I am trying to evaluate pros and cons for working at universities as tenure-track (and eventually, hopefully, tenured) and research scientist at national labs. I realize that not much is discussed on what it means by working at national labs (except a few specific questions such as Are faculty positions more competitive than government research lab positions?), unlike working at universities. I wish to start by asking about job security, salary (US universities usually pay 9-monthly and expect profs to cover the remaining 3 months from the prof's grants. Is there any such thing at national labs), any other things? Working with research students (all the way to completion of their degrees, as opposed to as your interns for a few months) is of course rewarding at universities. But probably too much teaching and administrative work may be negatives at universities too - any comparison with national lab jobs?

I know that this may be slightly broader question, and a bit subjective too, but I believe answers from different perspectives would help researchers like me who are at critical juncture at their career and need to decide one way or another.

Edit-1: I also came to know that some research labs in the US may have different classifications. e.g., is National Renewable Energy Laboratory same as NASA etc.?

Edit-2: How about 'redundancies'? Can these labs use 'lack of budget' or some other (non-disciplinary) excuse to remove the permanent staff?

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    Vaguely related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/13170/… Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 1:47
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    I think this question presents a false dichotomy. The difference between two universities can be just as great as the difference between a university and a lab. I know quite a few people who enjoy working at both a university and a lab, either in parallel or in sequence. Often these are large institutions offering a wide range of employment conditions. Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 5:12
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, I am just asking if there are significant differences between the two. I haven't asked if which is more enjoyable etc. If there is no difference, then also it would be helpful if you give details on the specific things I have asked (job security, salary, redundancies/tenured, etc. and possibly with pointing out right sources. Your comment doesn't answer my question yet.
    – John
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 3:44
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    @John that is why it is a comment and not an answer. I am saying your question does not have a "correct" answer. It is like asking "Should I work in finance or health care?" when what you really want to know is "Should I work as a teller at Wells Fargo or as a customer service representative at Blue Cross Blue Shield?" You need to compare specific positions. Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 3:54
  • @AnonymousPhysicist, no, that is not even a remote analogy for my question. I am asking specific question about the same researcher working at a university and a national lab (both in the US). This should have been clear from the context since Mephistopheles and others have correctly addressed my question, with clearly saying that their answers are based on their own specific experience. My question can have a specific answer. e.g., is the salary based on 9-month or 12-month in national labs, or is a permanent job in national lab same as a 'tenured' job at a university.
    – John
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 15:52

5 Answers 5


My experience is purely through my work at NASA, so take that with a grain of salt.

There are (roughly) two levels of employment at NASA Research Centers (not labs like JPL): civil servants and contractors. If you're looking to become a research scientist at NASA, you want to become a civil servant, though there are plenty of scientists on contract.

Contractors are just that, they work on a specific research project that has allocated in its budget a certain amount of money for a project. Usually these contracts are administered under huge omnibus corporations like Millennium Enterprise Integration, who take something like 200k in overhead, per contractor.

What this means is contractors can be extremely expensive to a project, and that, as a result, contractors usually split their time (and cost) on two or three projects. If you're a contractor at a NASA center, you'll need to maintain a decent porfolio of projects that cover your salary. It can be stressful, but also less regulated than civil servantship

Civil Servantship is a pretty sweet gig if being a tenured professor was your reason to enter academia. If you get hired as a civil servant, it's virtually impossible to fire you unless you commit the equivalent of a felony (which is easier than tenured professorship, see below). Basically when you're hired congress agrees to pay your salary for the rest of your working life.

You can apply for money to do projects, including internal funding that academics won't have access to. With that you can hire contractors or buy equipment, but not pay yourself. Instead you have this new unit of labor called Full Time Equivalent (FTE), which is can also be part of a grant award, and represents your salary being paid for a full year. FTE vary depending on the center you're at, Alabama FTE is going to be cheaper than Bay Area FTE, but at some centers there's a significant surplus of FTE going around (no idea why). All not having FTE means as a civil servant is you might have to go ask someone for FTE, which means you're effectively working for them.

I said before it's easier to commit a felony when you're a civil servant, and that's because you're effectively a representative of the U.S. government. That means you can't take money from companies (gifts are limited to $20), and a whole host of other rules that have been put in place because essentially every form of graft and corruption that you can possibly imagine has already been done by someone in the government. It's actually pretty amazing.

