What is a "staff scientist" and is this an attractive career option?

Jan 17 2017 Published by under Academics, Careerism, Postdoctoral Training

Our good blog friend, occasional commenter and behind the scenes provoker of YHN's blogging nearly on par with CPP, @superkash put up a twitt poll:

An extended discussion is going on and there are a few things of interest to me that are emerging.

What IS a "staff scientist"? Does it have a defined role? How is it used both formally by institutions and in less formal career-expectation space? How is it viewed by the hiring PI? How is it viewed by postdocs?

Is it, or should it be, a mere evolution of a postdoc after a certain interval of time (e.g., 5 years)?

Is it, or should it be, in part a job-job where a person is hired to do one sciencey thing (generate data from this assay)?

Is it, or should it be, a job where the person "merely" does as the PI instructs at all times?

Does it come with supervisory responsibilities? Is part of the deal to remove this person from ever having to consider grant-getting?

Is permanence of the job in a way that is not the case with postdocs an implied or explicit condition of the job title?

57 responses so far

  • AwesomeSauce says:

    It is definitely important to differentiate each of the major positions one might encounter. Here's my view (just an opinion) of the hierarchy and the roles:

    RA- Do what you're told.
    Tech- Have some expertise, but mainly do what you're told. Light admin duties.
    Grad- Bring new ideas to the table. Experimental design is a discussion. Critically think about what you're told. Light admin in some cases
    Lab Manager- More expertise than a tech to run independently, but running experiments based on what you're told. Moderate+ admin duties. Oversee experiments.
    Postdoc-Generate new experiments. Independent but always learning. Light-Moderate admin duties, hopefully with a focus on those with a training component (Peer review).
    Staff Scientist- Hybrid of lab manager and post-doc. Independent experiments, but also with a heavier admin load to keep things running. Salary commensurate with extra duties and experience.
    Research Associate- Independent experiments. Less admin than a staff scientist but with a specific responsibility to generate grant-worthy ideas, contribute to papers, and perhaps help with trainees (PI-light).
    PI-All of the above and then some.

  • cjb says:

    In my experience, staff scientists are PhDs who stay at the bench but have limited direct responsibilities when it comes to grant-getting. This contrasts with Research Assistant Professors in that the RAP acts more like a PI in seeking funding, hiring their own direct reports, etc.

    Generally, staff scientists either graduate from being postdocs when they age out of the position or are hired specifically for a technical skill set (often in a core facility). I consider staff scientists an advanced career-track position where you should expect better pay and benefits than a postdoc and as much permanence as one can expect anywhere these days. Promotion options are also likely limited--there's no expectation that staff scientists are going to move on to become PIs.

    There's a lot of overlap between lab managers and staff scientists. Staff scientists get stuff done for the lab. They help junior staff and trainees without necessarily being the direct supervisor. They provide a valuable institutional memory for a group where many of the other personnel are only around for a few years.

  • qaz says:

    If the staff scientist position becomes a 5 year post post-doc position, it will turn into yet another holding pattern. Every generation it gets worse. Many baby boomers were professors by 30 (grad school + either no or a 1-2 yr postdoc). The best gen X were professors in their mid-to-late 30s (grad school + 3-5 yr [or more!] postdoc), and now they're going to have to do grad school then post-doc then staff-scientist? That would be a disaster.

    My understanding is that the "staff scientist" designation is supposed to be a permanent career option that is an alternative to PI. It is a really good option for people who maybe don't have the people-management or budget-management or grant-writing skills to run a lab as a PI (or the temperament), but who do have the skills to do great science. I've always seen the staff scientist position as a kind of XO (executive officer), someone who can take over when needed, but isn't really the one in the big chair.

    I also thought the key to a staff scientist was that it was a semi-permanent job (maybe permanent but without tenure) with the expectation that growth did not have to entail leaving.

  • Yizmo Gizmo says:

    It needs to be semi-permanent, otherwise it's just as worthless as "another postdoc"
    in an era when postdocs are too common and don't lead to permanent stable employment.
    They just published a paper in Nature Biotechnology showing doing a postdoc will hurt your career, compared to alternative routes. Ouch.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    If the staff scientist position becomes a 5 year post post-doc position, it will turn into yet another holding pattern.

    Exactly. This has to be an alternative for people who want to stay in the lab as a final career choice destination. More of these positions would have the added benefit of research continuity in labs and decreased reliance on trainees to move projects forward.

  • GM says:

    If the staff scientist position becomes a 5 year post post-doc position, it will turn into yet another holding pattern.

