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I am a PhD student in genetic epidemiology. When I started my PhD, I was certain I wanted to be a professor - three years into my degree, I am seriously rethinking that choice.

There are parts of my work now as a grad student that I love -- reading articles, putting what I’ve learned together to design studies, doing the analysis, writing code... I am aware of job titles like "research scientist" and "staff scientist" that sound like they might get to spend more time on these things than professors do, but I have some questions about how this works.

(These questions refer to positions in academia or similar settings like NIH intramural - I know industry is very different so I won't try to cram that into the same question!)

  1. When/why do people hire research scientists/staff scientists instead of postdocs, and how do the positions differ from being a postdoc?

  2. How is job stability? By this I don’t mean job security, so much as “How often do people end up having to find a new job?” “How easy/hard is it to find a new job when that happens?” and “Can you usually find a new job at the same university/in the same city?”

  3. How is geographic flexibility? Would I still have to be willing to move anywhere in the country like I would if I were looking for a tenure-track job, or would I be able to choose where I wanted to live and then look for jobs there?

  4. Do people in these positions first-author papers?

  5. You do get paid more than a postdoc... right?

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    Basically, if you don't want to teach, or don't get hired to teach, then a position such as research scientist would be a good thing to aim for. Most likely you would be on soft money. // Unless you get your own grants, you probably wouldn't have a lot of geographic flexibility. // Try to find some people with the target job description to do some "career exploration" visits and interviews with. That's really the best way to get the kind of information and "feel" I think you're looking for. – aparente001 Feb 18 '17 at 21:57
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    The answers to your question depend strongly on your location. I'm a "staff scientist" in Germany, but I'm sure job perspectives and conditions are quite different in other countries. Please add a country tag. – Roland Feb 24 '17 at 7:53
  • Maybe I am wrong, but I got the impression that you want people to share their personal experiences. Well, I have shared mine in here. – polfosol Feb 24 '17 at 9:14
  • academia.stackexchange.com/questions/85263/… – user69943 Feb 25 '17 at 3:08
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+50

Answering as an epidemiologist who knows a fair number of staff scientists, and took a good, hard look at the option myself.

When/why do people hire research scientists/staff scientists instead of postdocs, and how do the positions differ from being a postdoc?

Postdocs are supposed to grow into independent researchers and eventually leave the nest to become PIs in their own right (or do whatever else they want to do). A staff scientist is someone who will stick around presumably for a longer term. As such, they have the time to build very intimate expertise on what your lab does. For example, they might know the workings of a long running cohort study, or a complicated code base inside and out. A postdoc, on the other hand, I'd have to retrain every two years.

How is job stability? By this I don’t mean job security, so much as “How often do people end up having to find a new job?” “How easy/hard is it to find a new job when that happens?” and “Can you usually find a new job at the same university/in the same city?”

This will depend very much on the lab you're working with. I know some staff scientists who have worked in the same position for essentially their entire professional lives, as the lab itself is stable. I know some who have been "inherited" as one PI retires and another takes up their lab, long running studies, etc.

Good staff scientists are often extremely valuable, and may be able to find new jobs in the same university, but this is highly variable. For example, if you work in a somewhat specialized lab it might be somewhat harder than if you do something lots of faculty in the school work on or near.

How is geographic flexibility? Would I still have to be willing to move anywhere in the country like I would if I were looking for a tenure-track job, or would I be able to choose where I wanted to live and then look for jobs there?

Technically, you can pick where you like and look for a tenure-track job there, you just might not be successful at it. The same is pretty much true for a staff scientist position - they're not often open enough that you can just rely on bunches being available in your area, depending on where "your area" is and what the demand in your field is there.

Do people in these positions first-author papers?

Depends on the lab, but I have known a number of staff scientists with either first or last positions on papers.

You do get paid more than a postdoc... right?

Usually.

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In my experience there are two types of staff scientists.

