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I am an undergrad currently finishing up a research internship at a Department of Energy national laboratory. I've enjoyed my time here, and I want to work at a national lab post-PhD. With my PhD admissions cycle starting this fall, I'm wanting to get a sense of how these plans will be viewed. I know that academia varies, but even the existence of a strong divide (like "some professors hate the national labs, others would be happy for a former student to go there") would be valuable information.

  • How are graduates who wind up in national labs viewed? (If I need to be more specific, I'm in computer science). Is this considered a successful placement, or are they the butt of jokes in department meetings?
  • I intend to include this goal in my statement of purpose. To me, this seems like a strength; it clearly shows why I'm applying for a PhD. Is it actually, or is it something better left unmentioned?

My "literature review": Although some questions on this SE are about national labs, they are mostly pros-and-cons comparisons of academic and national lab jobs (such as link, link, and link), which is not what I am asking about. The other thing I found was this question, but that was inquiring about rec letters from government researchers, not the applicant's future plans.

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    Of course, the DOE labs have access to some incredible computers.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 8 at 2:56
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    If you want to work at a national lab, what do you care what professors in some far-off university are gossiping about in their department meetings?
    – Sneftel
    Apr 8 at 8:50
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    @Sneftel I still need to get into one of these "far-off universities" (I'm applying for a Fall 2025 start), so their opinion is important for admissions/finding an advisor. Based on the answer and its comment, though, sounds like all is good!
    – David8
    Apr 8 at 12:47
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    At least in my field (astrophysics) national labs are viewed equivalently as universities. It is particularly nice if you don't want to teach and/or want a more flexible schedule to allow travelling to visit collaborators or go to workshops/conferences. Apr 9 at 4:02
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    As a faculty member at an R1 in engineering, I can say that departments are in fact proud of their grads at national labs.
    – sh314
    Apr 9 at 11:58

4 Answers 4

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Most of my Ph.D. graduates go on to the national Labs. The research is top notch, and who doesn't like going from a graduate student stipend to ~100K for a postdoc?

I don't think I have ever encountered any particular derision towards a career at the national labs. Many active research groups within the national labs have strong ties to various universities, so they are often not separate from traditional academia, rather than just being academia adjacent (not even counting the significant amount of PIs with dual appointments at universities).

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    My understanding is that, if anything, most of the DoE national labs are considered more prestigious than most universities! They have a long history of producing high-quality, often Nobel-class, research.
    – xuq01
    Apr 8 at 3:54
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The national labs are not looked down upon in academia (beyond a few snobs, but those kinds of snobs will look down on anyone who isn't them, anyway). National labs are doing world class research and frequently (not always, but frequently) have considerably better funding and resources than academic labs. Many of the national labs also have easy access to user facilities that allow access to resources/instruments that would be far too expensive for any one group to have created on their own - and there are a lot of colleges and universities that depend upon those user facilities. E.g., Oak Ridge and Argonne both have supercomputers that university academics can apply for running time on, without having to spend hundreds of thousands in grant money.

I work at a national lab right now. As you probably know, several of the national labs are actually run by universities (e.g., Lawrence Berkeley is run by University of California, Argonne is run by University of Chicago, Ames National Lab is run by Iowa State University, etc.), and it is not uncommon for laboratory staff to have joint appointments where they teach a class or two at the respective university and then run their research group at the national lab. As a result, our lab group actually has almost a dozen Ph.D. students who are attending the managing university, but are doing all of their research at the national lab and are basically lab employees with slightly worse benefits.

With your career aspirations I would HIGHLY recommend looking at Ph.D. programs at colleges/universities that run the national labs or have the ability to have joint appointments with national lab faculty. For example, although Argonne National Lab is run by University of Chicago, it has joint appointment employees with at least a dozen other universities, including some you wouldn't expect like University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, University of Oregon, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, etc. Definitely mention the national labs in your cover letter.

You can also try emailing professors at those schools that have joint appointments - although US universities generally have applications through the program rather than through specific professors, there are occasionally some lab PIs who can fund their Ph.D. students through DOE grants, and may actually be able to direct admit you to working with their group (this is again very uncommon, but I know of a couple cases where it happened.)

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    Some attention should be paid to whether the lab is a DOE Office of Science lab (like those you mention) and NNSA labs (e.g. Los Alamos). Each offers good options, but they have different operating models.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 8 at 16:27
  • None of the non-DOE labs, including the NNSA labs, are run by universities, so it's not really an issue in this case. Apr 8 at 16:40
  • Although they certainly have different working environments. Apr 8 at 16:41
  • Not that different in various parts. And not all Office of Science labs have a university as the management entity. Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore were managed by the UC system, and UC is so part of the managing consortium.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 8 at 16:54
  • And very different in other parts. I know not all OS labs have a university as management, that's why I said "several" and not "all" national labs are actually run by universities. Fair point re: LANL and LLNL management. Apr 8 at 17:37
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Your underlying questions seems to be:

How do I increase my chances of working at a U.S. DOE national lab?

My PhD coadivsor and their partner went from a national lab to their current position. They both continued research with the national lab as well. So, here's my advice:

Look for professors who have strong connections with national labs and find professors who list that their current students (via internships) and former students (via next job or current job) work at national labs.

How are graduates who wind up in national labs viewed?

Some professors will look down at these alumni. The good news is that you do not want these professors to be your mentor! So, to answer your next question:

I intend to include this goal in my statement of purpose. To me, this seems like a strength; it clearly shows why I'm applying for a PhD. Is it actually, or is it something better left unmentioned?

Mention this! Be honest because you want to match with professors who have mentoring goals and styles that align with you.

Last, use your network. Ask your current internships supervisors and connections where they went for graduate school. They can point you towards advisors and programs that can well prepare you for a national lab job. Also have these people look over your statements and resume. They can give you honest feedback and help point you towards programs where you will be competitive.

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    Speaking only for the groups I've managed at a national lab, we are always happy to help good undergraduate student interns get into good graduate schools. That includes connecting them with PhD advisors of staff members, writing letters of recommendation, helping with scholarship applications, etc.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 8 at 16:26
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Professor at a top-3 engineering dept here, so probably among the snobs. In my field, with a few exceptions, the PhD students who have gone to National Labs have not been the top ones. So if I saw this on your SoP I would think you're either naive or not very ambitious. Then again, I also know that students applying to PhD programs are not well calibrated for the quality of work going on my field, so ultimately I'm neutral about whether to write this down or not. Just keep in mind this is VERY field-dependent.

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