Thursday, July 15, 2010

How I got my National Lab job

A couple of people have mailed me asking how I got a position at my National Lab. If you are looking for a good guide, I'd have to say don't look at me--I got my job through dumb luck. When I was finishing up, I thought I didn't want to go into academia, so I ruled out academic postdocs as a first choice option. I was hopelessly naive as a grad student and didn't even start looking for a job until I had less than a year left. I was also hopeless at networking. After I set my defense date, I posted my resume to and my CV to a few science specific sites. I used the on campus recruitment office to sign up for screening interviews with industry, sent my resume out to lots of different companies, and signed up at scientific meetings as a job seeker.

I had lots of screening interviews both on campus and at meetings. I had on-site interviews at companies in the semiconductor, pharmaceutical, and chemical/materials industries (oh the stories--industrial hiring is no more efficient than academia in my experience). I still had nothing lined up.

I was invited to interview for the postdoc position I eventually took at National Lab after my future postdoc advisor saw my CV on one of the science sites (that is the dumb luck part). Postdoc Advisor was looking for someone who could do the type of measurements I specialized in on a system completely different from my PhD field. National Lab needed my skills, I was sick of my sub-field and wanted to change research directions, so it was a match.

National Lab flew me out for a 1 day interview. This was similar to how I've seen academic postdoc interviews described--I gave a seminar on my PhD research, interviewed with the PIs of my potential project, and met other postdocs/staff working at the lab. As I later found out a a postdoc/staff member, the other postdocs/staff had veto power, but only for a specific reason. The decision was made almost exclusively by the PIs. I had lunch at the lab, but was on my own after 5 pm. It certainly was less tiring than either the TT or industrial on-sites I went to, and I got to see a lot more of the area, since I had free time the afternoon/evening before and evening after my interview.

A week later, I was offered the job. My offer was contingent on me applying for and receiving a National Research Council Research Associateship, which I did. If you are interested in getting one, I highly, highly suggest you find a mentor and work backwards (like what I did). I know that there are lots of people who cold apply to these programs (after all, the pay is awesome, and the science is hot), but every single postdoc at National Lab had one of these (or something else similar), and every single postdoc I have ever met there was recruited first, and applied second. I have never met a postdoc who applied for a research associateship without getting a mentor first, even at other national labs. I think it is a waste of time to apply first. I can't emphasize that enough (because the application is kind of long and annoying).

After I took the job, National Lab paid for my move. I moved and started working. I worked 10-12 hours a day, but only 5 days a week most weeks, and learned how to work much more efficiently so I could keep my weekends free. About 15-25% of the postdocs at National Lab are offered staff positions at the end (mostly to replace retirements--the average age of employees at National Lab is high). They are really into "try before you buy" because firing someone is very, very hard (this seems to be true everywhere--I know lots of industrial scientists who complain about deadwood). More established people who are beyond the postdoc level are brought in as contractors to make sure it will work out before being offered a staff position, at least at National Lab. I've heard this is pretty common at most national labs, but I only know my lab really well.


Female Computer Scientist said...

Prodigal, how did you find the research climate at National Lab? From what I've heard, many of the national labs on that list require researchers to be extremely "customer focused". Less blue-sky stuff, more applied. (And applied in the, "I want it yesterday" sense). But maybe that's just my field.

Also, do government employees do much hands-on research, or is it more contractors, and the government person is just overseeing them?

Just curious - thanks!

prodigal academic said...

FCS, when I joined National Lab, I was in a very basic research oriented group in a basic research oriented division. One of the reasons I started to look at other options was the strong drift in my 7 years there from basic research towards more applied research. It is very hard to get lab directed funding for really basic stuff now, but it was far more common when I started. Anecdotally, I've heard this from many people at different labs.

When I was a Fed, I did lots of hands-on stuff. Because overhead is very high on salaries, us basic researchers had very few contractors in the lab. In my research area, we had one contractor technician (who worked on several projects). Everyone else was a postdoc or a Federal employee. Only people who have been PIs for at least 5-10 years and actively seek to stop don't do benchwork anymore.

