How to Become a Lab Assistant

Three Parts:Preparing for the CareerGetting HiredDoing the Job

The responsibilities of a laboratory assistant vary a great deal depending on the employer, the job field, and the qualifications of the employee. Laboratory assistants can work for medical testing facilities, in private industry, or in any number of specialized scientific research fields. Although the specifics of the job are different in each situation, lab assistant careers share many common elements, such as general working conditions. Whatever the capacity in which you wish to work as a lab assistant, this guide will help you reach your goal.

Part 1
Preparing for the Career

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    Choose a specialty. Because there are a variety of fields in which lab assistants may find work, the first thing you should do is to select the area that is most appealing to you. This will help you prepare properly, as described in subsequent steps in this section. Although you are not necessarily limited to one field as a lab assistant, your chances of being hired are greater if you have the appropriate background for a given position. Here are a few examples of your options:
    • Medical sample testing. Lab assistants in this field usually work in hospitals or medical clinics, but can also find work with private companies to which physicians outsource their sample testing needs. A strong biology background would be helpful in this type of position.
    • Biological tissue analysis. Work in this field may involve preserving and testing tissue samples, harvesting tissue, and/or performing dissections. A background in anatomy or physiology with additional general biology training is likely necessary to perform this type of work.
    • Geological sample analysis. Some labs (often run by government agencies) are dedicated to the analysis of rock and soil samples. These labs usually operate with the goal of analyzing geological materials for evidence of pollutants or other abnormalities. These positions likely require some background in geology and/or geochemistry.
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    Complete a degree or certification program. Most lab assistant positions will have basic educational requirements you will have to meet before being considered. Some positions may not require a college degree, but virtually all require a high school diploma or GED (at a minimum). You may also need a special certification to get hired.[1]
    • Browse job listings for lab assistant positions, even if you aren't ready to apply. Take note of the common degree and background requirements for jobs in your field of interest. This will let you know whether you need to complete some form of training or education before applying.
    • Look for relevant courses at your local community college. If you do not have a college degree but need to have education in certain topics in order to be competitive for the positions in which you're interested, you might be able to find relevant classes that you can take without being enrolled full-time.
    • Find a certification programs through local community or technical college. If your desired position is in a clinical lab, you will almost certainly need to be certified in order to be hired. These programs focus on medical sample acquisition and testing and may include training in phlebotomy, urinalysis, medical terminology, and/or laboratory standards (among other areas). You may also have to pass a certification exam to graduate.[2][3]
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    Complete an internship or work-study program. A lab assistant candidate with hands-on experience, even an unpaid internship, has a major advantage on the job market. Look for opportunities to intern in the area you wish to pursue. If you are enrolled in a certification program, this may even be a requirement to obtain your certificate.
    • You can ask your program director or college counselor to help you find these kinds of opportunities. If you are not in a program or taking classes, email or call labs near you and express your interest in gaining experience as an intern.
    • Work-study opportunities are an excellent option for college students who qualify for financial assistance from their college. Employers tend to like hiring work-study students because the student is paid by the college instead of by them.
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    Check state requirements for employment. Some states require licensing of lab or medical assistants, in which case you will have to pass an exam in order to be hired (regardless of the type of job you seek). You can search online for your state's licensing laws or ask someone working in the field.
    • Be aware that you may be required to renew your license every few years. The requirements for license renewal also vary and could require additional testing, proof of continuing education, and/or fees.
    • Licensing exams often require nonrefundable fees, so make sure you are ready before you decide to take the exam. Even if you cancel an exam upfront, you might not be entitled to a refund of any paid fees.
    • Licensing exams might also only be offered periodically and at specific locations. Be prepared to adjust your schedule if necessary and arrange for travel to the testing site.
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    Obtain a license. If your state does require you be licensed in order to be a lab assistant, You will need to pass an exam (usually in addition to meeting other basic requirements, such as having completed a certificate program). Here are a few helpful tips for navigating this process successfully:[4]
    • Begin studying well in advance of the exam date. You should not assume that your previous education or training is sufficient to pass the licensing exam without studying.
    • Find out what topics are covered on the exam. Some exam sign-up websites (such as that of the National Healthcare Workers' Association website) provide content review resources free of charge.[5]
    • Get help in preparing for the exam. Ask fellow students who are also planning to take the licensing exam whether they would be willing to form a study group with you. As long as you stay on task, this can be a good way to ensure you cover as much information as possible while preparing.
    • Numerous study books and online tutorials exist for a broad range of lab assistant job fields. These could be valuable study resources, especially if you are in need of a content refresher before your exam.

