Introduction

The School Of Biomedical Sciences, Newcastle University organises this scheme for registered stage 2 students to gain valuable work experience in the biological research institutes: Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences (ICaMB) and Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology (CBCB).  Places for this role are very competitive and require that students have the relevant skills, experience and competencies needed to carry lab chores.  The start date is always in late October to June/July of the next year.  This is a paid scheme that is aimed at developing vital biosciences and employability skills.  These skills could range from essential lab skills such as observation, organisation, problem solving, verbal and written communications, initiative, teamwork, IT skills to personal qualities such as time management, attention to detail, professional attitude, reliability, etc.  The scheme also helps you to gain much more confidence in carrying our practical procedures in the lab. Flexible working hours means that you can strike a balance between your study and work time.  I worked as a lab assistant in Dr Jeremy Brown’s lab in the Institute of Cell & Molecular Biosciences, Newcastle University.

I will be more than happy to help you with any questions you may have about the lab assistant post.  Where I’m unable to assist, I would then direct you to the appropriate departments such as the careers service or the teaching office.  To contact me, please send your enquiry to  info@kdwis.com or use the CONTACT US section of this website.

Please note that information on this page will be useful mostly to students in the School of Biomedical Sciences, Newcastle University, UK.

In this article, I will explain the step by step process on how students are recruited to this role, and some of the career benefits associated with the scheme.  You may want to click on each of the following sections to read further:

Your duties as a lab assistant may vary from one lab chores to the other. Most of the duties are routinely done. However, the nature of the job is very flexible: meaning you can be working, gaining some valuable experience and skills while studying. Some of the chores you may be asked to do might include:
  • Assistant with basic laboratory duties such as pipetting, filling tips, making up solutions, yeast media, performing PCR and making agarose gels, DNA extraction, washing of glasswares etc.
  • You could also be asked to do a mini-project just to get you involved in the research going on in the lab. This would mean you will have to design your own project, which is actually good as it develops you to be independent and confident in carrying our experiments. It's important that you remember your chemistry maths, especially the ones you did in year 1 as you may be asked to mix solutions or prepare one yourself. You don't want to make any mistakes doing this!.
  • You may also be responsible for taking deliveries for the lab from the delivery room and stock them on the shelves. In addition to this, you may be asked to check for stock/reagents that are not available in the lab and report this to your supervisor or the lab technician. This is necessary in order not for the lab to run out of lab chemicals or reagents.
  • Operating standard laboratory equipment, for example centrifuges, pipetting machines and pH meters.
  • You will also be responsible for taking solutions and materials (including pipette tips, long pipettes, tubes, cylinders, glasses, etc), meant to be autoclaved, to and from the autoclave room.
  • You will be asked to write down practical procedures in your lab book, which will be reviewed from time to time. The lab book is where you record all the practicals you undertake in the lab. Sometimes, you will have to analyse, interpret the outcome of your results to your supervisor.
You will have to be flexible enough to be able to study whilst you work in the lab. Remember that the maximum hour per week is 5/8 hours: you must be ready to commit to this to show how reliable you are. You must be aware of health and safety issues and follow these very strictly for your safety and that of everyone working in the lab.
The minimum requirement to apply for this post is that you must be a Newcastle University student studying an undergraduate course in the school of Biomedical Sciences, and in your second year of the three-year programme.

Like I stated earlier, places for this role are limited (20 places) and very competitive and so, applicants need to provide a very strong application that will stand out from the crowd.  You will need to demonstrate evidence of your previous/current work experience and state some of the vital skills you have achieved so far that will be useful to the role you are currently applying for.

Applications are usually invited in late September to early October (i.e., during the first two weeks of resumption).  This means that you will need to prepare your CV, and then cover letter ahead of time to meet the deadline, usually Friday of the week after Freshers' week. Please do not forget to include a cover letter when you submit your application. To find out why cover letters are essential part of documents applicants must always send, alongside their CV, to their potential employer, please go the TIPS AND ADVICE section of this website.

