Jim started his postdoc 15 years ago and never left. He loves working at the bench, publishes regularly, and has a great relationship with his principal investigator (PI). But Jim hates writing grants, and didn't want to leave behind his technical expertise. A few years ago, Jim's PI secured him a promotion as a research associate so he can continue the work that he loves. Plus, Jim's PI can keep him as a valuable member of the research team. Jim's family also benefits from the arrangement, as he lives close to his aging parents, who can continue to spend time with their grandkids.
Carol was a productive trainee in both graduate school and her postdoc fellowship. She had two job offers to run her own lab, but she wasn't excited about either of those possibilities, and by leaving her postdoc would have lost access to valuable resources at her current institution. Instead, her PI worked with their institution to secure a non-tenure-track instructor position for Carol. Now she works within her PI's large group, helps guide the trainees, and even writes some of her own grants.
Do these stories sound familiar? Maybe you have a Jim or a Carol in your lab, or maybe it sounds like your own story. Within the discussion about "alternative" careers to address issues facing the biomedical workforce, there is an often-overlooked "alternative" career that exists within academic research itself: The career scientist. This position goes by many different names (research associate, instructor, staff scientist, research assistant professor, senior technician. Here I will refer to it as research associate or RA), but the common characteristic is PhD-trained scientists who work within the laboratory of an independent PI. While these positions are sometimes transitional, they may be ideal careers for the growing population of scientists who want to stay in academic research, but for personal or professional reasons, are choosing not to run their own labs.
For those like Jim and Carol, who love academic research, there are tremendous advantages to the RA position. RAs can use their training without many of the administrative duties of a lab manager, they enjoy a sustained personal and intellectual commitment to a research area, and have somewhat increased job security. RAs also benefit the PI by providing highly trained and experienced staff, more stability in lab personnel, valuable help in preparation of grants and manuscripts, and help with mentoring trainees.
So, you might be thinking, how can I get this job? Unfortunately, there is no straight answer. I surveyed multiple research institutions and found that postdocs often didn't know how this system worked at their institution. Even many institutional officials acknowledged a patchwork system for this type of employment. While this gives institutions the freedom to design positions that fit their regional workforce, it is difficult to plan for as a career choice. The roles of graduate students, postdocs, technicians, and PIs are fairly standardized among universities. But the RA varies from institution to institution. At some places, postdocs are promoted to RA at the discretion of the mentor, whereas at other institutions it constitutes an appointment that has to be approved by a faculty committee. Many institutions even have multiple titles and classes of PhD scientists in non-tenured positions. Other variations include whether they have teaching requirements, are able to write grants, or are required to write grants. Furthermore, unlike the salaries of students and postdocs, for which standards are set by the NIH, the salaries and benefits of RAs are much harder to find, as are the number of individuals employed in this capacity. Overall, there is little standard knowledge about these jobs.
A greater issue is related to the current funding climate and crisis. To maintain a stable workforce, including RAs, a PI needs to maintain stable grant support, which is growing increasingly difficult. At many institutions, the RA is in an employment class that is temporary or unstable, and because they are relatively expensive to employ, it can make their positions precarious.
We have an army of well-trained scientists in academic research training positions. Many will pursue tenure-track PI positions; many others will pursue careers outside of academics. For those who love academic research, who love the excitement of discovery science, who enjoy bench science, but do not want their own lab, it is essential that we as a community think of a better way to use their talents and experience.
What, then, will it take for the RA position to become a valid career option?
Disclosure, transparency, information. We should encourage institutions to clearly spell out the criteria for appointment and retention of RA positions. This could be facilitated through the postdoc affairs office or postdoc society. As this population of the workforce is virtually invisible, professional associations like the ASCB could also help advocate for RAs by promoting networking at the annual meeting and help in gathering data.
Funding opportunities. To address the problem of stable funding, RAs should be able to apply for their own funding to insulate themselves from potential uncertainty in their PI's grants. While many institutions do encourage RAs to apply for grants, especially those with Assistant Professor titles, logistically this is very challenging. RAs are generally too far along in their training to qualify for "training" or mentored awards, but often are not allowed to compete with PIs for independent awards. This issue was specifically addressed by the Biomedical Workforce Working group, who stated "The working group encourages NIH study sections to be receptive to grant applications that include staff scientists and urges institutions to create position categories that reflect the value and stature of these researchers."1 Although this is an encouraging statement, it could promote competition between PIs and RAs, which would be like comparing apples to oranges.
I propose a new class of small grants for RA applicants, with enough support to cover salary and expenses, but which would not require a transition to independence. This would help provide job stability for career RAs. In addition, a track record of funding would certainly be advantageous if the RA at some point decides to pursue an independent research career.
Most significantly, it will take a re-definition of success in academic science. Currently, the pursuit of a career as an RA would not be supported by training grants, and may be questioned by PIs. We need an understanding that this is a valuable option in academic research, and that for smart, talented, creative scientists who love academic research, this may be the ideal career.
For additional information on issues facing the biomedical workforce, see this article.