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It's common for graduate students and postdocs to fulfill various "assistant" positions in academia. They may grade papers or conduct research under the direct supervision of a faculty member who is ultimately responsible for the work product. These are functions that require real academic skills, but not up to the level expected of a faculty member. The important thing about these positions is that they are intended to be temporary, a type of brief apprenticeship training on the road to professorship rather than an actual stable career that one could stay in for a few decades.

Is there such a thing in academia as a permanent, full-time assistantship, one not temporary or tied to student status? That is, is it reasonably possible for someone to do this as a career? Obviously, this sort of thing probably wouldn't pay as much as a full-time, regular faculty appointment, but that is neither here nor there for this question.

I'm not thinking about Adjunct Professors. Adjuncts are usually temporary, part-time employees that actually hold faculty-level responsibility. I'm talking about a situation where a person might hold a full-time, indefinite appointment grading student papers, finding citations, or checking petri dishes for bacterial growth under the supervision of faculty, but wouldn't do (and isn't in training to do) their own research or teach unsupervised.

I also recognize that academic departments often have general office positions such as secretaries, human resources professionals, IT help desk technicians, etc., but these sort of roles do not typically involve the use of advanced academic skills.

There are various reasons a person could want to do this. They might want to work in academia but lack the talent to do truly original research, or they might actually have it but realize part-way through their PhD that they hate doing original research but truly enjoy grading papers or holding tutoring sessions. They might like going out into the field and applying best practices in digging up soil samples but enjoy the fact that their career is not in jeopardy if the research hits a dead-end (rather, the faculty that decided to dig there faces the setback).

As an example, someone might say, "Ok, I'm wrapping up my MS in Chemistry and I don't want to go for a PhD, my thesis was hard enough! I'd really like to spend the next ten years grading freshman homework, TA'ing the Organic Chemistry I lab, and designing data-gathering protocols for others' research projects. Those were the parts of the past two years that I truly enjoyed."

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    Some departments may have supervisors for undergraduate labs (oversee safe operations, maintain equipment, etc.). Research center directors will often be tenured professors, but there is usually an assistant or two to perform much of the day-to-day work keeping things going. Academia is pretty diverse, so many things are possible. – Jon Custer Dec 16 '19 at 16:45
  • I think it would be a tiny target to aim for if you want a career. Certainly there are lab assistants in large labs. But funding might be grant dependent. For positions that don't require long term continuity, students are likely preferred. – Buffy Dec 16 '19 at 16:55
  • Maybe it isn't official. But I have certainly seen people who worked as non-tenure-track researchers for decades. I remember one guy in particular who had been at the department for more than 20 years, working for the prof he got his PhD under. – puppetsock Dec 16 '19 at 18:56
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Yes, this absolutely exists in my field. Such people are typically called "Research Scientists" or "Research Associates." At my last university, a PhD was only a requirement for Research Scientist III. The level of independence depended on your own experience, and I suppose your PI's desires. That is, I would expect each one to have their own pieces of a project, and be on a few papers a year.

I have not heard of one having teaching responsibilities (even just grading) without holding a PhD, since those are often used for grad student funding. I do know of a few people who had lecturer responsibilities without holding a faculty position technically.

  • I have done a lot of grading as PhD student. Small oral exams by myself, bigger written exams were usually graded by the whole insitute staff (all PhD students, postdocs and permanent researchers), typically assigning everyone their "own" question(s). – cbeleites supports Monica Dec 16 '19 at 18:15
  • I have a position that sounds similar to these, though I do have a PhD. I would say the main requirement for these positions is "a department or professor who will pay the bills" - if you can convince someone to fund your position, these jobs exist. Except for some very high-demand skill sets, like statisticians (who often fill these jobs with just a MS or maybe even a BS), most people in these jobs were known to the person funding them ahead of time. – Bryan Krause Dec 16 '19 at 18:15
  • @cbeleitessupportsMonica I've never heard of staff grading anything, but I spent most of my time in a non-degree-granting department. – Azor Ahai Dec 16 '19 at 21:06
  • Who does the grading depends a lot on the school. My school offers PhDs in very few departments, so Master's candidates do most of the grading, under supervision of the course instructor. I personally do all my own grading, because I feel the feedback is critical to student learning, but I know I'm in the minority on that. – Kathy Dec 16 '19 at 22:07
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These positions exist, but at least here in Germany they are rare.

In, German, we call everyone in a research or teaching position at a university who has graduated and is not a professor Akademischer Mittelbau. I'll translate this for now as mid-level faculty (but would be happy to receive better translation suggestions). Mid-level faculty includes what would be an assistant professor in the US, and also researchers/teachers working on their habilitation but not junior professors.

