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In Academia, a soft money research position is one where uncertain money comes from an external source. The employee or xyr supervisor/boss might need to secure funding every couple of years or so, in order for the position to continue. The way out would be tenure or a government job.

An obvious soft money position is the post-doctoral fellowship, but many post-docs might not find a faculty position directly. For example, if the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) advertises a soft money assistant researcher position, they have a defined path of promotion steps. UCLA defines four steps of assistant researcher (2 years max), three steps of associate researcher (2 years max), and nine steps of researcher (3 years max until step IV, possibly indefinite from step V). If coming in at step I of assistant researcher, it might, theoretically, take 4*2+3*2+4*3=26 years of positions in steps of 2 years (first 14 years) and 3 years (last 12 years), until one might be appointed indefinately, if I'm reading things correctly. Needless to say, not ideal from an employee's point of view.

Although time-limited positions and soft money might not mean exactly the same thing, I suppose they often go hand in hand. That raises the question: how common is it for researchers to spend a long time, say more than 10 years, in soft money positions? It's one thing to "drop out" of Academia when finishing a PhD at 28 years, it's another thing to move from postdoc to assistant researcher to associate researcher, only to finally discover, at age 45, that you're not good enough for tenure, and lack the necessary skills and experience for a teaching position. Oops.

In Science, Technology and Engineering (STEM) fields in the USA and Canada, how common is it for researchers to spend more than 10 years in time-limited soft-money research positions?

  • My bad. Deleted the comment. – Greg Oct 27 '14 at 3:39
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The way out would be tenure or a government job.

There seems to be a misconception here, namely that tenure is necessarily a way out from soft-money positions. Instead, it's possible to get a tenured soft-money position. This means the university provides no salary or other funding (which are supposed to come from grants), but they can't decide to eliminate your affiliation with the university. This is obviously not as secure as being paid by the university, but it still means something. Controversial research can't be held against you, and the department can no longer decide you don't meet their standards. (The latter is actually a genuine risk. Sometimes someone is allowed to hang around in a soft-money position for many years despite not being respected by some of the department, because nobody cares enough to try to get rid of them. Then one year a new chair comes in and decides to clean up the department by imposing higher standards.)

Most soft-money positions do not lead to any sort of tenure, and it's rare to have an "up or out" scenario in which someone must achieve tenure or leave. In particular, the scenario described in the question, in which someone pursues a soft-money position for twenty years and is then denied tenure and forced to leave, is not standard or common.

In particular, I don't think the UCLA positions the question links to are "time-limited" in any harmful way. My reading is that once you reach Researcher V or above, you can sit at that rank indefinitely. The time limits on lower levels ensure that junior researchers will get periodic raises and titles the reflect their increased experience. There is no tenure in this career track at UCLA; there is periodic review, but I'd guess that it's not particularly severe (intended to make sure people remain productive, not to weed out otherwise promising researchers). It's certainly not a career track with anything like the security or stability of a tenured position, but aside from that it looks pretty reasonable.

In Science, Technology and Engineering (STEM) fields in the USA and Canada, how common is it for researchers to spend more than 10 years in time-limited soft-money research positions?

It varies enormously between fields and departments. In medicine, soft-money positions are pretty common and they can be prestigious and relatively secure. In mathematics, very few people support themselves entirely from grants. In computer science, it's in between.

As a rule of thumb, in the U.S. long-term soft-money positions are not a route towards a tenured hard-money position. It can happen, but this is not the typical or expected outcome. Instead, they are a parallel career track. One way to gauge how common this track is at institutions you care about is to look at departmental directories and count titles like "researcher", "research associate", "research scientist", etc.

