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My Background:

I'm a PhD Microbiologist currently in the third year of a post-doc working in a US government research lab. While I do work for the government, I'm classified as a contractor and, as such, my pay and benefits are substantially less than government FTE colleagues (although they're much better than most academic post-docs get). With a half-way decent publication track-record (~2.5 papers per year) and some competitive funding on my CV, I'm fairly confident that I could at least try applying for a research faculty/PI position after another 2-3 years of post-doc research (not saying I'll get one, but I'd feel confident starting to apply).

My dilemma:

I was recently approached about several direct hire positions open at the federal agency where I work. I've met with a couple of the hiring supervisors, and they all sounded very stoked on my qualifications and have strongly encouraged me to apply to their respective openings. The problem is (if it is a problem), all of the openings are for regulatory scientists, with no research component to the jobs.

It's honestly an amazing opportunity that I would love to pursue, not just for monetary reasons, but for the work experience and the doors that that would open up for me. But I keep circling back to the doors that I might be closing if I did take it. Basically, I'm worried that any amount of time spent away from the bench will make it much more difficult to transition back into research if I should decide regulatory work isn't right for me.

So, academic community: am I worrying about nothing? Or is walking away from research a one-way street?

(For the sake of argument, let's "pretend" that I have absolutely no interest in private industry research jobs).

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  • I did want to add that split fellowships do exist in the agency, just far fewer of them. They're designed as temporary positions to give researchers some regulatory experience before transitioning into a full-time regulatory roll. But most people who have them don't seem interested in transitioning anywhere, and they basically only become available when someone leaves, and getting one has more to do with luck and patience than qualification.
    – MikeyC
    Commented Dec 1, 2021 at 22:24

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All changes of job or career, big or small, have this kind of risk. It probably depends on how long you stay in the regulatory job. Probably if you do it for one year, then you will know whether you like it, and you won't have been away from academic work for too long.

It's honestly an amazing opportunity that I would love to pursue

In that case you should probably do it. Of course, you might find that you dislike the job but cannot bear to give up the high salary ("substantially" more than something that is "much better than most academic post-docs get", as you say). But you should be able to get a reasonable idea of whether you would like the job now, by talking to these people that have approached you.

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