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With tenured hard-money positions being increasingly competitive, some researchers spend their entire career on soft money untenured positions. To me, it would seem quite bad to never know more than one or two years in advance whether one will still have a job (see also this question). But a senior soft money colleague (who has been on soft money since starting a post-doc 25+ years ago) pointed out it's really no worse than working for a private company, where you also never know the same. That made me wonder.

In practice, how does the job security of soft money career scientists compare to scientists working for private companies? Is there any data which one is at a higher risk of being laid off from a position that has been held for a long (10+ years) time¹? And if people are then laid off, how quickly they find a similar position, if at all?

For the sake of this question, consider STEM companies that are relatively close to research, such as consultancy companies developing scientific products (such as software) or performing scientific services (such as running simulations) in close cooperation with university and/or government research labs.


¹There may be a special case where researchers work for different government contractors during their career, but for the same client and even in physically the same office. Despite the problems that entails, here I mean laid off without being almost immediately rehired to do the same job as before.

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I work at a company with a lot of similarity to soft-money academia: research is PI-driven and mostly funded by external contracts and grants. In the US, there are actually a lot of companies that either wholly or in part operate this way.

In this type of research organization, in some ways there is more security than an academic organization and in other ways less. Here are the key points as I see it:

  • More individual job security: In most academic soft-money posts, you are tied primarily to your grants or the grants of the PI that you work for. There is very little organizational commitment to you as an investigator. Thus, if your money dries up, there is little or no bridge funding to keep you going as you try to get more money; you just stop getting paid. In a permanent corporate post, there is a fallback to being assigned as a performer on other people's projects, even perhaps in other departments, and the company is motivated to find such connections because you are still being paid.
  • Less institutional job security: On the flip side, universities are extremely durable as organizations, and tend to change much more slowly and less dramatically than companies. A company might be suddenly acquired or change leadership and suddenly all of its policies change radically. So despite having a position, you might find yourself not wanting it under a new regime---or research itself might be jettisoned, and you along with it.

The lack of institutional job security, however, is actually less bad than it appears, for anybody with either a healthy research program or who is well-known as a talented contributor. In practice, what bad institutional change tends to mean is that you end up with a diaspora, in which good people move en masse, either joining other nearby companies with better research cultures or founding their own. This might happen even if the new "parent company" doesn't have an office in the area---I know of more than one regional branch office that was opened because a group of researchers left Company A and their colleagues at Company B invited them to join, figuring that geography could be worked out one way or another.

In short: from what I see, externally funded research at companies is significantly more stable than soft-money academia, despite the fact that company identity may change over time in various ways.

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    Re penultimate paragraph: Example: the fall of AT&T/Bell Labs. They had many great people, who left and got tenured jobs as great places like Caltech and Michigan (and I'm sure many found other great positions in industry too). – Kimball Jun 29 '15 at 13:17
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    In Europe a great example of the lessened institutional job security is what happened to the staff at what was formerly SAP Research. From what I understand, they pretty much from one day to another stopped being "SAP Research" and started being part of SAP Software Development, and were suddenly expected to deliver products rather than research results. – xLeitix Jun 29 '15 at 16:12
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In addition to these other good answers, you'll also find that many public institutions have rules that require long notification periods for people who may be laid off if their funding runs out. This does not happen at my university, but others that I know at several different US universities must receive a notification one year in advance of a layoff due to lack of funding for their position.

This means that there's plenty of time for them to try to write and win grant proposals or to find another job in the ways described here by others. It also means that there's no sudden drop at the end where people are surprised to not have a job. This is usually not the case in industry research positions.

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I can only partly answer your question, because I don't have sector-wide data.

First, let's clarify terms. Someone in a soft-money research post is also called a research associate, and they are funded by defined pots of money (typically from research contracts) that will be exhausted: such posts are usually funded for a period of time that's set from the beginning. These sound similar to posts that are also called post-docs, although a research associate doesn't need a doctorate: they just need to demonstrate that they can do deep, novel, rigorous research. This is in contrast to tenured faculty who are funded by open-ended sources such as university core funding (though I gather at some universities there are some professors on 95% soft money: at UCL, such posts are called "Professorial Research Associate", rather than "Professor"; both carry the honorific title Professor").

