Life as a Postdoc at the NIH

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog post are the sole opinions of the author and in no way represent the views or opinions of the National Institutes of Health.

NIH Clinical Center.
Image reproduced with permission from the National
Institutes of Health/Department of Health and Human Services
After two years of being a postdoc at NIH, Obama still refuses to respond to my lunch invitations and I have yet to see Francis Collins play an acoustic set at a local pub. So not all of my expectations have come to fruition, though the experiences I have had have been a mixture of positive and negative.

Let’s start with work-related happenings. The main intramural NIH campus is home to about 3,000 postdocs, 300-400 graduate students from various academic institutions, and 700 postbacs. Over the summer it welcomes about 1,000 interns—undergrads, graduate students, professional students, and high school students. The campus is a 70-acre plot located in Bethesda, Maryland, just a couple of miles beyond the DC-Maryland border. So, it’s not a small place. And while the brick facades and greenery suggest a university setting, there are some clear differences from an academic campus.

The first thing NIH visitors will notice is that the campus is surrounded by a 10-foot fence, necessitating entry through a security checkpoint, a product of post-9/11 America. Everyday employees quickly get used to this barrier, but for visitors it is a clear reminder that this is a government facility.

Given the numbers above, basic science at the NIH campus is largely postdoc-driven. As a postdoc I am surrounded by many talented, driven people, which can certainly be advantageous and inspiring. The flipside is a noticeable lack of youthful energy from the shortage of grad students and year-round undergrads. This is especially debilitating for my TMZ-based pop-culture knowledge.

Another reminder that this is not an academic setting is that when the government shuts down, NIH shuts down too. I was not allowed on campus for the duration of the shutdown. So while my golf game improved and I got most of a paper written, my research was certainly disrupted. There are also other intramural policies in place that are not in the best interest of postdocs, but no place is perfect.

Finally, NIH lacks the gourmet cafeterias and enormous fitness centers that come standard on university campuses these days. Apparently taxpayer money doesn’t always beat student loan money.

But one shouldn’t be discouraged by these inconveniences because, as you may have heard, the resources are fantastic. The funding advantages have drawn in a lot of talented scientists doing great research, and because of the size of the place, somebody, somewhere on this campus has the microscope I need, the reagent I’m are looking for, or can help me with that new assay I want to try. And the lab budgets? Well, basically, if I have a good reason to buy something then I can generally go ahead and buy it. However, the funding atmosphere here is changing quickly, with across-the-board cuts and hiring freezes taking place at many intramural institutions. Labs that previously never had budget discussions are now being forced to cut back.

Still, compared with most extramural situations, this is still a great place to do research. If you come here to do a postdoc and aren’t happy, it’s probably not because you didn’t have the financial support to get the job done.

Also, if you want to explore industry careers or leave the bench and venture into science policy or consulting, there may not be a better city in the country to do it, and the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) at NIH will help you make that transition. The OITE is a great resource for students and postdocs looking to travel down any science-related career path, something I have found somewhat lacking at many universities. If you are interested, even extramural scientists can watch OITE workshops for free online at (Can you tell who got to approve the content of this post?)

How about life outside of the lab? Bethesda is essentially a suburb of DC. While DC is a major US city, it generally lacks that big city feel that dominates places like New York and Chicago (something I see as a positive). This is largely due to building height restrictions enacted at the turn of last century. As a result, DC has more sunlight hitting the pavement but fewer housing options in the city, hence the sprawling metropolitan area that extends well into Maryland and Virginia.

What DC lacks in skyscrapers it makes up for in big-city traffic. DC commuter traffic is consistently rated as the worst in the country (yup, worse than LA). But the public transportation system in the region is good, and NIH pays for my commute (I declined parking privileges). This means I really only drive to get out of the city, which is not infrequent considering we are only a couple hours to the ocean and a couple hours to some great hiking and camping in Shenandoah National Park and Monongahela National Forest. It’s also just a two-hour train ride to Philadelphia and a four-hour train ride to New York, so weekend trips are doable.

DC itself has a lot to offer, with the free Smithsonian museums, a surprising amount of green space, and a thriving restaurant/bar scene. I also love the weather here. We still get all four seasons, but the winter is mild (disclaimer: I hail from Cleveland, Ohio, which boasts winters consisting of about five months of overcast skies, freezing temps, and lake-effect snow, so my standards are low).

The only things I don’t like about living in DC are the cost of living and some of the people. A postdoc salary doesn’t go as far here as it does in the rest of the country, New York and San Francisco excluded. And large parts of DC are overrun by lawyer-type people wearing lawyer-type clothes and talking on bluetooth (nearly 10-fold more lawyers per capita in DC than the closest state!). But don’t worry, the NIH scientist wardrobe is dominated by the standard bench attire of jeans and a t-shirt.

All things considered, NIH remains a great place to do research and, in my opinion, a great place to do a postdoc. Just don’t expect to have lunch with the Big O.

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