The procedure for applying involves submitting a hard copy of your CV addressed to the school's teaching administrator.  This is usually submitted in the work submission box outside the teaching office.  The school recommends that you include the following on your CV before submitting a hard copy of it:
  • your contact details, including email and telephone number
  • the contact details of two referees
  • your first year exam marks
  • the lab(s) that you would want to work in.  Please note that only first and second choices are allowed.
  • your availability for interview
Let me reiterate here that it's very important you include a breakdown of your first year marks, especially the mark you obtained in your practical modules.  Your marks pre-informs the selectors about how academically sound you are, and if you can cope with your studies whilst working as a lab assistant.  It's also important to note that some labs (if not all) will place more importance on the mark you obtained in the two practical modules you did in year one.  Despite saying all this, please do not be put-off from applying since the way you present your CV may appeal the selectors and could mean inviting you for interview.  Please ensure that your CV is specific for the role you are applying for and include specific work experience you have had that could distinguish you from other applicants.  If you have done any research in a research lab during your college days or over the summer; also include this and reflect on the experience and skills you achieved.
After submitting your application, the school sends your details to each of the two labs that you indicated interest in.  The lab will have to make decision whether to invite you for interview.  If they deem your application is good, then they would offer you interview, at least a week after you submitted your application.  The school's teaching administrator will always email you to let you know if you have been invited for interview. Depending on how you performed at the interview, the interviewer will decide whether you are to be offered a place as a lab assistant to work in their lab.
Interview takes place in the research lab you have indicated on your CV.  The interview may turn out to be either formal or informal, so you will have to be prepared for this.  It lasts for about 15-30 minutes.  The interview panel may consist of one or more than one person and may include postgrads in some situations.  Don't worry it's not going to be daunting, but you should be prepared to answer most, if not all, of the questions asked. Please refer to the Tips & Advice section for strategies you could apply to avoid being nervous at interview.  Be reminded that the interview varies from lab to lab so don't rely entirely on what your friends tell you about their own interview, that is, if they had their own interview before yours.
  • You may face more than one interviewer on the day of your interview.
  • Most of the interview will consist of the interviewer explaining what the lab does and some of the chores you are likely going to be doing in the lab.
  • At the end of your interview, some (if not all) of the interviewers always take students on a tour of the lab to familiarise you with some health and safety issues.  You may be lucky to go on one of these tours.  Whilst on the tour, please try to be inquisitive by asking questions relating to the lab or about the lab research area.  This will show how interested you are.
Be reminded that you may not necessarily be asked any complicated questions as they understand you are a student and may not have had much experience.  You just have to be confident and smile!  Some of the questions you might be asked at the interview include:
  • Some scientific questions, so be prepared to answer, say, questions relating to numeracy/calculations, or what you did in the practical module in year 1.  A bit of reflection about this would be helpful.
  • why you want to be a lab assistant and why that particular lab
  • what you know about the area of research that the lab undertakes
  • what your future career prospects are
  • Tell me more about yourself (tricky one).  This is where you sell your skills and experience and reassure the interviewer of your suitability for the role.
  • what skills, experience and qualities you will bring to the lab
  • what is your favourite scientific skill/experiment that you have learnt to do during in-course practicals
  • What's your availability
  • What you expect to gain from the experience of being a lab assistant
  • If selected, how would you contribute to research process in the lab
  • Why they should select you and not someone else.
  • you may be asked about yourself, including your hobbies, interest and time at university.
  • Do you have any question? (usually at the end of the interview).
I would advise you to practise answering these questions in the most appropriate context.  Don't panic! Just be yourself.  Dress professionally for the interview as this demonstrates to the interviewer that you take interviews very seriously.  You may say  ''but it's just an interview with an academic staff so why should you dress professionally.  However, remember that different people have different ways of viewing things: always try to be on the safer side.
At the end of the interview, the interviewer will tell you to check your inbox for a message from the teaching office. Then, a day or two after the interview, the interviewer will message the teaching office to let them know who they would want to offer a place for the lab assistant post. The teaching office will then message the successful candidates. All successful candidates will need to confirm that they accept the role and verify their passport ID with the teaching office. The congratulations message will also contain information about health and safety talk which must be attended by all the successful students before working in the lab. It's after all these processes have been completed that you can now work in the lab as a laboratory assistant.
Different people gain different skills while working as a lab assistant depending on the nature of the lab and the type of duties assigned to them.  In this part of the article, I will share my experience with you and the impacts it has had on me.

I was actively involved in the research going on in the lab.  To get me active and involved, I was given a mini-project to research on the effects of different mutations on a nuclear protein called ''la protein'' while being guided and supervised by Dr Jeremy Brown.  I applied the techniques of PCR mutagenesis to introduce specific/random mutations into specific sequence of the target gene.  Although hypothesised result was not forthcoming even after repeating the procedures several times, I did gain some experience of PCR mutagenesis techniques, cloning, restriction digest, etc.  Working in the lab have been rewarding as it gave me confidence of carrying out practical procedures independently.  The scheme reinforced my understanding of some of the basic concepts, such as Polymerase Chain Reaction, Protein extraction, Agarose gel electrophoresis, etc that were being taught during classes. Moreover, the scheme has been an added advantage to my team work skills as I had to work as part of a group to complete a particular assignment being assigned to me and other members of the lab by the lab supervisor.  My verbal communication, interpersonal and problem-solving skills were also improved.  Lastly, my analytical and reporting skills have improved dramatically as I had to analyse each experiment being done, and report my findings to my supervisor, who will then re-analyse the results of the practical gain, and explain useful insights into the practical.  Working alongside other postdoc/masters students also made the scheme an interesting one as they were there to help me out when I got stuck doing a particular procedure and also gave insight about their research.  The fact that the postdoc and masters students in the lab were happy to share their experience of working in the lab and talk me through their research topic also made the scheme rewarding.   Again, I was able to develop career skills such as time-management and personal initiative since I have to balance my work and study time and independently make certain decisions.