    This will happen is it becomes a "holding" position after which you're out of the system

    But if the Ponzi scheme is to be broken, there is no alternative but creating a lot of such positions for the people who don't want to / cannot become PIs but also do not want to leave science.

    Because right now most of them either have to go to industry (where the labor market is not getting rosier either) or just leave research altogether.

    And that is a tremendous waste

    Even without that, the current system takes what is supposed to be the best and the brightest and takes them out of actual research and into managerial positions, in which they gradually forget all the skills that made such good researchers and at some point become really disconnected from the actual research in their labs, to the point that they themselves don't even understand it anymore and they just serve as salesmen for it at conferences...

  • GM says:

    It needs to be semi-permanent, otherwise it's just as worthless as "another postdoc"
    in an era when postdocs are too common and don't lead to permanent stable employment.

    Yes, exactly -- if it has the same insecurity associated with it as being a postdoc does, it's pointless.

    You need at least as much job security as you do in industry, and as much a chance to find another job if the lab goes under as you do in industry.

    Which leads us to the problem of the stability of lab funding

  • Nat says:

    Ah, this is a really interesting question. I have lots of inchoate thoughts, but I'll spill them out here a bit. Let's be honest here, I stayed in my post-doc lab for 11 total years (for...reasons, lots of them) and in some sense by the end I was a staff scientist.

    I don't think of staff scientists as XOs as qaz suggested, but rather as a warrant officer. This was pointed out to me by a student I worked with who was a Marine veteran. Warrant officers are technical specialists and trainers, yet on a different track than commissioned officers. They are below commissioned officers and above non-comm officers. It was a track that allowed the armed services to retain enough know how to continue operating. In that way I see the PI track as analogous to the commissioned officer track, whereas a useful staff scientist track would be analogous to warrant officers (long term techs and perhaps some lab managers might be thought of as NCOs to continue to metaphor).

    So, by the end of my post doc I was acting as that, a person who would train people to patch clamp and do calcium imaging, give technical advice to other labs doing these experiments or who were sharing our equipment. All in all, I think that's a very useful position for the endeavor as a whole. No matter who you are, your hands on experimental skills degrade with time away from the bench. So having a cadre of highly trained people who continue at the bench can be a useful mechanism to transmit true operational knowledge. And it was useful to me, as it fit well with my situation (plus, had I not stayed at the bench my current job likely wouldn't have come along).

    I think the real questions are: how does something like a staff scientist differ from just a extended post doc? Is it that there is a set time agreed upon for the position to last? Is there a difference in the benefits or salary? There wasn't likely to be any difference in my case, which is why I didn't bother pursuing some title change that was in name only. (but this could be different in different locations, or with different PIs). Does the staff scientist come with a greater chances to work more directly with other PIs (thus expanding the potential list of meaningful mentors and references that would be useful for the next career transition)? Who pays for the staff scientist (because ultimately that will determine whether the position is any different than a 'super post-doc')? Would these positions be possible only for US citizens and residents, or would certain visa holders be potentially in that group?

  • mzspectrum says:

    Interestingly, NIH Intramural programs have a designated position "STAFF SCIENTIST." So in some ways there is a formal (but still pretty amorphous) definition of this positions.

    https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/personnel/ipds-appointment-mechanisms/staff-scientist

    this position includes: an expected degree of independence but without independent resources, pay starting a specified scale GS3 or higher, doctoral degree or equiv, and a review every 4 years.

    The first Promotion criteria explicitly states "GS-13:
    Traditionally used as the first appointment after completing a training position or a promotion from a GS-12 position, this appointment is based on the expectation that the individual will be able to function as a Staff Scientist with minimal supervision and, in addition, has the ability to work effectively with others (e.g., trainees, technicians, colleagues, and supervisors). It is also expected that such individuals will promote their supervisor's research program by independently informing themselves of new approaches, technological or otherwise, and by being knowledgeable about scientific resources (both human and material) at the NIH and elsewhere."

  • Morgan Price says:

    I have a "research scientist" position at a national lab that is semi-permanent (8 years and counting). It's pretty much the same job as being a postdoc, but better paid. Not coincidentally, the national labs get a lot of their funding from the Department of Energy, which runs a lot of long-term projects. The DOE project that funds me has gone through some reorganizations and name changes but is over 10 years old.

    In principle, I think NIH and NSF could operate this way, but it would be a radical change.

    PS At the national labs, "staff scientist" means PI so I would not use that term.