In England, I see job security as depending very much on a department's culture and management philosophy. I know of people in soft-money posts in energy departments at some other universities who have much less job security than most industry jobs that are similar. Whereas at in the energy department at my university, with mostly the same sources of funding and very similar projects, most soft-money posts here have more job security than similar industry: there is a departmental commitment to the researchers themselves, and if one source of funding dries up, we try to find other funded projects for those researchers, and use a platform grant to fill any gaps.

It's also the case that in industry you'll find some employers who will choose to keep some of their funds available in highly liquid form (such as cash at bank), in order to allow them to retain staff even at times when the company's turnover doesn't merit it; other employers will have staff coming and going all the time, as the company's income waxes and wanes.

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    At U.S. medical schools, professors are often paid up to 95% off of soft money that they have to raise themselves. To the outside world it may look no different from a professor who has 9 or 12 months of their salary paid by the institution. It's also separate from tenure. There are universities that will give you tenure but not guarantee your full salary. – Michael Hoffman Jun 29 '15 at 12:49
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    @MichaelHoffman interesting: at UCL, those posts are titled "professorial research associate": one still gets the honorific title "professor", but the job title is not "professor". – 410 gone Jul 1 '15 at 9:15
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There are many good answers here, but let me point out some other factors. (Off course, details are depend on on which county, profession, sector etc. we talk about):

  • Industrial jobs are generally (much) better paid than academic jobs and the hiring process is also much faster. This means that even if you have same chance for getting laid off, you generally fall much safely in industry, with significantly bigger pillows under you. To get soft money through grants to get yourself hired may require a year or longer, even if your first shots are successful. Getting a job in industry can happen in weeks.

  • Job prospects and overspecialization. Again, there can be huge variations but being a forever post-doc, even with a good salary is seriously limiting your future job prospects. I know many academics who consider such people failed researchers, and consider such a career a stigma, and can look very bad on your CV. It is also hard to switch to tenured academic positions, when you are 40-50. With industrial jobs there is no such stigma, and an industrial researcher has much more options to switch to academia, find job in industry or go to management. This setback may change as soft money positions became more common, though.

  • Do we compare apples with oranges? Significant part of post doctoral researchers are stuck in this position for years, then some of them leave to industry, so go to tenure track and some remains on soft money. My experience is that people who are willing and able to survive on soft money for long are people who have a special combination of skills (they must be good to survive) and motivation to stay in academic research. Also, they often have a specific motivation to not go to industry (want to be independent) or to go tenure track. On the other hand, in industry there are a lot of different kind of people, in terms of motivation, skill-set, interest etc. I think there is a strong selection bias if you directly want to compare these to groups of people and their job security.

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Really more of a comment than an answer - but this might invite some general discussion with regards to the two major points this hinges on: (Hence the community wiki)

  • I suspect there is a huge "it depends" with this - mainly due to personal preferences. Some people prefer to move, so having 2-3 years of security only is not bad to them in their eyes. If in contrast you seek security, a public sector job with something called "Beamtenstatus" is ideal (you can't be discharged without any serious cause), but even then companies such as BASF or other large companies offer permanent positions, which is possibly as close as one can get to security/safety.

  • Once you have sorted out the personal choice between "wants change" vs. "wants security", the next question is, "are you good at getting money". IF you have a lot of industry contacts and are extremely successful at obtaining research grants, not having a permanent position isn't a problem - a university would not like to see you go because of your contacts and the money you bring in, so you have arranged your own job security without a tenured position. One potential advantage of such an arrangement is that you do not teach and at most supervise some PhD students, so aside from the (nowadays horrendous) paperwork, you actually get to do research. Also, at least in one UK university, after 6 years, if there were no grant money, the university would have to find money to employ you otherwise - however this may be specific to that university.

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