Shorthand. Typing. Pipetting?! Think of a temp and you might not imagine a scientist standing at a lab bench. But many temps are just that: scientists spending a little time on temporary contracts to develop important skills and check out different industry sectors, says Sue Opelt, a business development manager at the recruitment agency SRG LabStaff. So if you aren't yet sure where you want to work, temping might be an option to explore. And there is an added bonus. Since the average length of a contract is 11 months, training is generally included.

Contractors are a varied crew, says Opelt, ranging from new graduates to PhDs. Some have left the lab to try out a different career direction and use temporary work as a way to get back into science. And companies hire contract staff for a variety of reasons, she explains. They use them to cover maternity and long-term sick leave, as well as to ease recruitment problems when they are going through an expansion. They also bring in contractors for special projects such as trouble shooting or the introduction of new equipment--a contractor with experience of using a particular piece of apparatus could be brought in to set it up and train permanent staff members to use it.

Pauline Berwick did a BSc in biophysics at the Liverpool John Moores University, which included a sandwich year during which she learnt a lot of analytical chemistry techniques. She thought about doing a PhD, but then an SRG LabStaff advert caught her eye. They found her a contract position with Proctor and Gamble, where she stayed for 2 years. "I could have had a permanent job," she explains, but turned it down to go travelling. Opelt says that about a third of temps take up permanent posts with the contracting company. It's a great way to get a foot in the door, especially if you don't have a lot of experience, as well as getting the feel for whether a particular company ethos suits you, with no commitment on either side.

On her return from her 1-year, round-the-world trip, Berwick completed another short-term contract before accepting a permanent position, also through LabStaff, this time with a biotech company. While she was working in a quality assurance environment, Berwick realised how much she enjoyed combining her scientific training with working with people. The realisation suggested her latest career move (see sidebar).

All would-be contractors are interviewed by a recruitment consultant before being sent to a client company, which Berwick points out is a good confidence-building exercise if you haven't done much job hunting already. "We give feedback" on interview technique and CV preparation, she explains. But don't expect an easy ride. Because account managers all have a scientific background, they can quickly work out during the interview whether you're really as familiar with that lab technique as your CV suggests!

Temping isn't all wine and roses, however. As many a postdoc has discovered, there are drawbacks to being a contract scientist, and commercial contractors can suffer these. The major problem is confusion over who exactly the temp's employer is, and banks are often reluctant to give contractors mortgages. To tackle this, SRG LabStaff has just introduced a new scheme whereby they will give all their contractors a full contract of employment. Once contractors have worked with them for 6 months, a raft of benefits kick in, including paid bank holidays, accident cover, and access to special pension and mortgage schemes.

So, if you like learning new skills and gaining fresh experience, a spell as a temporary worker could give your job hunting just the boost you need and open all sorts of unexpected doors.

RECRUITMENT CONSULTING

Contractor turned recruiter when Pauline Berwick gave up the temping life to become a permanent employee at SRG LabStaff. All SRG's account managers are former scientists with some sort of industry experience. Sue Opelt did a PhD in chemistry and worked in technical publishing before deciding that she wanted to spend more of her working life talking to people. "This gives us credibility with the client companies," explains Berwick, and means "you can do your job a lot more quickly, because when a job comes in you know who is going to fit into it."

SRG are always "looking for people who have reached the stage where they are ready to leave the lab," to train in recruitment techniques, says Opelt. A lot of the training is on the job, but also includes external courses in things such as telesales. A recruitment consultant needs to be able to multitask, have a sense of humour, and have "a good memory for people's names," says Berwick. And with new science recruitment agencies starting up all the time (just take a look at the back of New Scientist to see how many are out there), this is a field of employment where opportunities for people with the right qualities are growing, she reckons. For Opelt the appeal of this work is "the shear pleasure" of helping someone, whether it's a contractor finding a job or a client filling a vacancy. Even after 9 years at SRG, there's nothing to beat the thrill of hearing the "squeal of delight" when someone gets a job.