  • Anon_Postdoc says:

    Personally, I imagine "research scientist" as a position to help implement the PI's vision (i.e. make the stuff proposed in the grants happen), while also serving as someone who can help pass lab knowledge/methods training between trainee generations. I guess I imagine a big point of distinction being that while research productivity is as important as it is for grad students or postdocs, demonstrating "independence" vis-a-vis the PI's research focus (which postdocs/grad students seem to require to land TT positions) is not. There's a freedom to help drive the best science/projects, and work collaboratively with others in the lab or between labs, without the constant anxiety/stress about the level of authorship credit.

    In an academic medical center it would seem these positions could be especially useful in MD-run labs who have clinical duties on top of PI duties, and might benefit from PhD-level staff. Implicitly, these positions should be more stable than postdocs (as noted above, at least as stable as industry). Explicitly, it's likely these positions will still depend on grant funding without major structural changes (i.e. magical wishes granted) in university commitments to staffing, NIH support for these positions over postdoc slots on R-grants, reduction in PhD student pipeline, etc., etc.

  • jmz4 says:

    I think research associate professor (or instructor, or lecturer, or whatever you institute calls it) is a lot more common as a post-PD life for people staying in academia but not moving on to a PI slot.

    When I think "staff scientist" I think of someone with a Masters that has worked for a while in academic labs and built a technical skill set that they can market to labs of diverse experimental interests. Or they focus on one thing (microscopy/mass spec) and end up at a core. Sometimes you get PhD's that follow this route, but it seems more rare.
    At institutional research centers (like the Broad) "research scientist" has multiple levels, with the more advanced ones (3-5 years exp.) making 60-75k (plus good benefits), making it a decent living relative to a postdoc.

  • nvm says:

    I think it depends where it is, as somebody here said at the National Labs it seems to be a bit more serious position than in academia - would others confirm? I also sometimes wonder what differentiates Senior and Staff Scientist in industry - any thoughts on that?

    It is all also rather confusing on the industry side, where it seems like a Scientist in one company is a technician with BSc/MSc degree, while in another company it is a manager with PhD, sometimes a post-doc on top...

  • Postdoc, partially gruntled says:

    My R1 has 2 distinct categories for staff scientists... the 'standard' one that can be filled by a masters-level person with experience or a PhD, or a senior staff scientist that is PhD only. Both are meant to be long-term positions, and it's not all that typical for a PD to move into one of those positions after they put in their 5 years as a PD. For a PhD filling either staff scientist category, the pay is a minimum $10-20k higher than for PDs and has better benefits (retirement, tuition benefit for children, etc).

    My experiences suggest that most of the staff scientists here are really the long-term knowledge base for a lab, and their turnover is pretty low as long as the funding situation is stable... they're usually the last ones to go when the $$$ runs out. They're the ones who know everything, who know everyone, and who you go to when you need your shit to work, and they're all really valued by the lab PI. Most of them really don't want to be a PI, but they are very happy doing benchwork. They have varying degrees of grantwriting duties and administration/lab managerial responsibilities, but most of them have a lot of creative input into the projects and are really good at what they do.

    As a late-stage PD who's hitting the road soon, I'm keeping my eye out for those positions despite hoping to move over to the dark side. The staff scientists in my PhD lab were really happy with their positions. I don't feel that way about the staff scientist in my current lab, so it's gotta be a good lab. With respect to the 5 year time limit - I'm in agreement with the rest of the hive here, putting a clock on a staff scientist job just turns it into PD v2.0.

  • Brain says:

    Keep in mind that scientist positions in the private sector aren't exactly stable. Your company can be bought out one day and you're on the street the next. Job stability is a relative concept.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The grass is always greener, Brain.

  • jmz4 says:

    Any word on how that NCI "staff scientist" grant thing went? That one was a bit problematic, and seemed like it was going to just be another BSD PD salary offset tool.

    Could the existing NIH funding mechanisms be adapted to encourage staff scientists? Should they?

    I'd like to see people that have had their labs for 10 years (pr R01+ renewal), but are under 55 be eligible to apply specifically for a staff-scientist funding award. Ideally it would be attached to an R01 as an extra bit of funding (I know, that's a bit of a stretch these days), similar to the diversity supplements. I would guess you could promote anyone with at least a masters to that spot (so advanced grad or PD), with the caveat that they can't be funded on a different NIH grant within 5 years without negotiating it with a PO.

    It'd provide a way to get people hooked up to stably funded projects (I assume two renewal R01s are pretty stable?), and give a boost to the funding of the mid-career types in a way that would also help reform the whole system.

