Thursday, August 14, 2008

Academic Research Careers, Part I

Part I: What are the options?

Drugmonkey has a recent post on stable, non-PI positions for PhD scientists in academia which makes a good starting point for a series of posts I will write about non-tenure track academic research careers. If you love research and enjoy the academic environment, but don't think the tenure-track path is for you, what are your options? Is it PI-dom or bust in academia?

There are actually a number of different possibilities which are seldom discussed or publicized, and aren't always apparent to those in the academic training pipeline. These can be divided into three basic categories--faculty, staff, and "permanent postdoc" positions--each with its advantages and disadvantages. My personal experience with these options is limited to the biomedical sciences field at my institution, but similar positions undoubtedly also exist at other major research institutions.

Faculty positions. In addition to the tenure track, many institutions have a faculty non-tenure track which is often referred to as the research track (I'm excluding other faculty positions--Lecturer, Adjunct, etc.--that are not primarily research-based). The research track is structured similarly to the tenure track--PhDs with postdoctoral experience usually enter this track at the Research Assistant Professor level, and can subsequently be promoted to Research Associate Professor and Research Professor. The main differences from the tenure track are:

  • There is no tenure--research faculty are appointed to one-year renewable contracts

  • There is no up-or-out or promotion clock--one can remain a Research Assistant Professor, for example, for as long as one wants

  • Research faculty typically do not get their own lab spaces or have independent appointments in their departments

  • Research faculty are not required to bring in portions of their salary via grant funding

  • There are no teaching or service requirements

  • Only senior research faculty can officially mentor grad students

  • Research track salaries are slightly lower than those for the tenure track

Staff positions. The titles for these positions can vary, but they are often called Scientist, Research Scientist, or Staff Scientist. Junior-level staff positions typically require either a PhD with no post-degree job experience or an MS with several years of post-degree experience. Senior-level staff positions almost always require a PhD with several years of post-degree experience. PhDs who have done a postdoc often enter this track at the senior-level position. Job descriptions for staff positions overlap significantly with those for research faculty positions, and the salary range for staff positions is similar to that for Research Assistant Professors. The main differences from research faculty positions are:

  • Staff positions are considered "at-will" employment and can be terminated at any time

  • Staff are not protected by the academic freedom policies governing faculty

  • Staff are not eligible to apply for grants, mentor grad students, or participate in faculty governance

  • The work schedules for staff positions tend to be more of the "normal business hours" variety

For lack of a better description, I'd say that staff positions are generally more like research positions in industry, whereas research faculty positions are more like tenure-track faculty positions.

Permanent postdoc positions. These are not really "official" positions--often, they are created when a postdoc decides to remain in his/her postdoc lab after the agreed-upon training period has ended. Some institutions have limited the number of years one can be designated a postdoc, which has resulted in permanent postdocs acquiring all sorts of different titles. What places all these positions in one common category is that permanent postdocs typically (1) do the work of a postdoc or senior technician, (2) earn the salary of a postdoc, and (3) are not expected or encouraged to advance their careers or transition to other career tracks. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this kind of position, but I'd be very cautious because permanent postdocs seem more vulnerable than either research faculty or staff to getting stuck in low-independence and low-paying positions that do not enable them to be competitive in applying for better positions.

These are the basic characteristics of the three main types of non-PI positions for PhDs in academic research. The most important thing to remember about these positions is that they can vary wildly in job description, level of independence, opportunity for career advancement, salary, schedule flexibility, and how they are perceived within the academic community. I know at least 8 other people in my department who have the same type of position I have, and no two of us have the same job. So if you look into these positions, each one should be researched carefully and individually evaluated.

Future topics in this series: (1) what exactly do people in these positions do?, (2) what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of each type of position, (3) how does one get one of these positions, and (4) how to be successful in one of these positions. Feel free to suggest other topics!


Jennie said...

I've decided that I want a staff scientist job. I love lab/field work. I see lots of these positions advertised in the biology sector but not so much in my field . . . sigh

Thomas Joseph said...


Have you checked out the Federal employment website?

USA Jobs. As a PhD, if you do the advanced search (you can look by state), your GS level would be as a GS-12. You could also look at GS-11 positions (which would be considered postdoc-type positions). If you worked for the USGS, or the USDA - ARS or Forestry you'd probably do a fair amount of field work.

maddox22 said...

