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Research only jobs

Linnea Ista lkista at unm.edu
Sat Jul 3 00:15:13 EST 1999

On 1 Jul 1999, S L Forsburg wrote:

> Hi Greg, nice to see you here!  :-)
> To answer your question, as far as I know these positions are relatively rare
> and go by the name of "staff scientist" or "research faculty".  They are 
> variable, depending upon the whims and standards of the institution
> that sponsors them.  Often they are the positions given the spouse of
> a faculty recruit and in many cases, they are nominally supervised
> by a tenured- (or tenure-track) faculty member, making some of them 
> indeed "super postdocs".  Others, more independent, can be quite
> attractive since they may forgo the responsibilities and frustrations
> of tenure-track faculty, committees, etc.  As long as they keep funded....
> but there is seldom a safety net if funding is dropped.

In our lab, we have two people on this track. I will add the caveat that
we are employeed by an engineering department, but I find it interesting
that the two of us who are on this track are both "biology types". One is
a PhD and the other is me with a Masters.

> A truly independent, research-track position might 
> offer some relief to the current job situation, but 
>  how do these differ  from the soft money, research positions of faculty
> at non-degree granting institutions such as mine?   Indeed,
> the increase of soft-money positions at such institutions
>  has been criticized as one of the contributing factors to 
> the unnecessary increase in PhDs and the squeeze on federal funding.
> The overarching problem is that we don't have sufficient funding
> for the current number of investigators who already hold
> PI-equivalent positions. NIH success rates have gone up,
> but even so they still hover around 25%.  And every laboratory
> needs a certain investment, up in the 6 figures, to be established
> and start producing data.  Increasing available soft-money positions 
> may  offer postdocs jobs, but without the institutional funding to 
> get them started or the federal funding to pay for them,
> they are, well, stuck.  
I will add here in support of this, that we are an extremely well-funded
lab (total funding when I started was well over a million dollars), and
with that money comes a bit of leeway. Both of us have been told that if
our grants run out, there would be enough money to hang unto us for a
subsequent year-- ample time to either work on getting a new grant or find
new employment. I realize this is a real luxury.

The advantages for our PI for this are

1. He has two other people helping writing grants. I actually enjoy
writing grants myself, but I have a feeling that much like any employment
situation it is more fun when I am already funded for awhile. UNM allows
non-tenure track folks to be CoPIs as long as there is a tenure-track
faculty member included. 

2. There is continuity in the lab on the projects. Now this was a shock to
the PI. He DOES grumble about the work it takes to do the administrivia to
maintain staff people -- yearly reviews and UNM has recently instituted a
career ladder option for staff to allow a means of merit-based
advancement, keeping track of sick leave hours and annual leave hours,
that sort of thing. However, I am amazed in the last year he has been
grumbling less-- and actually called up and said "We need to review your
career ladder thingy". Why? The other employee and I have been here for
about four years and we are starting to see turnover. Grad students are
graduating, postdocs are moving on-- and it is the two projects we are on
that are the most per capita productive because we already know what is
going on, can help train people and most importantly are nearly as
invested as the PI in making sure they work out well. We, along with a
somewhat long-term post doc, also are the folks that know the ropes of the
department and the univeristy, so that does not have to get reinvented
every time.

3. From my perspective, I am getting to do exactly what I thought I would
be doing as a scientist in my young, naive days as an undergrad. I come
in do research, write papers and grants, train people. A lot of the time I
feel like I am getting paid to have fun and indulge my curiosity. The soft
money thing is a little worrisome sometimes, but since I am one of the
folks writing the grants, it seems to me a little more like it is in my
own control (probably a very comfortable illusion). 


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