  • Cjb says:

    Jmz4- I happened to get an email today soliciting applications to the NCI program and have included the link, in case you're interested.
    https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/pa-files/PAR-17-049.html

  • zb says:

    "But if the Ponzi scheme is to be broken, there is no alternative but creating a lot of such positions for the people who don't want to / cannot become PIs but also do not want to leave science."

    But there's no incentive in the system to break the Ponzi scheme. We get more science out of it by squeezing as much value as we can out of the entry levels of the tournament, holding the tournament win out as the prize. The system will only be broken by people refusing to enter the tournament, so that the supply of labor disappears.

    I've been watching this conversation for years and concluded that none of the players with power (PIs, universities, NIH, the taxpayer) have shown any likelihood of changing the dynamics.

    My advice to the young scientist: do your PhD, take the post-doc, but after the 10-12 years, find a PI position, or get out of the post-doc mill. I think these days, it's par for the course to invest 12 years and still reinventing yourself (since there's no sure career path anyway). But, I'd give the same advice to someone planning a PhD in Neuroscience as in English literature. I might advise the NS student that they can accept a spot in the PhD program from the top 20 schools (or maybe top 20 labs?), rather than the top 5.

  • Nat says:

    nvm - title in industry vary quite a lot as every company has different terminology. In the end much of the difference is based on how much autonomy you'll be given. A position that includes assay development and validation, where the person is expected to independently design the approach to the general question of "what does this x do to y" are generally PhD level scientists. It could be an exceptional MS level person, but it turns out that the best training for experimental design is to do a ton of experiments, have many fail, and then do more. That describes grad school pretty well. 🙂 And within this level there's usually some way to figure out if the person has supervisory responsibility or how much experience/technical expertise they have.

    Positions with less autonomy, where you might be given an assay someone else developed the conditions for, and your job is to run a bunch of compounds through that assay, are more likely to be research assistant types - the Bachelors or Masters level folks.

    I will echo Brian's point: there's less job security in industry than in most academic post docs. But, if you do lose your job, it might be easier to bear. You might well get a severance, it may be less personal (say, the CSO decided we're not doing small molecules anymore, we're gonna do antibody biologics, so they lay off your whole division), and lastly, moving between jobs isn't unusual so it's not a red flag (barring obvious issues).

    Plus, you set aside some of that better salary just for such a possibility. 😉

  • Dave says:

    My concern is that these job titles will be used for positions that are essentially tech jobs. From the PIs perspective, this could be another way to exploit post-docs.

  • Dave says:

    @jmz4: research associate profs are unicorns. They are typically very well funded PIs with a track record of staying afloat through very difficult circumstances. Your characterization is a little off...to say the least.

  • Artnsci says:

    I find the NIH's suggestion that academic research labs hire "staff scientists" to be ludicrous. Our labs are of course funded mainly by NIH R01 grants which have failed to provide the funds necessary to pay for increasing personnel costs over the past two decades. Currently you can't even pay 1 junior postdoc with health benefits from a standard R01 and still have enough money leftover to do the project. The NIH has forced us to run our labs using cheap labor, they have to give us more money if they want us to pay our lab workers better and create permanent jobs for PhDs in our labs. It would also help if study sections would stop automatically recommending cutting of all R01's by 2 modules.

  • Grumble says:

    @zb: "But there's no incentive in the system to break the Ponzi scheme. We get more science out of it by squeezing as much value as we can out of the entry levels of the tournament, holding the tournament win out as the prize. The system will only be broken by people refusing to enter the tournament, so that the supply of labor disappears."

    That's true. It's also true of many other highly competitive career tracks. How many kids have dreams of topping their careers out as professional football, basketball or baseball players? How many dream of becoming a violin soloist, or even a second violinist for a first-rate symphony? Or of being a star on Broadway or in Hollywood? There is zero incentive for any of these establishments to reduce the pool of incoming talent, or to make it any easier for them to succeed. Should science be less like these star-struck fields and more like, say, accountancy? And if so, how would that change come about?

  • Grumble says:

    @Artnsci: "It would also help if study sections would stop automatically recommending cutting of all R01's by 2 modules."

    There is an easy solution to this. Ask for 2 extra modules.

    Sometimes life is actually easier than it seems.

  • Dave says:

    Not the professional sport reference again....

  • JL says:

    "There is an easy solution to this. Ask for 2 extra modules."

    Go above modular and be punished extra for having the guts to ask for it. Maybe BSDs can get away with that.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Rumor has it some POs are back to issuing cautions about budgets over $250k...anyone else hearing this?

  • Grumble says:

    JL - Do you have any evidence that reviewers "punish" applicants who dare to go non-modular? I've never seen it brought up at study section, or in grant reviews.

