Question: What is it like to work in a national lab?

September 30th, 2010

Quick question…well, questions…

What is it like to work as a Ph.D. chemist in a national lab?

  • How are chemists organized?  In research groups?  Where do you start out as a Ph.D.?
  • How much leeway do you get in deciding what problems to work on?
  • Do you apply for grants?  How does it compare to academia in this regard?
  • Are you staffed with B.S./M.S. chemists?
  • How are the facilities/instrumentation (in general)?
  • What kind of working hours do people usually keep?
  • Are you required to publish?
  • Are you ever prevented from publishing?
  • How are IP issues handled?
  • How is performance evaluated?
  • Do you get to go to conferences often?
  • How does the salary measure up?
  • What things are particularly good and bad about the job?

8 Responses to “Question: What is it like to work in a national lab?”

  1. Chemjobber Says:

    Here’s some answers: http://chemjobber.blogspot.com/2009/08/chemistry-in-desert-life-at-china-lake.html

  2. wolfie Says:

    I once in my life went to a National Lab, in Argonne Illinois, to propose my new idea to make a new superconductor. The boss was among the most cited chemists, of course, and William A. Little sent me an email. so far, little has worked.

  3. lone1c Says:

    DIfferent labs are organized according to their own systems, so there’s no universals. However, some things you’re likely to find across the labs:

    (1) Chemistry groups are sprinkled throughout individual labs across different divisions.
    (2) Funding controls the projects you work on. At the corporate-owned labs, you have to account for your hours. This means that you have to specify a project for your time to be charged to. If you’re caught falsifying, you can get in trouble. So if you don’t have a project to fund your time, you can’t really work on it.
    (3) You can apply for grants, but some paths (like NSF grants, for instance) are not available.
    (4) You can get technical support staff if you can afford their salary, or if you are part of a group that pools resources to fund them.
    (5) Facilities are generally very good, although this depends on the funding available to the individual groups. Some people have experimental setups that are not otherwise available in the US.
    (6) Working hours in the lab are typically 8 or 9 hours per day (some labs have a 9/80 schedule that gives you a day off every other week). Most staff I know also typically work some overtime (at my lab, up to two hours per day could not actually be charged as overtime/flextime).
    (7) Publishing is not normally required. However, there are obviously advantages to publishing if you can do it. As for obstacles, if you’re working on classified research, or work that is regulated (by EPA, DOD, DOE, etc.), there may be substantial burdens that wouldn’t apply in academia. For instance, one paper I’m involved with required five separate levels of review before it could be released—and this applied to EACH draft that went to the editors!

    I can’t really comment on IP issues—those are too variable across the system, as is performance measurement. Similarly, compensation varies a lot between the labs. If you’re at a corporate lab, you’re paid like an industrial PhD scientist; at the academic-run labs, you’re paid more like a junior faculty member.

    Travel is usually possible and encouraged if funds are available, but usually you have to be a presenter or organizer at the conference to justify the travel expense.

    The best part about working in the national lab system is that the technical staff is very sharp, and in all of the groups I worked for, were very friendly, collegial, and supportive. The downside of life at the labs is that there is a lot of bureaucratic nonsense and hurdles that you’ll have to put up with—at times, it can be the worst of government combined with the worst of industry.

  4. Paul Says:

    Thanks, lone1c. Seems like a decent gig.

  5. Chemjobber Says:

    This job posting from Sandia tends to argue that there is real IP to be had: http://chemistryjobs.acs.org/jobs/3609207/patent-prosecution-attorney

  6. Jeff Says:

    * How are chemists organized? There are group leaders and staff/postdocs who work for them.
    In research groups? Yes.
    Where do you start out as a Ph.D.? I was an independent postdoc fellow.
    * How much leeway do you get in deciding what problems to work on? I did absolutely whatever I wanted. I worked with people in multiple divisions on projects spanning multiple disciplines.
    * Do you apply for grants? Yes, lots of them.
    How does it compare to academia in this regard? There is a much greater emphasis on the collective good in DOE. Grants are collaborative efforts meant to provided for more than one persons well-being. This is unlike academic, where every faculty is out for their own good.
    * Are you staffed with B.S./M.S. chemists? No, but I don’t need them. I hire lots of interns though.
    * How are the facilities/instrumentation (in general)? World-class, but I am a computational chemist, so here I am talking about supercomputers, not lab equipment. DOE as a whole focuses on mega-facilities like SNS, APS, ALS, etc. rather than group-level equipment.
    * What kind of working hours do people usually keep? Argonne is extremely flexible about working hours. I work 100 hours a week but by choice and on my own terms, meaning I work from home whenever I feel like it.
    * Are you required to publish? What is the point of research if not to disseminate knowledge?
    * Are you ever prevented from publishing? No.
    * How are IP issues handled? The lab has a well-defined policy for open-source software, so there is no complexity here.
    * How is performance evaluated? By comparing what I did with my job description to see if I did what I was supposed to.
    * Do you get to go to conferences often? Yes, all the time. My travel budget is close to $20K/year.
    * How does the salary measure up? DOE postdocs make twice what their academic counterparts do. Staff is competitive with academia but I could make money in industry.
    * What things are particularly good and bad about the job? I absolutely love my job and would not work anywhere else unless I got paid more than twice as much.

  7. Jason Says:

    Seems that the ACS is advertising only 55 jobs for chemists nationwide!

    http://chemistryjobs.acs.org/jobs#/results/keywords=chemist&resultsPerPage=12&showMoreOptions=true/3,true

    A national lab is the way to go if you can get in. There once were a large number of soft money positions. If you don’t know someone on the inside I wouldn’t bother applying. Those positions are golden in today’s world.

  8. TJHSST99 Says:

    Go to a national lab if you want to do science that can’t be done anywhere else (if it has to be done with a security clearance, if you need special facilities like LANSCE at LANL, or if you need to work with radioactive elements). The overhead charges and bureaucracy are so onerous that other projects are more easily done at academic labs. Sometimes work is slowed by levels of safety approval–note that the glowing comments from Jeff above refer to computational chemistry, for which work isn’t affected by all the wet chemistry safety rules. I agree with the comments from lone1c, although for (7) if you’re a postdoc, you’re expected to publish and the barriers to publication are minimal. And for conferences: I generally attend more now than I did as a grad student.

    I hope you find the job you’re looking for!


Leave a Reply

*