On Wednesday, April 27th 2016, over 50 PhD students and post-docs gathered to hear from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs (LBNL) panelists about careers at national labs. Speakers included Glenn Kubiak, Alison Hatt, Yaw Agyeman, and Aindrila Mukhopadhyay and the event was organized by Beyond Academia in collaboration with the UC Berkeley’s Visiting Scholar and Postdoc Affairs (VSPA) and with sponsorship from LBNL. See a summary of the panel below.
What goes on at a National Lab?
Glenn Kubiak, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of LBNL, kicked off the panel by giving an overview of the mission of National Labs. National Labs are supported by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and serve to further public interests. The people at each of the seventeen National Labs work “for the benefit of the nation and the world.” These goals can be broadly split into four major areas of efforts:
1) National security
2) Environmental management (e.g. clean-up of pollutants)
3) Basic science, especially related to fundamental energy questions
4) Applied energy research (e.g. efficiency, batteries, biofuels, etc.)
LBNL is distinct from other National Labs in that no classified research is performed at this location, and in its close relationship with the UC System. All LBNL employees are employed by the UC system and receive the same benefits as UC employees.
LBNL currently employs 4000 people – it’s practically a small city! One quarter of these employees are located off-site, in hubs such as Walnut Creek and Emeryville.
This diverse panel consisted of LBNL employees with PhDs from both STEM and Humanities & Social Sciences. Some panelists are still active scientists, while others have moved into more managerial positions.
Alison Hatt (Molecular Foundry):
Alison started her career at the lab as a post-doc in the Molecular Foundry. Following her own interests, she then moved into an open position in communication and outreach for the Molecular Foundry. While she greatly enjoyed her time in this position, she was then recruited to manage the user facility, where her responsibilities now include soliciting and reviewing proposals and managing the operations of this facility.
Yaw Agyeman (energy efficiency at LBNL):
Trained in the social sciences, Yaw took his evacuation from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to be a nudge to find a new position. He landed in a consulting firm in Washington DC, where he worked with the DOE to design research and evaluation studies in the field of energy efficiency. After a collaborative project with LBNL, he was hired by LBNL where he works as an evaluation specialist to assess the success of energy efficiency projects.
Aindrila Mukhopadhyay (JBEI biofuels researcher):
Aindrila did her PhD thesis in a highly specialized problem in Agrobacterium tumefaciens two-component signalling with a top researcher in the field. Towards the end of her PhD, she became intrigued with the basic science question of how bacteria behave on a population level, so moved to Jay Keasling’s lab at JBEI to study stress response in Desulfovibrio vulgaris, a question of particular interest to the DOE. “I couldn’t turn down the chance to be part of the team solving the biggest problem of our time.” Aindrila continued at LBNL as a scientist, and has been working on developing plant-derived biofuels. One of her favorite parts of working at a National Lab is that she can now explain the point of her research to her mother! “Every project at a national lab has a backstory and is clearly connected to reality or the big picture.”
Glenn Kubiak (COO)
When he was nearing the end of his PhD in engineering, Glenn was not yet sure what career track he wanted to pursue, but was mindful not to close any doors as he was considering opportunities. He advises students in a similar position to consider factors like broad research/narrow focuses, classified/unclassified research, and research versus management. He ultimately elected to go to the National Labs at Sandia, where he worked for 28 years at 5 “mini-careers.” As a technical scientist, he performed benchwork on multiple projects. Eventually moving into a managerial position, he helped guide teams of scientists. Glenn found it very rewarding to help high-capacity scientists achieve what they are capable of.
Panel Q&A Session:
Q: Do you move from bench to management as a PI at a national lab (in the same manner as you would in academia)?
A: (Aindrila): it depends. Some people have a small lab and work at the bench next to everyone, others move as the lab grows- teaching and performing select protocols and then moving to management role as they get more funding (if a group is bigger than 8, that’s big). Once you are guiding the research of a big group, you need to focus more on this and have less time for bench-work (similarly to academia). You spend much more time on grant-writing, meeting the mission of the project that funded you, mentoring, budget management, etc.
Q: What are your hours like?
Glenn/Aindrila: Hours can be more flexible than for an Assistant Professor in academia; most people stay in lab until 6 or 7 pm;
Yaw: Depending on whether you’re meeting with people working in the DC office (probably a rare case), sometimes your day can start at 5:30 am.
Q: What is career trajectory like as a scientist at a national lab (from joining)
- You can be hired onto a team to work on a specific project. There isn’t necessarily an expectation that you’ll stay in this position. Most people will move on to positions elsewhere.
- You can also enter as a career scientist, which has multiple steps:
- Research Scientist or Early Career Scientist
- Staff Scientist (after rigorous review of your grant record, project completion, leadership). Many people will work as a staff scientist for their whole career.
- Senior Scientist (after a review similar to tenure review)
- Distinguished Scientist (very rare)
- Fellow: fast-track to Senior Scientist position. This happens when the lab reaches out to people they identify (known to the lab) to recruit them: they are fellows for 5 years, then are directly considered for Senior Scientist position.
Another trajectory is from PhD to Research Scientist at National Lab where you develop your research, and then transition into entrepreneurship. People think of National Labs as “slow” in this area, but they have long encouraged the development of Intellectual Property. One way the lab is now encouraging this is via the experimental Cyclotron Road entrepreneurship accelerator, which allows researchers to commercialize research findings into start-ups (this also happens at JBEI).
Q: Does having a post doc at a National Lab make it more likely that you will be a research scientist there?
A: It is rare for post-docs to become to Research Scientists. A post-doc is not the main path to Staff Scientist positions. This does happen, but it is also very common to get hired from an academic post doc, and hiring depends on funding.
Q: How do post-doc hirings work at a national lab? Do you need to have your own funding?
A: If post-doc positions are posted, then there is usually funding. If someone approaches the PI and has their own funding, they can also get hired that way. Posted positions imply that there is funding to support them.