  • Michael says:

    The permanence of the job is explicit, makes the position highly desirable for many, and is a lie of sorts because it still depends in the vast majority of cases on soft money. The position (and all these unanswered questionhighlights the structural flaws in the system. Staff scientist should be staff IMHO and supported by the institution to some degree, and not be a house of cards supported by soft money.

  • Yizmo Gizmo says:

    Grumble,
    We are not asking to be the next Tom Cruise or Yoyo Ma, or demanding to
    be superstars. The competitive part is supposed to be getting into a good grad program and publishing, and getting the degree, not applying to hundreds and hundreds of jobs and coming up empty.
    Former postdocs are simply looking for permanent or semi-permanent teaching or
    research jobs, something other than another postdoc slot. My last job was in Turkey and the idiots wouldn't even pay me, just some chicken feed salary of $30,000 to teach med school (I took it because I was excited to be faculty after 10 years postdoc) and they couldn't deliver a paycheck, then fired me for complaining about it ("morale problems" or some BS). That's how exploitive things have gotten.
    Getting a job should not be harder than Organic Chemistry. The system is fundamentally broken. Imagine if only 15% of Med School graduates became doctors. There would be hell to pay and there would be systemic reform.

  • Grumble says:

    OK, YG. So you think science should be more like accountancy. You know, do a good job and you'll have a solid career and a paycheck for life. I hear your complaint, but you haven't told me why the accountancy model is better for *science*, not just better for you.

  • EPJ says:

    If you use the internet and talk to people in unrelated fields, as prudently as possible, you will notice the same pattern of problems, it is genuine and consistent. It happens to science people in the business world too. It reached that part too.

    (So it looks like it is saturated, which means one of the components is limiting and the other one is in excess. But when the same thing happens to a multi component system the limiting one has to be augmented or modified. But this is more complex because we are talking about complex components, or humans. And I think that is precisely the best answer to the problem, it is a man-made system, so it can be fixed by human thinking and attitude).

    Notice also that each sector of society talks about money and its value, so a good starting point should be there. And scientists need to look at that, even just as an exercise to balance knowledge, just as you would do when doing statistics to come up with a good answer or explanation. The explanations of fittest and predatory capacity may play a role, but they also have a very bad outcome, and a big wasteful component.

  • jmz4 says:

    @Dave" research associate profs are unicorns. They are typically very well funded PIs with a track record of staying afloat through very difficult circumstances. Your characterization is a little off...to say the least."
    -At my old Uni, this is just the job title PDs over 6 or 7 years were transferred into. It allowed their salary to continue growing, and they got all the benefits the TT faculty got. Some of them took the opportunity to apply for grants, but most didn't (I don't think they were allowed to for a long time).

    Current ILAF, I'd say about 50% of labs have some sort of permadoc Instructor/Lecturer person floating about, in no rush to leave (they make 75k here).

  • JL says:

    Grumble,
    I applied over modular (slightly and only for year one). Reviewers said nothing. PO said that my first grant is not the place to "break the bank". I got way below modular. I don't have a control grant, but my grants since have been modular and none has been cut as bad.

    I assumed that when you said to add two modules, you meant go over modular. Maybe it's not the same if you remain modular.

  • JL says:

    Michael "Staff scientist should be staff IMHO and supported by the institution to some degree, and not be a house of cards supported by soft money."

    The funny thing is that universities DO have stable positions whose funding does not depend on soft money. They don't even require a graduate degree or applying for grants. They are admin staff, and most of them go home at 5pm.

  • jmz4 says:

    ^We have a lab member who does 50% admin (morning) and 50% lab work (after lunch till 5-6). She's pretty good at both. I wonder what would happen if we recommended phasing out traditional admin staff in favor of these dual-role staff (jk, I know what would happen).

  • Geo says:

    P.I. pulls in the Bucks for a Team Approach. Long-term staff scientists. High productivity. Ideal Situation.

  • Artnsci says:

    Hi Grumble,

    Of course I already ask for the top permitted module range, and I don't want to risk going over non-modular in my budget because I'd probably get even less. Study sections seem to think that unless you have a ton of mice in your project you don't need the high $ awards.

    I do wish the NIH would pay more attention reality in grant budgets.

    On R01 study sections that I have been on, the budgets typically received only approx 30 sec of consideration at the end of the loong discussion about the science when everyone including the chair is eager to finish that grant review and move on. Especially if the budget includes an expensive (ie experienced staff scientist equivalent) tech or postdoc, someone is sure to say "do they really need that person? I don't even pay my own tech/lab manager/postdoc that much!" and so the budget cut is recommended and then written down in stone by the program official.

