My long-term goal is to work at a research institute. While discussing my career plans with different mentors, I find that there is some confusion about whether a position at a government-funded research institute is still considered "academic." Although my question is mostly semantic in nature, I imagine there are some implications with how to market myself (i.e., what to include in a CV or how to describe myself on LinkedIn). Since many people with posts at research institutes either come from universities or go on to become professors, I think this question is relevant for this forum.

  • The key difference for me are teaching duties. I'm not even expected to teach (but it is encouraged and supported). Therefore, I'm not an "academic". I'm a researcher. – Roland May 14 at 17:27
  • If they do, it seems like the intent would be to distinguish their organization from industry. – Barmar May 14 at 18:55

As background, I work for a US Federal government agency. I am physically located at an agency center, but hold courtesy adjunct appointments at two universities where I serve on graduate committees, mentor undergraduates, collaborate with faculty, and attend seminars. Additionally, my agency has cooperative research units (or coops for short) located at universities.

We have a fair number of cross-overs where we hire faculty to join us as researchers or have our researchers leave to join university faculty. This is true both at the post-doc level and more advanced levels. Personally, when I started as a post doc with my agency, I did not know if I would become permanent staff (I was lucky and did, in my case).

Answer to your title question: I consider myself part of of a broader academic community, but more tangentially involved rather than an academic. So, no I am not an academic. However, my colleagues who are part of the coop units, generally consider themselves to be academics because they are fully embedded in universities and must hold academic professor positions as part of their jobs (and they get both *.gov and *.edu email addresses).

Answer to your underlying question about how to market yourself: I am a research scientist. Many parts of my job are similar to a research-focused academic (e.g., I plan and conduct studies, I apply for funding, I publish, etc). I would sell yourself as a researcher. That's the role you want fill. For example, at a research institute, you would be conducting research. Or, at a university, you want them to hire you to conduct research. Last and pragmatically, if you're not able to get in with a research institute or university, industry hires researchers, but industry almost never hires academics.

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    I appreciate that you addressed the underlying question. It feels a bit like identity politics, but I get the sense that how people call themselves, even in research/academia/science bears a lot of weight. – artificial_moonlet May 15 at 9:22
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    @artificial_moonlet You're welcome. Also, for some un-solicited career advice, I recommend reading the Ask the Headhunter blog. He has a lot of good advice about getting jobs. Many of his tips even apply to government jobs. – Richard Erickson May 15 at 12:45

I don't have statistics, but I'd guess that if you asked the question of individuals working in such institutes it would depend on exactly how you asked the question. I would think that the quick answer would be no, but a more reflective answer, when provided with some "definition" of academic might be yes, but would depend on that definition.

I'm also going to guess that only a small proportion of members here are from such institutes but not associated with a university.

Of course, if a person moves from an institute to a university they would then likely self-describe as an academic.

But if you just ask "what are you", you'd be more likely to hear "researcher" than "academic".

But, as you say, it is mostly semantic, given that many academics do just about the same sort of thing as institute based researchers.

The situation is complicated a bit, of course, since many such institutes are associated with universities - some very closely. It might be further complicated in situations in which industry researchers have some "training" duties, even serving as committee members for graduate students.

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    My suspicion is that my US national lab coworkers would not consider themselves to be 'academics', but instead scientists or researchers or engineers. – Jon Custer May 14 at 13:29
  • @Jon In particle physics at least there is a rough mapping of lab positions to approximate academic rank (based on roles in the ubiquitous lab/university collaborations). But these are people whose output is papers and trained juniors much like professors at R1s. I've known some who describe themselves academics and some who make a distinction. – dmckee May 14 at 18:33
  • @dmckee - interesting data point. I could see that occurring in the DOE/Office of Science labs, such as Lawrence Berkeley, which is closely integrated with UC Berkeley. Less obvious that it might occur at DOE/NNSA labs. – Jon Custer May 14 at 18:36
  • As usual, both this and the other answer combined would be a great overall answer. I'm wondering now, what is an academic-- a researcher who also teaches? But perhaps that's best saved for a different question. – artificial_moonlet May 15 at 9:23

I am not sure that debating the meaning of words is very useful in itself (the exact connotations will even differ between languages!), but perhaps there is some value in mentioning this:

Research and teaching are not really separable.

Wherever there is research being done, you will find students (usually called "graduate students"). Many of these institutes award PhD degrees (or collaborate with a university so that students from the institute can get a degree).

Many believe that it is a core responsibility of researchers to pass on knowledge (not merely to generate it). Look up any person on Wikipedia who famously contributed to knowledge, and the summary box will typically have a "Notable Students" section. Most researchers in the institutes where I worked do teach in a classroom setting occasionally, even if this is not a job requirement.

The concept of classroom teaching is a modern thing. Historically, words like academia were not exclusively associated with this particular method of passing on knowledge.

  • Just as you noted that a classroom is a modern thing, so are the notions of "teaching" associated to modern classrooms. You can teach people without being a professor-- any senior person at a company usually has to train junior members. You are also teaching (i.e., passing on knowledge) any time you present your work, write a high-level blog, or explain what you to do a friend. I think it's perfectly reasonable to be a researcher without formal teaching responsibilities. At times, it can be beneficial, given how bloated and backwards so many university programs are these days. – artificial_moonlet May 15 at 14:47

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