Also the pay for a civil servant isn't that great (still better than grad school!), and because of the rules you can't really supplement your income. That's why it's not unheard of for civil servants to actually switch to contractors sometimes- the caps for compensation are much higher for contractors, and can be influenced by a competing offer.

oh and also you don't have to teach, but that's one of the few places where civil servants can make extra money (lecturing at local universities).

But in terms of an environment where 1) you can pitch research and it will get funded and 2) you'll have job security that tenure used to match, there is no better place, as far as I can tell, than NASA.

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    Great answer! Is the salary for public servant scientists 12-monthly at NASA? And comparable to 12-monthly (pro-rata from 9-monthly) salaries at R1 public/private universities in the same region? Also, can you officially advise ph.d. students with nearby universities?
    – John
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 21:09
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    JPL isn't owned my NASA, it's a private entity managed by CalTech on behalf of NASA. It subsists entirely on massive, multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts like the rovers. Anything else I know is baseless rumor so I won't say more. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 0:34
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    @john students being advised by NASA scientists is a thing, but it depends on whether the department is willing to allow it. A relatively recent invention is the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship, which is comparable to NSF GFRP, with an additional requirement that students spend 10 weeks at a NASA Center (they get $10k to cover costs, on top of a stipend). it's probably the best fellowship a grad student can get (I'm biased, I am an NSTRF), and it encourages very close collaboration between students and NASA mentors. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 0:40
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    also FTE is for the fiscal year, so full 12 months. The salary does change based on the region, and can be found online (it has to be released publicly, since civil servants are public employees). It depends on your level of education, whether you're a veteran, assessed value to the goals of the center, etc. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 0:44
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    I couldn't answer regarding the state of other labs. NASA's level of "science" vs. "engineering" varies based on the center (each one has a set of core competencies). Some centers do mostly operations (Johnson), while others are mostly research (Glenn and Ames). But they're all going to have their own specific expertise that relates to a different aero/astro problem. Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 0:49

I have worked at a number of universities and national labs. It's hard to make many generalizations because the culture differs so much from institution to institution. However, a few things are generally true--you see fewer graduate students at national labs (more postdocs) and you do not spend as significant a chunk of time teaching or doing "service." You do not spend as much time applying for grants and in fact are not eligible to apply for many. The focus of research has to be something that advances the lab's mission. Your project can be canceled, or you can be moved to a different project/subject. Unlike academia, you have a boss, and the boss has a boss, and yes you can absolutely be fired or laid off (and I don't think it's as hard as people think, as I have seen a number of people go). I also don't agree with a previous comment that scientists are not paid on the GS scale. Many agencies do pay on the GS scale. Others use the similar ZP scale. You get a 12 month salary, not 9 months plus grant. There is not a tenure application process as there is in academia. The atmosphere at most federal labs is very different than at a university...you wear an ID badge at all time, there are various layers of security, you often cannot install things on your own computer, etc. This is even more true at military labs.

Overall I would probably choose the federal lab, but it depends a lot on your personality and how much autonomy (and job security) you need.

  • What are the typical situations when people get fired/laid off, @ccbb ? Drastic funding cuts from the Fedral govt? Or some other subtle reasons?
    – John
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 22:56
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    Priority shift that makes a project obsolete. Underperformance including repeated bad evaluations. Insubordination. Leaking classified or confidential information. Not showing up at work. Etc.
    – ccbb
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 0:07

I'd like to point out something you haven't mentioned. A few national labs have a number of institutional duties that somehow constrain their research activities, leaving, in a certain sense, less freedom to their researchers with respect to the academic environment (which is not necessarily a bad thing or a limit to the possible achievements).

For instance, the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), which is under the umbrella of the Department of Commerce, is the national metrology institute of the US. Main duties of this institute are thus the realization and the dissemination of the units of the International System of Units (SI), and the work of many of its researchers is aimed at fulfilling these duties. This might involve also the participation at various international committees.

Such constraints might be an issue for someone, less for others, depending on their character, but I think they should be kept in mind when choosing between the two options.

Another point worth noticing is that in some labs, depending on country, goals and funding sources, there might be less (sometimes much less) pressure to publish with respect to the academic environment.