Jennie, you can also try looking in related fields--for example, if your degree is in chemistry, you can try looking for staff scientist positions in geoscience or marine science--especially if you are doing mainly lab work, the skills are generally quite similar.

Mad Hatter said...

Jennie--At least in my field, a lot of these positions are never advertised. Another thing you could try is to contact your thesis advisor, committee members, and other scientists you may have interacted with at conferences. If you tell them what kind of position you're looking for, they may be able to help point you in the right direction.

Tom--That website is excellent! And I am stunned by how high the salary ranges are for some of the positions in my field. Thanks for posting it, and I'll add it to the "Resources" section of this blog.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Great post - I'd heard your job title a few times but hadn't really understood your exact role. You do get to apply for grants though, right?

And you're right, I'd never really heard of this kind of position before (except the permanent postdoc position, usually called research associate around here. My postdoc supervisor looked into getting me into this kind of role so that I could at least stay employed until I got permanent resident status, but there were no funds available).

Julie R said...

I am looking forward to more posts on this topic. I love doing research and the academic environment, but I'm not so interested in teaching.

Anonymous said...

This is probably politically incorrect but still seems worth some candid discussion:

In my experience "research track" positions are two-body problem resolvers, where the offer package to one person includes a soft money position for her or (usually) his spouse, with lab space at the expense of and under the control of the professor. Are there really a significant number of hard-money, truly independent research-only positions out there?

Anonymous said...

Also in my experience, "staff scientist" is the most common of your "all sorts of different titles" for permanent postdocs. I.e., someone who pursues PI-approved projects and has postdoc-level responsibilities, but receives decent benefits and isn't being (supposedly) mentored.

Your "staff scientist" has significantly more independence? How does that work if they can't apply for grants and don't control lab space?

Mad Hatter said...

Cath--I hadn't really heard of my type of position until I was offered it.... And yes, I do get to write grants. Whether I think that's a good thing depends on how close I am to a grant deadline! :-)

Julie--Thanks for commenting. Just a thought for your consideration: there are definitely tenure-track PI positions that require minimal teaching, particularly on medical campuses like the one I work at. Most of the tt faculty here only give several lectures a semester in graduate level or med school courses. I'm not trying to push any particularly path, but not wanting to teach doesn't necessarily mean you can't go the tt route.

Mad Hatter said...

Anonymous--Definitely a good topic for discussion. I agree that research faculty positions are often used to solve two-body problems. Out of curiosity, I went through my department's faculty directory and found the following:

Total # of faculty: >70
# of research faculty: 12
Gender distribution: 3 male, 9 female

Of the 11 I personally know, 2 work in the labs of their spouses, who are tenured faculty. In both cases, the tenured faculty is male and the research faculty is female. Both of them pre-date me, so I don't know if they came here in a "package deal" or if the arrangement and/or relationship happened after recruitment.

The other 9 are not related to any other faculty here as far as I know, and certainly not in my department. I have no idea whether my department is representative or not, but the research faculty here are certainly not overwhelmingly part of a two-body unit.

Regarding hard-money and independence, as I said in the post, research faculty don't have their own lab spaces or independent appointments. Same is true for staff and permanent postdocs. In fact, I have never heard of a research-only (non-PI), hard-money and completely independent position in academia. I'm not sure those exist at all.

Regarding staff scientist positions, there are definitely people here with that title who are essentially "permanent postdocs". But many staff scientists here run core facilities. They still answer to the tt faculty who are directors of the facilities, but they have quite a bit of autonomy.

The main distinction I draw between staff positions and permanent postdocs is that the latter are paid very poorly and have virtually no opportunity to advance beyond their current position, whereas staff can be promoted. If by "independence" you mean being able to work on whatever you want to without having to consult anyone else, then for sure none of these positions are independent.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! Since you say it's part of a series: I'm interested in something that would involve a lot of grant writing and data analysis/experiment planning, some mentoring of students and giving of presentations, and little to no regularly scheduled teaching or bench work. Being an academic PI is not totally out of the question, but I'm uneasy about the tenure clock and teaching frequently as well as managing the totality of responsibilities. Something at a national lab might work well, so I'd like to find out more about the employment structure in similar organizations. (I'm not in the bio area.)