If you look up the fraction of such positions that is permanent, you'll see quite some variation depending on whether the fraction is given for mid-level faculty without PhD students (who are are counted in this mid-level group unless they volountarily enrolled as student; PhD "students" basically always on fixed term positions) and whether the fraction is given for mid-level researchers paid by the Land or includes also positions in third-party funded research (the latter being fixed term for the project duration).

Of the mid-level positions paid by the Land Thüringen in 2017, 53 % were fixed term.

FAZ from March 2018 about the situation in all of Germany (so not specific Länder) says the fraction of fixed term positions among those paid by their respective Land (Grundfinanzierung) rose from 67 % -> 75 % from 2005 -> 2015.

If you include positions on third-party funded projects, you'll find fractions around 80 - 85 % of the mid-level staff being on fixed-term positions.


In my experience, mid-level faculty permanent positions are maybe an Oberassistent being the head of the labwork practica, often also teaching a lot, or they may be the "keeper" of delicate large instruments where at some point the professor was able to negotiate with the Land that such an expensive instrument also needs someone alongside who doesn't change every few years (these ones are involved in ongoing research). They are often approaching pension age (because some decades back, there were more permanent positions in academia) - but once they retire, there often won't be a permanent contract any more.
The other type of permanent positions are technical staff (which still may require a PhD).

The chance to get a permanent contract as researcher but not professor is IMHO higher if you consider non-university research such as research institutes run by the federal government or the big research societies (Max Planck, Leibniz, Fraunhofer, Helmholtz). It may also be higher if you consider a University of Applied Science (Fachhochschule) rather than a normal university.


I also recognize that academic departments often have general office positions such as secretaries, human resources professionals, IT help desk technicians, etc., but these sort of roles do not typically involve the use of advanced academic skills.

Yes, but: as I hinted at above, there are also technical positions that require at least a Master or even a PhD. E.g. I know

  • a physicist holding a technical position in a deprtment of psychology (building measurement instruments for their experiments)
  • a computer scientist half on a research position and half on a IT technician position (didn't ask exactly what they do there, but the institute does quite heavy computations)
  • another physicist who's "keeper" of a research laser.
  • some chemists looking after similarly delicate machinery, and practicum and teaching (of whom I don't actually know whether they are on a permanent position, but if not they are at least sufficiently high up on the priority list whom to keep by the responsible professor to be there since at least 15 a)

"Ok, I'm wrapping up my MS in Chemistry and I don't want to go for a PhD, my thesis was hard enough! I'd really like to spend the next ten years grading freshman homework, TA'ing the Organic Chemistry I lab, and designing data-gathering protocols for others' research projects. Those were the parts of the past two years that I truly enjoyed."

My experience as a chemist is that chemistry is one of the very few fields where the PhD is pretty much unavoidable. This plan has a few practical problems:

  • grading freshman homework, TA'ing the Organic Chemistry I lab: yes, that's done by fresh Masters. But these TA positions are usually reserved for PhD students who have to earn their living somehow. Someone who doesn't want to go for a PhD will typically not get such a position.

  • designing data-gathering protocols for others' research projects: unfortunately, for all I know chemistry is still very blind with respect to data, curation, and programming resources needed for their projects. Again, a PhD student doing this and pointing out the need during their research will be welcome (highly appreciated even; I've done that), but getting a (full) position for this that isn't involved in PhD research will be extremely hard.

  • I've hardly seen any permanent teaching staff at higher levels (i.e. not the PhD student TAs, but those responsible for their own lecture series) that did not have a PhD, and many even did/had their habilitation.

So from what I've seen, it is easier to transition from a point where you've proven to be capable as researcher to doing more and more teaching, or more and more of the high-level technical stuff.

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UK life science here:

Such positions do exist, but with Germany (@cbeleites above), they are rare.

In research these positions are sometimes known as Staff Scientist or Scientific Officer. They are more common at research institutes than universities and generally require a PhD. The key point is that you generally can't be grant funded grant funding, by its nature, is time limited. 99% of science is grant funded in UK Life Science universities departments.

An alternative is the so called perma-doc. These are people that attach themselves to a senior academic and basically move from one time limited postdoc contract to the next with the same boss. As long as the boss keeps getting money, you keep getting a job. This can work out, but is risky as the academics work might fall out of fashion, and the grants dry. Also, the academic will almost always be older, and so will retire before you. And then you are in trouble.

Without a PhD, you are basically talking about research technicians. These are sometimes employed on permanent contracts by departments, sometimes on grant money (with the assumption of renewal).

There are also permanent, non-faculty jobs in teaching. Although again, they are rare. Our department employs 2 teaching lab technicians and 2 permanent demonstrators. The demonstrators are "fresh out of PhD" kind of level, work 9 months a year (we are lobbying to change this), but are permanent. I don't know about the level of qualifications for the teaching lab techs.

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