Biological and biomedical science labs in U.S. Academic settings employ over 8,000 research or staff scientists1. Despite prominent discussions of the value of the staff scientist and long-standing calls to expand their role in the U.S. biomedical training ecosystem2, the growth in the number of staff scientists over the last 15 years lags far behind graduate students and postdocs1. Moreover, the nature and career path of a staff scientist remains mysterious to many trainees, perhaps contributing to this growing gap. To demystify the staff scientist position and help foster its growth, WICB hosted a virtual career panel discussion focused on the role of staff scientists as a webinar on July 19, 2023. The discussion was organized by Avi Rodal (Brandeis) and Iain Cheeseman (Whitehead/MIT), and led by a diverse panel to shed light on different aspects of the staff scientist position, including hiring, funding, and the nature of the job. Panelists included:
- Sam Reck-Peterson, Professor, UC San Diego; Investigator, HHMI; Faculty Director Nikon Imaging Center, UC San Diego; has employed multiple staff scientists,
- Damian Dalle Nogare, core facility manager at Human Technopole, Milan, Italy, and former staff scientist at NIH
- Chris Siemon, Scientific Program Specialist NCI, which offers an R50 mechanism to fund staff scientists
- Kristyna Kotynkova, Staff scientist, Meyerson Lab, Broad Institute, Cambridge, MA
- Steven Del Signore, Staff scientist, Rodal Lab, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
Who is a staff scientist and what do they do?
What is a staff scientist? This was the most obvious question, though hardly the easiest to answer. Are they a permanent postdoc? A technical specialist? A miniPI or group leader? There is no single answer, and both employers and current staff scientists on the panel noted that a staff scientist might be any of these things, depending on the interests and goals of the scientist, the needs of the employer, or the culture of the institution. Generally, but not always, these are meant to be longer-term positions held by scientists, typically with postdoctoral experience, who have the capacity to manage a subgroup within the lab. But, panelists highlighted a few diverse examples: Sam has employed multiple staff scientists who have contributed to writing grants, training graduate students, laboratory management, mentoring other staff, and running their own research projects. Avi employs three staff scientists (including me) who, in addition to research efforts, fill unique niches including lab management, coordinating collaborations, and image analysis.
Why become a staff scientist? Participants also wanted to understand the financial and professional benefits of being or hiring a staff scientist. Current staff scientists and employers were polled, with most reporting salaries in the range of $80-100k/year (most attendees were U.S.-based). As a staff position, these jobs typically offer benefits such as retirement matching. But considering that this compensation is far lower than in industry, why might someone choose to remain in an academic role? Multiple panelists
highlighted the freedom to pursue projects of their choosing, the ability to remain at the bench, to stay in an academic environment, or the opportunity to help manage a collaborative research effort without some of the unique demands that come from embarking on a tenure track faculty role. Personally, I love that I can still be on the microscope, mentor students directly, and write grants, and that I have the freedom to budget my time flexibly and dynamically. From the employer’s perspective, panelists valued having a person with a long-term, permanent position who could keep knowledge and experience in the lab and take on projects unsuitable in scope or challenge for trainees.
How do I become (or find) a research scientist?
Finding a position: In many ways, finding a research scientist position can resemble finding a postdoc. Positions may be advertised (in journals, on social media, and on lab or facility websites. Typically core facility positions will advertise more broadly than individual labs, and some labs may not advertise at all. In these cases, looking for well-funded labs (e.g. via NIH RePORTER) in your field and region of interest can be a useful strategy. In each of these cases, finding and meeting prospective employers at meetings can help you stand out from a crowded field. Cold emailing labs you are interested in can work, but it is essential to write a thoughtful email that clearly explains your interest in that specific lab. Sam suggested having references send letters concurrently with your email to help it stand out. Finally, multiple panelists had transitioned from their postdoc to a staff scientist role in the same lab. If this seems like an appealing option, be sure to communicate your interest and career goals with your PI.
Qualifications: As mentioned above, the title staff scientist can describe many different jobs and may come with other titles, so qualifications will depend on the specific position. Indeed, everyone in the discussion emphasized the importance of finding and negotiating an appropriate fit, by emphasizing your strengths and interests if you are the applicant and clearly communicating the nature of the role if you are the employer. But in many cases applicants may be competing against others with postdoctoral experience, so if you are currently finishing your PhD and interested in becoming a staff scientist it may be helpful (or necessary) to pursue even a short postdoc, depending on the type of position you are seeking.
When to look: Iain noted that applicants interested in positions within a research group can, and perhaps should, start looking six or more months in advance. By contrast, core facilities will typically be looking to hire candidates with a shorter delay, typically less than three months in advance of a position start date.
What is the career trajectory of a staff scientist?
A springboard to tenure track? Most panelists agreed that staff scientist was itself a career track and not necessarily an optimal choice as a springboard to a different track. Avi noted that many of the responsibilities of the staff scientist, such as mentoring and contributing to larger group efforts, take time away from the types of individual self-promotion efforts that are likely to be favored when pursuing a tenure-track application. However, many institutions do have a defined career ladder for staff scientists, typically with higher-level titles requiring and rewarding greater independence and productivity, including positions such as a research assistant professor. Indeed, Kristyna noted that her current group leader began their career as a staff scientist in the lab.
How are staff science positions funded? Most staff scientist positions are funded by the group leader or institution. From the employer perspective, though the staff scientist position is more expensive than a graduate student, panelists who had hired staff scientists noted that the extensive experience and emergent benefits of having a staff scientist (see above) were worth the costs. And while stability of funding was raised as a potential concern, panelists also noted that such uncertainty is by no means limited to academia. With respect to independent funding, staff scientists can often apply for their own project-based funding from NIH or foundations, but they may not be as competitive as applicants with group leader or research assistant professor titles. Unfortunately, there are very few funding mechanisms designed specifically for the staff scientist who do not wish to pursue an independent investigator career. Chris Siemon described one notable exception – the R50 from NCI-NIH3. This program funds three categories of Research Specialist positions in clinical, lab, or core settings, the latter two including data scientists. The program was established eight years ago and accepts renewals, demonstrating the interest in the program and the commitment of these scientists to long-term positions.
This career panel discussion hosted by the WICB shed valuable light on the sometimes enigmatic role of staff scientists in biological and biomedical science labs, and answered key questions about who staff scientists are, their motivations, and career trajectories. It also provided insights into how to find and qualify for staff scientist positions, as well as the funding landscape for these roles. Hopefully, ‘bottom-up’ approaches like this can demystify the staff scientist position and foster its growth, ultimately benefiting both academic-minded scientists and the scientific community as a whole.
1NSF Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, 2021
2Alberts, B, Kirschner, MW, Tilghman, S, and Varmus, H (2014). Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, 5773–5777.
About the Author:
Steve DelSignore, the winner of ASCB's 2016 Elevator Speech Contest, is a postdoc in the lab of Avital Rodal at Brandeis where he works on endosomal membrane trafficking in neurons.