The first are people who go out and get their own grants. Basically, if an institution thinks you have a legitimate shot at acquiring funding, they will give you access to their grants office to allow you to submit a grant to cover your salary and lab space. If you are good enough to bring in your own funding, life is good. You can live/work wherever you want and more or less name your own salary (of course you need to bring in the grants to cover the salary). As your salary is tied to your grant(s), there is a lot of stress associated with going down this road. A six month funding gap can be disastrous.

The second are people who work on the grant of someone else. This puts you at the same risks of having a funding gap, but know you are not responsible for getting the money, but someone else it. It requires a good working relationship with the PI as they have to be able to justify why paying more for a staff scientist is needed. It terms of flexibility/security, if the PI loses funding, leaves, or retires, getting another job can be really difficult and you should not expect to really have choices in where you will end up. Often grant funding, especially NIH funding, needs to be planned 18+ months out. People just don't have unallocated chunks of funding large enough to cover a staff scientist.

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This is my personal experience:

When/why do people hire research scientists/staff scientists instead of postdocs, and how do the positions differ from being a postdoc?

Most "research scientists/staff scientists" are actually postdocs. Do you mean research assistant?

  • Assistants are cheaper
  • They don't have a PhD and thus more tolerable to dumb jobs
  • Many smart candidates fresh graduated from university
  • Postdocs shine in research (e.g. writing papers), otherwise there's no reason to hire them

How is job stability? (as a postdoc)

That depends. Generally, academics is competitive. If you can't publish good papers, you won't survive. If you fail in your grant applications, you may need to find a new job. Not many full time positions, unfortunately there is not much job stability.

How is geographic flexibility

As a postdoc, you should be prepared to relocate yourself.

You do get paid more than a postdoc

Who is "you"? I don't think postdocs are well paid. If you want money, don't do a PhD. Being a trader!

  • Thank you for your reply. I actually did mean research scientist/staff scientist, as in a PhD-level person who works as part of a research team but is not the PI and does not hold a tenure-track position. Someone who is very good at coding/analysis/etc. and who does it as their full-time job. I was under the impression that this was a career path some people took, but given replies here I'm starting to worry maybe it's not as common as I thought... – Tapeworm Feb 26 '17 at 16:47
  • @Tapeworm Everybody is different. That's only my personal experience. You might be smart than everybody else! – SmallChess Feb 26 '17 at 22:32
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    @Tapeworm It absolutely is a career path that some people pursue, but it is less common. This type of position is more usually seen in very large laboratories that require highly trained support staff. – David Feb 27 '17 at 3:39
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When/why do people hire research scientists/staff scientists instead of postdocs, and how do the positions differ from being a postdoc?

People in sense of institutions, like research institutes. At institutes you for as your own PI and at postdoc you work for another PI

How is job stability? By this I don’t mean job security, so much as “How often do people end up having to find a new job?” “How easy/hard is it to find a new job when that happens?” and “Can you usually find a new job at the same university/in the same city?”

so many answers on this question

How is geographic flexibility? Would I still have to be willing to move anywhere in the country like I would if I were looking for a tenure-track job, or would I be able to choose where I wanted to live and then look for jobs there?

Ideally good, honestly, I dont think anyone have that chance as you assumed, especially in your field. only if you published good articles.

Do people in these positions first-author papers?

first and senior,

You do get paid more than a postdoc... right?

yes

  • Thank you for your reply! Could you please try to address the "job stability" question? I know there's a wide variety out there, but if you could at least share your experience or the experiences of others you know, that would be very helpful to me! (I am worried if I go for this career path, I'll be constantly worrying about my next job/next meal - if it turns out that either there are long-lasting jobs, or that there is enough demand that you can easily find another job when your current position/project ends, I will be very relieved!) – Tapeworm Feb 26 '17 at 19:52
  • @Tapeworm everyone that I know, would like to work in institutes because of faster possibility of advancement and focus is on research,in faculty you need to teach and have administrative duties that drags you from reserch. – SSimon Feb 27 '17 at 4:57

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