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Whenever I've been in the audience of a faculty interview presentation, I left impressed but demoralised. It appears the bar of making it as far as the interview is very high indeed, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to reach a similar level. On the other hand, I know quite some people employed as researchers at national/supernational scientific research laboratories, or at research divisions of operational government institutes. I don't get the same impression there. It seems to me that people who obtain faculty positions are more outstanding than those who obtain scientist positions for governments.

Is my impression correct? Is it less competitive to get employed at research laboratories or government institute research divisions, than it is to get employed as faculty at a university? If yes, why is this so? At a university, faculty spend their time writing grants, teaching, doing administration, and hopefully still a little bit of science. At research labs, the exact division of work probably varies, but involves doing research, developing products, writing reports and papers, perhaps doing consultancy or other work. Unless one loves teaching (I suppose nobody loves grant writing), I'm not sure why a position at a university would be more desirable/competitive than one at a laboratory. Is my impression wrong, or am I missing something?

(I have this impression for at least Sweden, United Kingdom, United States, and Canada.)

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    I suppose that this needs a country specifcation. In the Czech system for instance, you don't really have "government research labs", for instance... – yo' Mar 6 '15 at 23:28
  • @yo' This is an international question. E.g. Czech Republic is part of a lot of supranational "government" labs that do research, either directly or as a EU member state: ESA, EUMETSAT, ECMWF, CERN, ITER... and certainly many other international research institutes. And if I'm not mistaken there's a research division at, for example, the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute. I don't necessarily mean national research labs and I explicitly include operational institutes that have research divisions in my question. – gerrit Mar 6 '15 at 23:45
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Of course the answer depends on the university and the lab. There are plenty of university departments with low standards, and some labs are truly excellent. However, I think your comparison is right on average for top universities vs. national labs in the U.S. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Many researchers at universities aren't professors, and in some universities the non-faculty research staff outnumber the faculty by a substantial factor. To make a fair comparison, you should not restrict your attention to professors, but rather compare all research staff in both institutions (or look at especially noteworthy or high-level employees at labs).

  2. Some research labs are huge. For example, Los Alamos and Sandia are each the size of a whole university, but they cover a much narrower range of fields. The top researchers at these labs are exceptional, but the sheer number of positions makes it difficult to maintain the highest standards for everyone. (And you can't just keep positions open for years while you look for the perfect candidate, since that would compromise the lab's mission.)

  3. Researchers at national labs in the U.S. do not have tenure, and their jobs are subject to availability of funding and political interference. In some cases they face as much or more pressure to get grants as faculty do.

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In his book A PhD Is Not Enough, physicist Peter Feibelman argues that government labs are a superior place to start one's research career. He argues that assistant professors (at universities) are burdened with too much busy work: committees, advising, creating lecture notes, teaching, and grading.

If academia is a merit-based organization, then prestige comes from one work (publication record). In my mind this means finding the best environment for research. Feibelman argues that a scientist's optimal path is to establish one's research at a national lab, then move to a university.

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    This is interesting, but does it address the title question? – Pete L. Clark Mar 7 '15 at 1:36
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Stereotypically, I would say your perception is correct: university faculty are (on average) slightly more outstanding than their colleagues at national labs. Why is this the case when science is easier at national labs?

A national lab researcher has one main job (research) with a token amount of administration on the side. A university faculty has more roles: research, mentoring grad students & postdocs, teaching class, advising students, and (more complex) university & departmental administration.

Scientists with minimal people skills are often proud of shirking extraneous administrative duties "to get some 'real' work done." Those with this attitude will likely find a national lab to be a better fit, while those with higher EQ will preferentially select faculty jobs. Perhaps this selection mechanism accounts for university faculty members being more "outstanding" than colleagues working in government labs.

But what might attract faculty to such a disadvantageous work environment?

  • superior university architecture & aesthetics,
  • convenient university location (universities (usually older than labs) had the city grow up around them),
  • greater variety of culture & the arts,
  • teaching/mentoring students is rewarding,
  • teaching responsibilities offset grant writing pressure,
  • cheep graduate students can be an effective source of labor,
  • faculty jobs are more abundant than those at national laboratory, and
  • the possibility of tenure.

(The University of Tennessee at Knoxville & Oak Ridge National Laboratory furnished me with these stereotypes.)

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    * don't have to pee in a cup (articles.latimes.com/2007/jan/31/nation/na-nuke31) – Corvus Mar 7 '15 at 7:30
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    I think you have an overly rosy view of the work of a researcher at a national lab. Beyond the postdoc level, researchers at national labs spend a lot of time on project management, line-managing people, mentoring grad students and postdocs, dealing with government and industry clients, and complex organisational administration (developing strategic plans, impact and vision statements, risk management plans, etc). There is often more paperwork and process e.g. for travel and publishing because we are accountable politically. Teaching is the only think we needn't do. – Significance Feb 8 '16 at 23:12
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There is a big difference between the search processes at Universities and National Research Labs. In an open University call you may be going up against 100+ qualified applicants so even getting to the interview is difficult. In my field everyone of those applicants will be doing research in an area relevant to the department, have a strong publication and funding history, and some teaching experience. For a targeted call, the search might be limited to a subfield, for example an Psychology Department might do a search for a Cognitive Psychologist. The search might even get so specific that it is for a Cognitive Psychologist with interests in memory. For a research lab the search will be even more specific. For example, it might be for a Cognitive Psychologist that uses fMRI to understand memory issues of children with ADHD. If the National Lab search is lucky, they will get 5 qualified applicants, so getting to the interview is not that tough. National Labs are more likely to have top people in their sub-sub-sub------subfield than Universities, but that person may not be particularly strong relative to others in their field in general.

  • I wonder if that is true in general. As a counterexample, the British Met Office for its scientist positions in its recruitment typically requires only evidence of scientific analysis skills, scientific communication skills, a good understanding of physics in general, without requiring specific atmospheric experience. Indeed, I know more than one person employed as a scientist at national meteorological institutes, whose prior experience was in space science, particle physics, or other fields where applied research may be sparser. – gerrit Mar 8 '15 at 17:33
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    @gerrit looking quickly at their 21 science fellows, which they equate to a full Professor, I found what seems like complete publication histories on 12 of them. Of those 12, 9 had 50+ publications. Obviously that doesn't say anything about quality, but it suggests to me that they are holding their own. – StrongBad Mar 8 '15 at 18:12

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