    In addition, lab personnel costs are only poorly aligned with NIH awards - the awards usually do not provide sufficient funds to actually hire/pay the person for number of years in the award.

    At my academic institution, we are subject to HR rules for all lab employees that makes it very difficult to predict/control future personnel costs in our labs.

    - I have zero discretion on technician and postdoc salaries/pay when I hire someone. HR tells me how much (or little) I must pay each person, based on their credentials and time working in a lab or from receipt of their degree. HR does not care about my opinion of the employee's skillset, if their experience is relevant to my lab, what money I have available for the project, or what the employee will agree to accept in terms of salary.

    - Technicians and postdocs' salaries here MUST increase every year, and labs also must pay the increasing health care benefit rates for these personnel that often unexpectedly increase each year. Even if you are paying someone off an already funded NIH grant that has zero provision for changing the award amount, we still have to pay all unexpected annual institutionally-announced increases in benefit rates and salary adjustments/raises for our lab personnel.

    - if the NIH cuts your award, or the government shuts down or something, we still have to pay the person the amount that the institution says we must. The sole thing I can change in order to control costs is that I can stop paying someone earlier than planned/tell them I'm letting them go earlier.

    - All labs at my institution are explicitly prohibited from firing long-term older technicians (who also have the highest salary) and hiring younger and cheaper replacements. The institution is afraid they will be sued for age discrimination; they do not care how it affects our budgets.

  • Grumble says:

    @Artnsci:

    I have all the same problems. That's why I propose projects that are quite large in scope - large enough to justify the personnel (and supplies, animals and equipment) I request. That doesn't necessarily mean I have to do the entire project - especially if the award is smaller than the budget I requested.

    @JL: Yeah, it's probably different for people applying for their first R01. Ask for the modular limit, and it will be cut by a module or two. That's pretty common. The good news is that the program staff won't have the same horrified reaction if you go non-modular for your second and subsequent R01.

  • Artnsci says:

    The real problem, IMO, is that institutions have become so risk-adverse in their hiring of TT assistant professors at R1's.

    I think that R1 academic institutions need to create a great many more traditional TT assistant professor positions and should fill them with talented well-trained people who would otherwise be stuck in second and third postdocs doing work for others. They could use a common lab space/facilities and receive a little start up, and they would have the opportunity to work hard and hopefully get grants as soon as possible based on their own ideas. The best of these people would be promoted in 7-10 years to Assoc prof and get a perm position, start up, and a separate lab. The rest could go into another job path that does not require creativity and the ability to run their own projects, such as being an academic lab manager (yes a tech position) or working in a pharma or biotech lab.

    The last thing that academic "science" needs is for the young and talented people in our profession to get stuck working for others forever as postdocs or "staff scientists". Working for multiple years as a postdoc or staff scientist is NOT a good test of how well they will do running their own labs. Let's give them the independent academic research PI positions that so many want and then let's let the ones that do well stay.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Oh yes. 7-10 crabs scrabbling over access to shared resources. What could go wrong?

  • Artnsci says:

    Like it of not, competition for scarce resources is a prominent feature of all academic labs and of being an academic scientist. Postdocs seeking to be PI's who can't handle competition probably should give up the goal to be PI's.

    Currently in most labs postdocs have to scrabble over shared resources and plum projects. Senior postdocs seeking to write their own grants must even compete with their own PI to determine which of their data they are permitted to use in their own grants vs the PI's own R01's. And of course, once you are a PI you must compete with all other PI's in the country to get that scarce federal grant money.

    If anyone wants to be a PI and is scared of competition, they won't succeed.

  • Ola says:

    At my institution, things have become a lot more defined of late, and I view this generally as a good thing.

    The old situation was no cap on post-doc' time, and everyone who wanted to (and whose PI had funding) could pretty easily be promoted to RAP. This usually happened after 6 or 7 years. Not a lot of policing of RAPs, so their numbers swelled and they essentially became "super post-docs", with very few making the career leap to tenure track.

    This all changed about 3 years ago when the Dean decided that too many RAPs was messing with our [# of grants / # of grant-eligible faculty] metric. So, how to trim the RAP ranks? The office of graduate education and post-doc' affairs put a hard cap of 5 years on total post-doc time, and made a lovely flow chart to guide the post post-doc career decisions... RAP, StaffSci or Instructor. Several RAPs got transposed over to StaffSci, and some got fired. Every single RAP got independently reviewed by the Dean's office, who met with the PI to provide a plan/justification for that person's career path. Within a fairly short period, as an institution we now have half as many RAPs as before. The jobs are roughly defined as follows:

    - RAP. Expected to be mini-faculty. Write grants, do a bit of teaching, maybe land a tenure track position in-house if they get funded. Expected to publish as senior author. Benefits at the same level as faculty (retirement program eligible). All soft money from PI grants. Eligible for competitive intramural small grant programs. Assigned square footage in space budget.

