When you think of lab personnel, you probably think of the PI, postdocs, graduate students and even some undergrads. However, there is often another person in the lab who plays an important role that isn’t always clearly understood: the staff scientist.
The scientific workforce needs to make better use of staff scientist positions, which are neither trainee nor faculty appointments, as noted in the now classic 2014 paper, “Rescuing U.S. biomedical research from its systemic flaws by Bruce Alberts, Mark Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman and Harold Varmus. In a 2015 poll by Nature with 19,850 respondents, 15,265 believed that creating staff scientist positions would make the post-postdoc career transition better and help ease the problem of the lack of faculty positions available in comparison with the number of postdocs interested in academic positions. Many postdocs have embraced the idea of being a highly qualified staff scientist, and some institutions have promoted the hiring of staff personnel. While many students and postdocs are interested in these positions, such positions are still difficult to find, and job descriptions are hard to find. The answer to the question, “What are staff scientists and what do they do?” still needs clarification. Here I will discuss academic staff scientist positions, which usually require a PhD or even postdoctoral experience. The staff positions discussed here differ from industry-type staff positions.
Finding and accepting a staff scientist job: the importance of talking!
Staff scientists have different titles in different institutions, including Research Scientists, Investigators, and Specialists. Staff scientists can be responsible for managing labs (Lab Manager, Lab Director), facilities, or specific equipment (such as microscopes, flow cytometers, crystallographers, etc.). The diversity of names and duties makes it complex to search for these types of jobs on job search websites. Of course, word of mouth can be helpful, as can paying special attention to job openings with titles such as Lab Manager, which don’t necessarily require PhD/postdoc level training if they are solely administrative.
After you find a staff scientist job opening, focus on having an honest conversation with your prospective PI regarding both of your expectations. Is it a long-term position or are you planning to leave after a specific project is done? What are the duties of this job: research, managing the lab, training students/postdocs, or all of the above? You’ll need to discuss salary, benefits, work schedules, and how promotion is handled. Some institutions offer gradual salary increases based on years of experience (titles can vary based on that), or even having a chance at a faculty appointment (if you have your own grant). However, most of the time staff scientist appointments are paid for with the PI’s research money, which is why the hiring conversation before accepting a job offer is critical. There is no official maximum length for a staff scientist position, unlike time-limited graduate school and postdoc appointments.
What the job entails
Some staff scientist jobs are similar to a postdoctoral research position: doing research, writing papers, going to conferences, and acquiring new knowledge for your own research portfolio. This is a perfect scenario for people who “don’t want to be a PI” but “love to be at the bench doing experiments.” Sometimes a postdoc gets upgraded to a staff scientist job as a way to keep a valuable person in the lab after the postdoctoral fellowship officially ends. Other staff scientists are commonly hired as “experts in some special capability, such as microscopy, cell culture, computational programming, and animal work. Staff scientists may also be responsible for lab orders, general organization, and recruitment, which provides administrative experience to research-focused postdocs. For small labs, these extra duties are minor, but in bigger labs, they can be time consuming. Facility staff positions can be more oriented toward using specific equipment for other people’s research objectives, training people, and/or equipment troubleshooting. These management and facility-oriented positions do not necessarily guarantee your name on publications. Once again, a conversation between you and your potential boss is critical to define how much of your job involves managing, and how publication policies are dealt with.
Many staff scientists have their own grants. For instance, 36% of the grants awarded to the Broad Institute since 2011 were given to staff scientists. Yet, places like the Broad Institute, one of the pioneers in using staff scientists as a valuable part of the scientific workforce, are not the general rule. Once again, the possibility of writing and submitting grants should be discussed between the staff scientist and PI. Some institutions will grant faculty status (as Instructors) to staff scientists with awarded grants. However, most staff grants are connected to the PI’s research topic.
Staff scientists transition to….?
It is a tricky question. There are examples of lifetime staff scientists, or staff scientists who move on to different labs as staff, or staff scientists transitioning to faculty (or other) positions. One situation that makes staff scientists move to another lab is the lack of funding from his/her PI. As mentioned, most staff stipends are paid by grants awarded to their PI, and therefore the stability of the position is dependent on continued funding. Long-term staff scientists also sometimes need to find new jobs because their PI retires. For facility staff positions, that’s usually not a problem since universities/institutions will cover salary and as long as the job is going great, the staff scientists can potentially stay for a long time. However, it is common to observe staff scientists transitioning to industry jobs or faculty positions in the same or other institutions. In these situations, the staff scientists work extra time to make their CVs competitive for the academic job market and/or to gain some specific expertise. Due to the vital importance of staff positions, it is important to keep your PI in the loop regarding your plans since an ill-timed staff departure can hurt the lab and its scientific agenda.
The workforce needs more staff scientists
Highly qualified personnel enable research advancement. PIs, especially young faculty, spend precious time writing and submitting grants yet labs are in need of personnel with experience to move the research forward (both the research itself as well as training students and postdocs). Facilities with advanced technology and equipment also need personnel with expertise to be able to operate, train, and troubleshoot.
Postdocs and students should think about what they like to do. Faculty positions include writing, submitting grants, and teaching—often with significantly reduced time at the bench. If you like the “doing” part of science and not the writing /funding part of it, a staff scientist position may be a great fit for you. Furthermore, staff positions can be a great example of transitional careers—a place to learn new things and make you a better scientist for future endeavors. Academia should have space for people aiming to enter both paths.
If you choose the staff scientist path, either permanently or temporarily, make sure you enjoy the science you are doing and the way you are doing it. The pressure and the stress of the academic setting are still there, but all the fun, cool parts of scientific discovery are there as well.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.