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What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing your PhD research (in science, math, or engineering) at a non-academic lab (like a government or industrial lab) vs. the traditional academic setting? (Of course, the degree is granted by a university.)

When is one option better than the other if you have the choice between doing your research in an academic or non-academic setting?

A few potential advantages I can think of:

  • You're likely to be hired by the lab after graduation. If you don't want to enter academia and are happy with the lab, this could be your career. If you do want to enter academia, often you're in good company because leaving research labs for academia isn't uncommon.
  • You can work with more people (your school's students and professors and the lab's researchers). This'll expand your professional network and expose you to different perspectives.
  • Your affiliation with the lab could add some credibility to you and your research.

A few potential disadvantages:

  • Travel could be problematic if your school and your lab aren't close. This could be mitigated by taking care of the coursework first.
  • The research topic is often dictated by someone in the lab if you are funded by them. If you decide this topic is not worth researching or not interesting then you might have a problem. Politics in the lab could change the research topic in the future and that might also be a problem.
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Throughout graduate school I worked at and was funded by a university-run laboratory that operated somewhat like a government laboratory and was largely funded for applied research. I now work at a UARC (which is similar to an FFRDC). Given that my graduate school lab was already affiliated with the University, though, my situation is slightly different than yours.

At least in the US, it is relatively hard for non-academic laboratories to find funding for basic research; funding agencies like the NSF have a prejudice toward funding degree-granting institutions. Therefore, in my experience, much of the flavor of the funding at non-academic laboratories is geared toward applied research. This might not be a problem, but it can be a challenge to find a deep, Ph.D.-level problem to solve when your sponsors are interested in seeing more concrete results.

In my case, working at an applied research laboratory to fund my graduate degrees was actually somewhat of a benefit. Due to the reasons I listed above, it was difficult for me to latch onto a deep problem to solve for which there was stable, direct funding. Therefore, I used my position at the laboratory to basically "pay the bills" (it covered my stipend, tuition remission, &c.). That gave me the freedom to work on related—but not directly funded—problems that interested me. This of course had the overhead of essentially working two jobs at once, but it had the added benefit of providing visibility to my "side" research to the sponsors who were funding my "pay the bills" research. It also paid for my trips to relevant conferences, at which I was able to present both flavors of my research.

Now that I am working at a UARC, I see others here who are also pursuing part-time Ph.D.s. Most of them seem to have found a similar model to mine: They use their position at the non-academic lab to "pay the bills", and then focus their actual research on a related but independent problem. If you are able to fund yourself (i.e., if your Ph.D. advisor doesn't have to worry about finding funding for you), then many advisors will be willing to take you on as a student.

  • I could see that a lab might want more applied research whereas a PhD might be more theoretical. Good point. Someone who does more theoretical work would have a little extra work to do. Thankfully in my case the proposed research topic is a mix of theory and application, and I'm interested in both. – JEs9X May 8 '12 at 13:56
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Since a Ph.D is always granted through some kind of Ph.D granting institution (usually a university) I assume your question is about being funded by a research laboratory while being formally affiliated with a university ?

As with most things, it depends on the context. First of all, I wouldn't be so sure that a permanent job is guaranteed. Unless you have an explicit letter in writing saying so, nothing is set in stone. Secondly, I'd worry about your potential future marketability in the event that you do have to look for a job elsewhere. Again, whether this is an issue depends on the specific context of your arrangement. Finally, your last "pro" about working with students AND researchers may not be true unless the lab and university are relatively close to each other. There's also the risk of your advisor tuning you out, unless there's already a structure of collaboration in place.

  • I've clarified the original question. Some PhD students are funded by a lab (as I would be if I took an offer I'm considering). Others merely do research there for any number of reasons. As for the job part, I did say likely because I'm not so sure. But the few folks I know who went this route did get jobs. In fact, some programs that promote this sort of collaboration require the PhD student to take a job at their collaborating lab for X years. Do you have any other thoughts? I'm aware that my list items have exceptions. – JEs9X May 5 '12 at 19:25
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    Overall, it's fine as long as you're able to do research, and don't end up just being a programmer or something like that. You should have the freedom to publish, attend conferences, and do all the other academic things that your university colleagues can do. – Suresh May 5 '12 at 21:52
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I am currently doing basically this in the UK. I can definitely say it is a viable option, although there are definitely some drawbacks.

The biggest disadvantage is that you lack lots of the support the being based at a academic institution has. There is no student union or similar structures to support you. While you will have access to these facilities via your academic institution they are generally much harder to access due to your physical separation.

Similarly the social life at non-academic institutions is very different. Most of your colleges will not be students and probably have a very different outlook on life, e.g. many more older people with families. Similarly there is no union, clubs or other formalised ways to meet people socially. Although this probably depends more your personality and the specific place your at.

You are also correct that travel to/from your academic institution can be very annoying. For meeting with your supervisor I strongly recommend trying to do as much by skype as possible.

Finally non-academic institutions, even government labs/NMIs tend to be less research focused and more focused on providing a service/developing a product, which might involve significant research. This isn't necessarily a problem as long as your project is well defined and your not at risk of doing several small unrelated projects.

On the plus side, you will probably be more exposed to industry and get a wider understanding of what is viewed as important by end users.

Many of the researchers at these labs are world-leading in there own right and some labs are very highly regarded which can't hurt your future prospects.

Also, they are presumably providing funding for the project. Which is always import to have :).

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