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!