    - Staff Scientist. Explicitly NOT allowed to submit grants. Not expected to teach. Not expected to publish as senior author. Not assigned own space. Benefits at same level as RAP (this equivalency was a big deal in trying to persuade some long-term RAPs to make the transition across). All soft money from PI grants.

    - Instructor. Similar to Staff Scientist, but allowed to offset a portion of salary (up to 30%) for significant teaching effort. Can (but not required to) submit for intromural funding, publish, etc.

    I'm generally in favor of all this. It forced PI's to reckon with the question "is this person going to make it to tenure track", and move the long term super-post-doc's over to StaffSci positions. Sure, a few of them groused about it, but what was their alternative, really? Apart from having to give the "sorry but you're not going to make it" talk, the only other down-side from a PI perspective is the hard cap of 5yr. post-doc' time has killed the ability to hire people for a 2nd post-doc' (not enough time left to get papers out the door before the clock ends), so the only option is to hire them fresh out of grad' school, which has both its ups and downs.

    None of this, of course, gets around the original problem, wherein people in all these ranks have to be supported by soft money. That's why I find @superkash's original tweet a bit odd weird - why offer 5 years? No more, no less. Most HR offices will only let you hire on 1 year contracts, renewable for up to X. Sure, he may have 5 years of money, but still should not define the job as such. Anyone applying for this job should probably know going in, that it might be a year, or 20, depending on the PI's funding state.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It turns out that the understanding of what a job offer might mean is far from universal, Ola. And it can change, as your story supports.

  • Jmz4 says:

    @Ola, that sounds pretty reasonable, except for the 5 year cap. I'm not in favor of anything that encourages people to remain in an unproductive postdoc.

  • zb says:

    "If anyone wants to be a PI and is scared of competition, they won't succeed."

    It's not the fear of competition that is the problem in your scenario, but the potential for encouraging and rewarding negative behaviors. Not just negative as in disrupting the fantasy we all have of "we're all one big happy family working for the common good", but cheating, fraud, bullying, harassment.

    That is, will the competition be "fair" and will someone be refereeing the fair behavior? Or will we have equivalents of tripping and hits to the head?

  • zb says:

    "OK, YG. So you think science should be more like accountancy. You know, do a good job and you'll have a solid career and a paycheck for life."

    You have some conclusive evidence that accountancy is actually like that these days? In general, most jobs are going the way of tournaments these days, with a constant need for hustle and risk and readjustment. Given the collapse of the accountant industry in 2008, I'd suspect the same for accountancy.

    I do think that succeeding in science (and in many other fields) is becoming more like what we traditionally associate with fields we thought were riskier. But, I don't think everyone considering a PhD program understands that yet. And that's where i disagree with casually making the comparison between entering a PhD program in Neuroscience and planning on being an NBA player. Most folks don't understand the roughly equivalent risk.

    If you are a student considering science today, you educate yourself on the significant risk and make plans for readjustment. The system won't suffer until students we want start choosing other paths because they perceive the risk/reward being insufficient.

    And, as an American student (i.e. one who already has the right to work and live in the US) you have to balance the value of the reward with those for whom the opportunity to come to the US is one of the rewards of the student/post-doc spot (i.e. international students). You also have to consider your own personal safety net. My kids, for example, can probably expect help through the 10 years or so I suggest they throw their hat in the ring and the possibility of a safety net after (and, potentially even a bit of inheritance).

  • UCProf says:

    @JL
    "The funny thing is that universities DO have stable positions whose funding does not depend on soft money. They don't even require a graduate degree or applying for grants. They are admin staff, and most of them go home at 5pm."

    Plus they get paid the same, plus they have better benefits.

    I know a staff member here who started at the university at 20 yrs old. He is assistant to the dean for something now. He makes about the same as a full professor.

    The full professor, who started at age 40, can retire at age 60 and will have a pension of about 50% of her highest salary.

    The staff member, who started at age 20, can retire at age 60 and have a pension of 100% of his highest salary.

  • Grumble says:

    @zb: "The system won't suffer until students we want start choosing other paths because they perceive the risk/reward being insufficient."

    Yeah but see, we give the students a nice stipend so they can play around in a lab for 5-7 years. That beats MANY alternatives (such as paying $250k+ to go to med school and then dealing with debt for 10 years).

