Navigating the Start of a Medical Technologist Career in Clinical Microbiology

April 21, 2020

ASM needs your help! We are looking for volunteers to help with ASM’s Career Development activities by sharing your career, providing feedback on a career exploration tool and reviewing resumes and CVs. All activities will be done virtually.  
Are you a newly minted medical laboratory scientist or medical technologist in a clinical microbiology lab? Having the right mentors and reputable resources to get you started is important. We asked Debra Myers, a Microbiology Chief Technologist at Penn State Hershey Medical Center to share her insights on what newly hired lab/bench technicians in clinical microbiology can do to navigate the beginning stages of their career. 

What is the most important piece of advice you have for those just starting their career 'on the bench' in clinical microbiology?

  • Observe and learn. Take advantage of all the educational opportunities, especially case studies that might be informally or formally presented in your laboratory, at professional meetings or online. Case studies will give you insights on how the information from microbiology labs is interpreted and used by clinicians. 
  • Seek advice and question the reasons for why a decision is made. This will help you to make your own decisions in the future. Learn to look at the bigger picture and what the overall result will mean for patient care. It takes experience and attentiveness to recognize what is normal in a specimen, what is suggestive of contamination and what is likely to represent a true pathogen that is contributing to a patient’s illness.

How do you think a young medical microbiologist should approach a prospective mentor in the field and what sort of advice and counsel should they seek?

Initially, I would suggest you observe your surroundings and determine for yourself which aspects of the job are the best fit for you. Then, earnestly seek advice from someone whose skills and knowledge you admire. Do not try to dazzle him or her with what you already know. Instead, share your thoughts about your current work and your aspirations for your future. Ask for suggestions about ways you can enhance your career, one step at a time.

What key advice would you offer a mentee?

Do your homework and learn whatever you can about the field of microbiology. Your best resource is ASM, so consider buying a membership, there is a specific membership type for medical laboratory scientists, medical technologists, medical laboratory technicians and medical laboratory scientists. The medical lab scientist membership includes 12 hours of continuing education towards accredited webinars, access to listservs and practice guidelines. Make sure you join and participate in ASM’s clinical microbiology listserv. There is a wealth of information available by reading the experiences of others. The Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute and CDC are great resources too. Finally, network wherever possible.

What do you look for when interviewing candidates for jobs in your lab?

I look for the following:
  • Experience and knowledge in clinical microbiology.
  • Flexibility in both skills and schedules.
  • Passion for science.
  • Pleasant demeanor/likeability. 

How important do you believe the 'non-technical skills' are to career advancement in the clinical laboratory field?

Non-technical skills are extremely important! Your technical ability is only one part of the job. The ability to communicate, make decisions and interact with others both inside and outside of the lab are essential for succeeding in your current position and any advanced positions.

In your view, what sort of accomplishments or achievements are highly valued and rewarded in the field?

The accomplishments that I value most are those that provide clear results. For example, completing the implementation of a new test, participating in a study that results in an oral/poster presentation at a meeting inside or outside of the lab or providing thoughtful comments on current or new protocols all have apparent results. 

For those aspiring to move into a supervisory role like the one you have, what are the most challenging aspects of your job?

On any given day, it is common for me to encounter a variety of issues, which often require different skills. Technical problems can be challenging and typically involve investigating an efficient solution. Keeping up with changing technology and deciding what to bring into the lab is also challenging. And of course, everything must be documented when meeting accreditation requirements. Also, I spend a considerable amount of time managing inventory which is challenging because of the number of different products that must be stocked, many with a limited shelf life. As a supervisor, I frequently encounter personnel issues. I’ve learned over the years that it’s extremely important to manage staff with consistency and respect.