  • That's an interesting answer. I should also add that we academics tend to get a bit obsessed with formal tenure. Having a job that is basically secure but you get reviewed every other year before your contract is renewed isn't bad at all in terms of job security when you compare it to most jobs in industry. – xLeitix Oct 27 '14 at 9:25
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    A good example of a soft-money with tenure is Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). Their faculty must both build a tenure case and raise money to self-support and support their engineers and technicians. WHOI is an example of an institution that uses pooled-risk and bridge funding to make things less precarious for their soft-money PIs. – jakebeal Oct 27 '14 at 12:43
  • @xLeitix Is it? Would it, for example, be possible to get a mortgage, if you cannot show an indefinite employment contract? (I know that in Germany, for example, it isn't) – gerrit Oct 27 '14 at 14:51
  • @gerrit I don't know the german rules specifically, but I know plenty of people that bought a flat / house while on temporary contracts (in Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Scandinavia). I don't think that none of them needed a mortgage. – xLeitix Oct 27 '14 at 15:08
  • @gerrit xLeitix's comment has a double negative so I think he means that they did need mortgages. – mkennedy Oct 27 '14 at 18:29
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In the U.S., at least, long-term careers on various forms of "soft money" are a lot more common than it looks from inside the "core" academia of graduate school and tenure-track faculty positions. In reality, the research ecosystem is very complex, with all sorts of niches that aren't necessarily apparent from the outside. My own experience as a grad student was that I didn't even know any of these options existed until a colleague reached out and invited me into the non-traditional side of academia.

I know of many people who have had long and fulfilling careers, all the way to retirement (if they ever really retire), entirely on soft money. Some of them have been with a single university or company for that entire time. More often, they shift around from position to position over time, between university, government, small company, large company, consultancy, foundation, non-profit, standards organization, etc., in patterns dictated by the evolution of those organizations and how the research opportunities are shifting. Unlike with postdocs, this often doesn't require moving, particularly near a high-tech hub: Boston and the Bay Area are obvious examples, but many large cities have research sectors that interact with the local universities in all sorts of non-obvious ways.

The distinction between "soft" and "hard" money is not always as obvious as it appears, either. For example, there are organizations that pool soft-money risk, or have core positions that are effectively hard because they are pooled between many external grants. Even university professors can often have the option to "soften" their positions by buying out of teaching responsibilities.

From my experience, it seems that there are three main classes of soft-money researcher, showing up in all of these environments:

  • Primary investigators: just like normal faculty PIs, but with a higher cost and no teaching commitments. A PI who can establish a strong research direction and funding stream can hold a position nearly as secure as tenured faculty.
  • High-skill implementer: these are people who don't necessarily lead their own projects, but who work full-time for PIs in executing projects. Engineers, analysts, programmers, lab technicians, etc. Really good implementers are always in high demand for research, and can have a long and productive research career when teamed with the right sort of PIs.
  • Exploited labor: these are either implementers who haven't developed/proved their skill, people trying to become PIs who haven't made it yet, or researchers who are stuck in an exploitative environment. This is the type of soft money that seems to be most common in certain parts of traditional academia and can be "eternal postdoc limbo" (or its fake-hard-money cousin: "adjunct faculty limbo"). Unfortunately, it can often be hard for a researcher to tell if they're in this category and whether it's a passing stage or a trap they need to break out of.

Life in these worlds can be very different than in the teaching-centric parts of academia, but an awful lot of interesting things happen in them, and it offers much more variety in career options for a graduating Ph.D. with an inclination to research than I think most people know about.

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In central europe, things look much the same as jakebeal explains in his strong answer. In reality, I think only a small minority of academics actually follow the theoretical trajectory of "PhD student - [short time as postdoc] - junior prof - tenured prof" around here. A simple reason for this is that the notion of tenured-track "junior professors" (whatever this position is formally called differs from country to country) is in fact a new-ish invention around here, and actual positions of this type are still very, very rare. My alma mater with more than 100 CS profs. had less than 5 calls for single tenure-track CS positions lifetime.

The career trajectory of an academic in central europe is generally much less standardized. The first step is always doing a PhD, but what comes in the next 10 to 15 years is different from candidate to candidate. Common career stations seem to include: (1) traditional postdoc positions, (2) working as a senior postdoc / soft-money PI (3) spending a few years in related industry, (4) founding your own startup (and, often, running it into the ground :) ), (5) working as a research scientist in a government or industry lab, or (6) going abroad (to the US or asia) for any of the options 1-5.

Some will then, after spending 10+ years in a combination of the options above, directly re-enter the regular university system as a tenured (full) professor. The majority, of course, will at some point before that drop out of academia entirely (e.g, their startup succeeds, they find work in industry more fulfilling and better paid, or they simply decide that their research isn't good enough to have a real shot at professorship).

  • From the sample of my colleagues (in Germany, math), I have no people following (3) and (4) but a substantial number of people following (7) tenure-tack or non-tenure-track junior prof. – Dirk Oct 27 '14 at 10:12

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