    @UCProf: What is this "pension" of which you speak? I've heard that word. I think it was in a talk by a paleontologist describing the fossil record.

  • EPJ says:

    A lot of good/informative comments here.

    From the overall situation you can infer that quite a bit of ideas and applications can be missed/suppressed because of the design of the hierarchy and its reshuffling over time. Or is the hierarchy design favoring the channeling into a certain direction in a controlled way?

    I say that if the money resource is made available people should have access to grant applications, paper/book submission at all of those sectors of the hierarchy, and without a gruesome display of power or having to resort to 'dirty tricks' to show proof of concept.

    If the latter develops maybe some kind of ring or court can be set to settle differences and the winner carries on the idea without more blocks, visible or invisible ones. And that is what we are seeing lately outside of science too.

    Access to resources in general terms may simple refer to a lab bench, a few supplies and equipment, maybe even a library and reliable software, or other things like approved recorded conferences (now the internet). And access to exchange of ideas and discussions, about the science aspect, not personal issues unless they hint at a pattern to look out for.

    Is that what 'artnscience' is addressing in terms of the actual science work output?

  • Joe says:

    Staff scientists (called "Scientist" at my R1 uni) are only useful if they write grants and can bring in their own money. Otherwise, you are likely better off hiring a post-doc, since they can get their own funding.
    Here Post-doc is a position limited to 5 years, next position is Scientist. Neither RAP nor Instructor is a possible position.

  • Artnsci says:

    Why do you think postdocs would be more likely to act badly if given Assistant Professor positions, and why do you think postdocs do not already feel pressure for fraud and bullying etc?

    My institutions' most egregious scientific fraud case ever was perpetrated by a traditional postdoc faking a whole series of results over years. And this particular postdoc had it easy - he never wrote a grant (didn't have the skill), didn't teach (didn't have that skill either)---he just did experiments and was in an essentially perm position as a the lab manager/lead project manager in a well funded lab of a department chair. When caught red handed, he claimed that he "had" to come up with the faked results or risk losing his job, which was ridic because if anyone had a low-risk job, that guy did.

  • jojo says:

    "Why do you think postdocs would be more likely to act badly if given Assistant Professor positions, and why do you think postdocs do not already feel pressure for fraud and bullying etc?"

    I think the specific situation you had set up was problematic because the Asst Profs are literally physically located at the same place, sharing space and reagents and possibly students / techs with each other. With the explicit knowledge that "4 enter and 1 leaves". This is a terrible idea for morale. The reason I think this is wrong is the same reason I think it is wrong for a PI to hire two postdocs for 1 project and then fire the one that makes less progress after 6 months (yes I've heard of this). It's going to pit those two against each other and select for the most underhanded & least collaborative people.

    There should be some physical and psychological distance between people if they need to be set up as rivals. At the very least if an institution is going to explicitly pit new hires against each other let them have their own space to work in so they don't have to feel crippling and productivity destroying anxiety (for the good ones) or a motive and opportunity to sabotage each other (for the bad ones). The best case is you get two good apples who are made to feel paranoid and alienated either from each other or from the institution.

  • Here, staff scientists are mostly associated with facilities rather then research groups. I am in a physical science, and lab techs are uncommon. I know a few people in such positions (not just at Prodigal U), and it would be great if we could find the funding to make more. Very helpful to research groups, plus a nice position for those who like lab work.

    Artnsci, I completely agree with jojo. In the current situation, postdocs compete with faceless "others" for positions. Setting people up in the same location where they KNOW that only 1 can succeed is asking for trouble. There were places that were rumored to do this (hire 2-3 into Asst Prof positions with 1 Assoc Prof position available), and it certainly made for dreadful work conditions. Even the rumor that this might be true ruined things for a friend of mine (who left ASAP to get out of the toxic environment this fostered--2 TT profs were hired in a short time, and one of them decided my friend was competition for the tenured spot). Science is best done collaboratively. It would really suck if I felt like I couldn't bounce ideas off of my colleagues, or if they were unwilling to share reagents/supplies/instrumentation with me to keep their "advantage" in moving to the next level.

  • physioprof says:

    This is a minor semantic point, but the stucture of the academic biomedical science has absolutely nothing in common with that of a "Ponzi scheme", which requires that money from ever-increasing numbers of incoming investors be used to pay fake returns to smaller numbers of earlier investors. "Ponzi scheme" doesn't just mean, "bad terrible thing that I don't like".

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Pyramid structure, not "Ponzi scheme".

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