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More undergraduate or just-graduated students should consider getting jobs as research techs in academic labs

I think this is pretty much the case for many (especially non-STEM)  fields in the US, too--my sense is that it's a consequence of funding/competition. 

More undergraduate or just-graduated students should consider getting jobs as research techs in academic labs

I totally agree that they're not useless--prestige/signalling in general is useful! And I think the median student is probably not going to be the kind of person who can fail out and still be wildly successful. 

But, I think they are way overvalued. If the choice is between getting straight A's and honor societies and awards, or getting B's and also  getting paid to do research,  I think too many people choose the former over the latter.

More undergraduate or just-graduated students should consider getting jobs as research techs in academic labs

Thanks for this wonderful comment! Let me try and address your questions:

  • I’m uncertain about the compensation/signaling/networking value for the research tech role. It's not clear why it offers more returns than available to a few years in industry, even as a non-prestigious, entry level graduate.

I think actually a few years in industry is almost certainly better, though I think there's a lot of overlap, and of course heavily depends on the field/industry. Major cruxes include I would say that if you have a substantial interest in later pursuing a PhD, that probably indicates being a research tech

The reason I recommend these roles is explicitly because they are easy to get. I remember how I felt nearing the end of my undergraduate physics degree. I had no idea how to even begin applying to industry jobs. It all seemed terribly scary and overwhelming; the returns on spending countless hours applying to jobs seemed low. If your counterfactual role to working as a research tech is going into industry, I would say you should probably go to industry.  

But if your counterfactual sort of feels like it's going to be just getting through classes, or going for unpaid internships, or sitting on the couch panicking about the future, then consider sending some emails to smart interesting people absolutely desperate for labor.  Particularly, if you are contacting people at the university you currently attend, it's pretty much part of the professor's job to train you,  even if they don't really need labor.

If you're still a student, an academic lab is also likely to be more flexible about letting you do interesting part time work. It's all about accessibility.

  • In addition to the fact that many academic labs are exploitative (as the OP does touch on), I am concerned that even good and kind academic labs can give an off-color work experience/incentives/worldview, as I think they are not quite “real world environments”. I think a technician will get the worst of this while losing a lot of the positives?

"Technician" is sort of an imprecise title. I've designed and lead research projects as a "research assistant"/"research tech." I find this is heavily dependent on the lab, and something that you should absolutely try to feel out during the interview. I'll edit the post with some advice on this front. 

The nice thing about roles like these is that they are relatively informal so that if it sucks it will not be that hard to just leave. 

That said, while a lab is more like a "real world" environment than a class, this is a real weakness. Again, if you can easily get an industry job (or paid internship), that is probably  a better choice, unless you are explicitly trying to boostrap yourself into a PhD without running the application gauntlet. 

  • I don’t have a strong model of how this approach can lead to research that many in the EA community think is most valuable—"lead researchers with field leading potential".

I'm not sure I entirely understand this point. Probably roles like this are not going to be in terribly directly impactful areas. I think the value of this approach is for bootstrapping yourself into an impactful role if you had a rough start--or more generally, doing better than just going to class and sitting around panicking about the future. I think this approach offers a good package deal for young EAs who don't feel very effective or impressive and have absolutely no idea what to do next, or how.