My experience in Australia:

  • Salaries are for the full 12 months in both academia and government research.
  • Salaries and benefits are about the same in academia and government research.
  • Job security is not that different (academic tenure in Australia is not as strong as in the US).
  • There is less opportunity in government research to work with graduate students (though there is still some opportunity). I see this as a disadvantage in itself, and it also hurts your publication rate in the long run.
  • On the other hand, it is easier to work in large, interdisciplinary teams of experienced scientists on big problems.
  • Government researchers do not have the same freedom of speech that academics enjoy. We can be fired for publicly questioning government policy in our area of expertise.
  • Our research is designed to answer specific questions asked by governments and industry clients. This is both good (our work has an impact in the real world) and bad (it's not always as scientifically interesting as what we might prefer to work on, and is usually not the most efficient way to produce interesting papers).
  • We spend less time writing grant proposals than in academia. We still need to write proposals and still rely on external funding for much of our research, but the sources of funding for which we are eligable are different, usually require shorter proposals, and probably have a higher success rate.
  • Where I am, our external funding has to cover our own salaries and substantial overheads, as well as operating costs. This means that we are expensive for research bids that put us in direct competition with university researchers. On the other hand, it also means that we don't usually need to sweat the operating costs, as they are such a small component of the total.
  • At the same time, it's not like being a contract researcher at a university. I have indefinite tenure and my employer can carry me through some lean periods in funding, and will also write me into large projects organised by others.
  • There is more bureaucracy in government research than academia, but we also have more support to navigate that bureaucracy. For instance, I'm not allowed to put up my own web page describing my research, but I can work with communications staff to produce something polished. I'm not allowed to sign my own copyright transfer forms when I publish a paper, but there are contract staff to negotiate changes to contracts when needed. I'm not allowed to submit a paper to a journal without having it internally reviewed and signed off by my boss, but there are accountants to help me manage my research project budgets.
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    great answer! I am sure many of these points should also apply to US national lab jobs. Can't you (co-)advice graduate students at nearby universities? Say with an adjunct prof position at that university? This seems a common practice at least in some national labs in the US. Also, in case of funding cuts in your particular branch of research, is it usual to have lay-offs at national labs? I guess since a university prof would still keep teaching courses, so funding cuts may not affect terribly (it won't to a tenured prof for sure).
    – John
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 22:32
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    Yes, we can co-advise students and even base them here rather than at the university. I have one PhD student here currently and some summer interns. It can be harder to get funding for them, though, and we don't have much contact with undergrads, so it's harder to find good students. Yes, when there are funding cuts, we have lay-offs. My organisation has lost 20% of our staff over the past 3 years! But I have seen similar things happening in universities: whole departments cut. Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 22:39
  • Sigh: smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/… Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 2:35
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    @John Yes and no. I have 20 days/year unallocated to projects, which is more than swallowed up by training, strategic planning, and scientific citizenship such as editing and reviewing activities and attending conferences. I can also put up proposals for internally-funded strategic projects. Some years, these have to be projects that will position us to get more external funding, some years there's more scope for following personal interest with these proposals, as long as they align with our strategy. Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 1:23
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    @John, it depends how senior the person is and what else that person is doing for the organisation. If you are content to stay at a junior level and are in demand for other people's projects, it's no problem. Your promotion prospects may be limited, though. If you are already more senior and not bringing in funding, you need to show your value in other ways: line-management, valuable stratagic work and strong international reputation. Commented Feb 8, 2016 at 23:01

There is only one difference between tenure-track/tenured positions in universities and research scientist positions in national labs,that is, that tenure-track/tenured positions ensure job security and proper employment to a person which is not ensured for research scientists

  • @user44892, this seems to be in contradiction to the other answer. could you please elaborate?
    – John
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 14:34
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    +1 to @John's comment-This is because if you are in a tenure-track/tenured position,then your boss cannot sack you whenever he/she wishes,as there are some procedures for him/her to follow,however if you see a research scientist, in that case you'll notice that his/her boss can sack him/her at any time if he/she wishes,the matter is about organized and unorganized sectors.
    – user45586
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 8:11
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    I'm pretty sure this is not true. While there is no tenure for scientists at national labs, they are part of the civil service system, although not usually paid under GS scale. Firing a government employee is very hard to do without a good cause, and for this reason many positions were converted to Contractors under the Bush Administration--to make people easier to fire later on. Add in the fact that many universities are cutting tenure track faculty, I'd say they are about equivalent on that score. Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 17:26
  • @ThePompitousofLove , how about permanent jobs at corporate operated national labs, eg, NREL or LANL, ETC.? Can they fired without a just cause?
    – John
    Commented Dec 27, 2015 at 5:52
  • @user44892 short answer: I don't know, but significant legal protections exist for all government related work. Commented Dec 29, 2015 at 1:06

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