Part 2
Getting Hired

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    Find the right position for you. Use online job search sites (such as Indeed, Monster, or, for example) to see what lab assistant jobs are available in your area. You can also inquire about positions at clinical offices, hospitals, or other facilities at which you are interested in working. You should also ask professors, program directors, or internship employers you already know if they can put you in touch with potential employers.
    • Apply to any position for which you are reasonably qualified. Don't worry if you don't possess every single preferred skill in the job announcement. As long as you meet at least the basic requirements, you will likely be considered for the position.
    • Be sure to follow up your application with a personal phone call or email to the job contact or human resources representative to introduce yourself and let them know you are interested in the open position. This gives the people reviewing applications a reason to remember you. However, don't do this if the job announcement specifically states not to!
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    Contact your professional references. Virtually any job application process is going to require that you provide contact information for professional references (usually a minimum of three). Be sure to ask your intended references if they are willing to fill this role for you and don't forget to tell them about the jobs for which you are applying.
    • Current or former professors, supervisors, and colleagues are all great candidates for professional references. Just make sure that you don't choose a professor who you never interacted with or who gave you a poor grade, as his recommendation is not likely to be a strong one.
    • If you have worked with or under the supervision of someone who currently works for the company to which you are applying, be sure to get in touch with him or her and ask if they would be willing to 'put in a good word' for you to their boss. Potential employers are likely to value the opinion of their current employees over that of someone they don't know.
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    Bring attention to your supplemental skills. When creating a resume or cover letter or interviewing for a lab assistant job, it is a good idea to highlight any supplemental skills or knowledge you possess that might be beneficial in your desired position. In an entry-level applicant pool, most candidates will be relatively similarly qualified. You can make yourself stand out by drawing attention to things such as:
    • Computer proficiency (especially in common programs like Microsoft Excel and Word).
    • Good written and oral communication skills.
    • Attention to detail.
    • Organizational skills.
    • Research experience.
    • Previous experience with specific laboratory equipment (especially if it is not common).
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    Familiarize yourself with the company. In addition to ensuring that you will enjoy working for a given employer, becoming familiar with the history and specific services and goals of the companies to which you are applying will give you an edge against other applicants. If you can demonstrate some of this knowledge in an interview or cover letter, you will create a good impression on the hiring committee.
    • Learn basic details about the company, such as the name of the president or CEO, the year in which it was founded, and its mission statement. These facts may not seem important, but slipping them into a letter or conversation shows that you have taken the time to learn about the company.
    • Know what services the laboratory provides, and which ones you'll be expected to perform. The more aware you are of the job's requirements, the better prepared you'll be to do the work - which comes across to the hiring committee.