Mad Hatter said...

ScatteredScientist--Thanks for commenting. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that I have much information that would help you since I only know about my field--biomedical sciences--and have no experience with national labs or similar institutions. But I will post your question on this blog and see if any of the other authors or readers can help you.

Jennie said...

Thanks for the suggestions.
I am intimately familiar with USAjobs. However, my husband and I have decided to live somewhere specific and the jobs I quality for are, currently, not near me.
I am in the geosciences and have applied for a few marine positions but was not contacted about them. The trouble with the federal jobs is that there is no real contact person to bug about your application.
I have a few people I've networked with who are trying to help me with consulting jobs but most of those jobs would be a 2 hour commute, each way, so I'm stuck trying on my own.
I have one lab manager position I'm applying for at USGS with my old group but it seems to be more biology that I'm familiar with and don't feel it's a good fit. I've also found a really neat postdoc position there and informally met the PI who I will meet with again at the end of the month after I've read some of his papers. OK-this comment is too long!!

Anonymous said...

The other 9 are not related to any other faculty here as far as I know, and certainly not in my department. I have no idea whether my department is representative or not, but the research faculty here are certainly not overwhelmingly part of a two-body unit.

That's not consistent at all with the departments of my experience (n=2) and I'd be curious to hear what others have seen. I have some other questions and comments, but I'll save them for when you get to the more detailed analysis of each category. Great summary, though!!

Anonymous said...

I think some mention must be made of the fact that these are not stable positions. A careful reading of Drug Monkey's article indicates that he isn't saying they are stable (he bemoans the fact that they are not stable). Probably everyone wishes they were, but they aren't at present. Long term prospects remain bleak.

Anonymous said...

I think some mention must be made of the fact that these are not stable positions. A careful reading of Drug Monkey's article indicates that he isn't saying they are stable (he bemoans the fact that they are not stable). Probably everyone wishes they were, but they aren't at present. Long term prospects remain bleak.

Mad Hatter said...

Jennie--Sounds like you're doing all the right things. Best of luck with your job search, and I hope you find a great position soon!

Anonymous 8/15--I'd be curious too, and it's definitely something to discuss in future posts. My suspicion is that it's department-dependent. Thanks, and I'll look forward to your other comments/questions!

Anonymous 8/16--It's definitely true that these positions are not stable the way tenured positions are. But whether even tenure provides the kind of stability one expects seems to be in question, as Juniorprof points out in his comment:

"I think for most of us biological sciences people...that tenure is more or less meaningless. The 5 year review for tenure just means you got promoted to associate prof but if you lose funding you'll be gone."

The way I see it is that the tenure system provides a stability and permanence that is unique--no other job I know of in academia or otherwise has this. Therefore, I don't view these positions as inherently unstable since they are no more unstable than a job one could lose due to firing, downsizing, reorganization, mergers, acquisitions, etc.

In non-academic jobs, stability is affected by business finances and the economy; in academia, it's determined by funding. But the principle is the same. Honestly, I think it's unrealistic to expect to have a job that is completely immune from changes in finances/funding and that one can keep forever.

neurowoman said...

I am an example of non-TT faculty: I have a Faculty Research Scientist/Prof job - basically a glorified senior postdoc. Administratively not independent (I have a supervisor), but I pay much of my own salary with a small grant I am PI on, and work on projects that are related/have grown out of my supervisor, but intellectually driven by my own inclinations.

My position is a two-body problem 'resolver', although not part of any package offered to my spouse, just something that worked out collegially as a good match with my supervisor who is in a different department from my spouse.

We're working on making my position either semi-permanent (by achieving substantial outside funding) or converted to TT (by said funding or outside offer), but it's not a bad position if you can stand the comments at every conference of, "oh, you're STILL working at blah for blah?"

drdrA said...

not fair I know... tagging the tagger...


Mad Hatter said...

Neurowoman--Thanks for writing about your position. The inevitable comments and questions are annoying, I agree! Good luck with getting a more permanent position.

DrDrA--Hmm...this particular loophole in the tagging hadn't occurred to me! Thanks. :-)