden one in a few years you never really forgot how to do it although you may be a bit wobbly at first!

3. Find a Mentor

In addition to this I was very lucky to receive excellent mentorship from one of the institute directors who encouraged me to return to research. Mentors could be your new boss or a previous one you are still in contact with. A good mentor will push you and encourage you when you need to be pushed.

4. Make Use of Your Previous Experience

Returning to research can be daunting, doubly so if you decide to try a different field to the one you were in previously. I would recommend trying to move into a lab where your past knowledge and experience will help; perhaps they use the same techniques or perhaps the subject matter is the same. For example my PhD was on the role of a cytokine in inflammatory arthritis. I wrote a number of reviews and grants on the topic of this cytokine but in the context of different diseases. Applying your previous body of knowledge to a different research question can really help familiarise oneself with the new area.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Whether you’re confused on some of the theory or you don’t know a particular technique just ask one of your colleagues. You may feel that after time away from the bench you need to prove your abilities, but it is much better to ask and ensure you get something right then mess up and denting your confidence.

6. Get up to Date with Current Research

This is one aspect of research that moves very quickly. If you are moving back into a lab working on a familiar topic, don’t make the mistake that because you’ve studied it before you know all the theory. New papers are coming out all the time, for example over 110,000 were published in January 2015 (data from PubMed Search) and no matter how short the break, there have likely been a few advances.

7. Use Your Connections

All of the above experience boosted my CV and led to the successful application for my current role as a lab bench based researcher. Not only did it boost my CV it also boosted my confidence and personal faith in my abilities as a scientific researcher which had been previously dented. Getting in touch with old colleagues still in the field and asking their advice really helped too. They may know of opportunities coming up and can provide insight before you decide to join a new research group.

Have you made the leap back to the bench? If so share your tips and experiences below in the comments.

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  1. Great ideas! I worked in research most of my career then worked in lab management at a hospital. After being used (doing the position of three people) I negotiated a severance and left. The job almost killed me with 15 hour days. Looking to get back into the research realm. Very difficult. I should say that I did have the opportunity to go back to Pharma last year and the hospital begged me to stay. I deeply regret it now.

  2. I left after graduation and spent 10 years in IT before starting a family. I got back to the bench a few years ago by contacting my undergraduate supervisor who put me in contact with another lecturer who might help. This lecturer took me on as a part-time volunteer and I eventually started a PhD in the same lab. It wasn’t easy to get back in but it IS possible if you can find the right person to speak to.

  3. I found this article very useful in my quest to get information about delving back into a lab career. After having ventured away from microscopy and analytical science, it’s not a simple matter of picking up from where I left off! Thanks Ellen, for such great advice.

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