Research only jobs
S L Forsburg
nospamforsburg at salk.edu
Fri Jul 2 01:25:24 EST 1999
Greg Anderson (ganders4 at san.rr.com) writes
> This is an interesting comment which leads me to ask a question I've wondered
> about for a long time. In my field, geophysics, there are many positions in
> academia which are permanent, though usually soft-money, research jobs with
> no teaching responsibilities. These are jobs which have reasonable
> salaries, full
> benefits (health, dental, vision, 401(k), etc.), and carry with them the
> ability to
> apply for and receive one's own grants with full PI status for those grants.
> It is my understanding from talking with my wife and other biologists I know
> that very few, if any, such jobs exist in biology.
> This strikes me as very odd (granted, a biologist might look upon the permanent
> research positions as odd --- perhaps it is just a cultural thing). Why
> are such
> positions so rare in biology?
> It seems to me that the creation of some structure to allow some kind of
> permanent, non tenure-track, research-only positions (some people have used
> the term ``super-postdoc'', but that has connotations I don't like) in
> biology might
> help ease some of the crunch in jobs. It also would open avenues to those
> who wish
> to stay in research-oriented academia, but not as permanent or semi-permanent
> postdocs and not as tenure-track faculty. Certainly, I know many earth
> who have no desire to teach, but definitely wish to remain in academic
> research; it
> would not surprise me in the least to find such people in biology.
> Is there a ``standard'' argument which someone can share with me to explain the
> lack of these positions or is it just ``not done'' in biology? Or do
> these kinds of
> jobs exist, and my biologist friends are poorly-informed?
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.
These sorts of positions, and other ways of integrating PhDs into
the research effort without demanding the up-or-out rule of
typical faculty positions, are under investigation by the ASCB
(American Society for Cell Biology) which is trying to examine and
modify the current career structures. Interested readers should
visit the ASCB website (http://www.ascb.org/ascb/) or see the ASCB
newsletter for more information. It is clear that the typical
trend of up-or-out is not the most efficient use of scientific
talent, whether its the postdoc or the assistant professor
who gets tossed out.
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.
Simply increasing the number of
positions simply increases the competition for each small
slice of the NIH pie. It would need to be accompanied by
other changes including perhaps a cap on the total amount of
grant support per investigator, and therefore, the total
size of individual labs (which would
of necessity provide restriction of PhD production since labs couldn't
afford to have 20 people). But that's another topic.
Thus, Greg, I think that variations of these positions do exist
in biology, but the current method of funding and institutional structures
means that an increase in such positions will not provide a solution
to the paucity of jobs.
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S L Forsburg, PhD forsburg at salk.edu
Molecular Biology and Virology Lab
The Salk Institute, La Jolla CA
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