Part 3
Doing the Job

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    Know what you're dealing with. Once you're hired, you'll likely have to undergo training specific to the job you will perform. Even so, it is in your best interest to know what sorts of potential hazards and/or difficulties you're likely to face while performing your assigned tasks. This way, you can determine whether there is anything about the job you are unwilling or unable to do. Ask yourself the following questions:
    • Will you be working around noxious fumes?
    • Will you be standing for long periods of time?
    • Will you be working in a facility with no windows?
    • Will you be operating dangerous equipment?
    • Will you have to lift or carry heavy objects?
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    Accept that your role is to assist. The primary role of the lab assistant is to do just that - assist. While some of your tasks may be unsupervised, most of your work will be carried out while working directly with a superior, such as a lab technologist of research scientist (depending on your field).[6] After gaining some on-the-job experience, you may get antsy to do things on your own, but don't overstep your bounds.
    • If you would like to gain more independent experience, ask your immediate supervisor if it would be okay for you to conduct a test or experiment on your own. Just don't be too upset if your request is rejected.
    • If you are unsatisfied with your lack of independence, try thinking of your role as a foundation for the rest of your career. There is always the chance that you will one day be the one receiving assistance, so long as you make yourself eligible for promotion (as discussed in the final step of Part 3).
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    Prepare and process specimens. One duty of many lab assistant positions is to prepare specimens for analysis by a lab scientist or researcher.[7] This may involve repetitive tasks such as drawing samples with syringes and placing them onto slides for microscopy. It may also be the assistant's job to destroy or properly store materials once analysis is complete.
    • These tasks likely require that associated equipment/tools be set up and disassembled.
    • Since you will be likely be handling specimens yourself, you'll need to know how to properly deal with the types of materials your lab commonly encounters (which may include hazardous substances).
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    Maintain lab space and equipment. Another task commonly performed by lab assistants is the cleaning and maintaining of laboratory equipment and workspaces.[8] Because labs often have sensitive equipment and materials, there are usually no custodial services provided on a routine basis. That means lab assistants are often in charge of basic cleaning and maintenance procedures.
    • Sterilizing, cleaning, and calibrating equipment will likely be chief among your maintenance duties as a laboratory assistant.
    • Tasks in your lab will vary depending on the nature of your work, but may include tasks not directly related to specimen analysis. For example, you may be responsible for ensuring that lab materials (such as slides, pipettes, cotton swabs, disposable gloves, etc.) remain well-stocked, for wiping down countertops, and for emptying refuse bins.
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    Perform administrative duties. Part of working in a medical or research laboratory is keeping records and writing reports of work performed. These paperwork-oriented tasks will be specific to the job field and type of work being performed, but are often delegated to lower-ranking staff members (lab assistants). Examples of potential administrative tasks are:
    • Maintaining inventory sheets for consumable materials.
    • Filling out order forms for replacement equipment and supplies.
    • Writing reports and filling out forms in summary of work performed.
    • Keeping track of schedules and calendars.
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    Be willing to learn from those with more experience. If you are fresh out of a certificate program and working as a lab assistant for the first time, you likely still have a lot to learn to do the job well. Don't be afraid to ask for advice or instruction from a more senior lab assistant or a supervisor. Your initiative and curiosity will likely be looked upon favorably by your boss and coworkers.
    • Ask a senior lab assistant to watch you perform a task and provide feedback. Some lab analysis techniques can only be performed one way, but others might have certain ways of going about them that are more effective.
    • Be willing to adjust your approach to the job so as to meet the requirements of your new employer. Your training in school might not be universally applicable to all areas of lab assistantship.
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    Optimize your promotion potential. Most lab assistant jobs are entry-level positions that can be a gateway to other roles with more responsibility and better pay (such as laboratory technologist and research scientist positions). In order to be eligible for these sorts of promotions, you might have to do more than just gain experience.[9] Keep expanding your skills set to improve the likelihood that you will be selected for a promotion down the road.
    • Keep up with licensing and certification requirements and consider becoming certified for the job you may want in the future. If you already possess the qualifications for a higher-ranking position, you are more likely to be chosen when one becomes available.
    • Continue your education. Sometimes the next position up in the ranks requires education you didn't need for your lab assistant job. You can gradually obtain the necessary education by taking classes at night or online. Doing this will help fulfill any prerequisites and prepare you for when an opening emerges.
    • Periodically check to see if other companies are hiring more often for the position you wish to eventually move into. If your company doesn't seem to be offering as many opportunities to move up, perhaps it is worth considering a new employer.


  • Remember that although becoming a lab assistant does not always require a college degree, you are probably more likely to secure a position if you possess this additional qualification.


  • Many lab assistant positions involve inherently dangerous work. Make sure you are willing to accept these risks before pursuing a career in this field.

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