In more applied divisions, they had more money (and therefore more contractors). I don't have direct experience with how they work it, though.

Anonymous said...

Thank for you this (and previous) NL posts! They really have been helpful.

I'm in a similar situation that you described (i.e., nothing lined up after graduation), and have applied to the NRC fellowship (and having found an adviser to develop the proposal). At your NL, how were the awards distributed? For example, did all of the top 5 applicant scores get an offer or the top scorer to each laboratory get offered a position?

Again, thanks for the posts!

prodigal academic said...

This is highly division and lab specific, and depends on the funding level of your adviser. In my division, if your adviser can cover your salary (even if you don't rank high enough to get full salary from NRC), and your proposal is graded out as an A (or whatever they are calling the top level now), they will often make an offer anyway since NRC covers some benefits and overhead, making an NRC postdoc cheaper than a Fed or contractor. In my division, we usually had around 6-10 NRC postdocs at any given time, meaning we took 3-5 or so a year. Other divisions had more and less postdocs. At National Lab, it is very rare to get an extension on the initial 2 years unless they were going to do a hire (which takes forever).

ocjean said...

Thank for you NL posts! I am close to finish my PhD, and thinking to apply for NL postdoc. I was told that CV is the most important part of the application packet. My concern is how I can make my CV stand out if I don't have strong publication. Do you have any advice on this? Thank you!

prodigal academic said...

ocjean, there is nothing you can do to "pad" your CV, but you can point out if any of your publications are highly cited.

If you don't have a long publication record, it is even more important to develop your application in consultation with your mentor. You can emphasize how your skills fit into a specific project, but you need details only the mentor will have to do that successfully. Yes, the CV is important, but the rest of the application all counts too.

xombie said...

Hello ProdicalAcademic. I have a job lined up at a National Lab too which I join in ten days. I am extremely impressed with everything that this CA lab has to offer, the pay, the people, the environment. I got in through a contact who I knew in the lab (again, as you say, pure luck-I knew him because I've used the lab's computing facilities). They gave me a one day interview (which I enjoyed immensely and had time to go around the beautiful city also).

I am to work in two projects, and my boss (who is rather hands off by the looks of it) has assigned me to a mentor with whom I can work more closely in terms of guidance (and the group's postdocs). What are the prospects after postdoc? Do these positions offer enough to join other national labs also, because I have been told that it is very difficult to get a permanent position in the lab since so few open up?

Overall, I am very satisfied with my situation and feel the freshness all over again.

prodigal academic said...

Xombie, congrats on the job! I loved my time at National Lab--it was great for me personally and career-wise. In terms of future hiring possibilities, at National Lab, we occasionally brought in folks who did postdocs at other labs as contractors with the possibility of a permanent position in the future. In my division, we NEVER hired someone directly into a staff position without a postdoc or contract position first.

At National Lab, there were a wave of retirements, which led to a few openings for staff positions a year. If your lab is anything like National Lab, there are a huge number of Boomers on staff. If you do well in the local environment, there is always a chance to get hired. As I said in my post, about 15-25% of postdocs were offered staff positions (not all accepted). TO get hired, your work has to look fundable, so make sure you get involved in how your work is funded with an eye towards learning how to be successful at LDR.

D.S. said...

I have Masters with nearly two years of industrial experience in Building Science. I have an interview with a National Lab in two weeks. This is a one year contract position with possibility of extension for two or more. I have a full time stable job right now and still want to pursue this job at NL because I really liked the job description. In the end, everything boils down to money, you know. Do you think its worth taking this risk? How likely it is that they will offer me a permanent position after working for one or two years in this contract position? The job is titled "Engineer II".

prodigal academic said...

I can't answer that--it is highly variable by location. In my division at National Lab, we often had serial contractors. These are people who are never offered a permanent position, but move from project to project on short (1-3 year) contracts. This was far more common than a permanent job offer, and most contractors didn't mind since contract pay is often better than Fed pay (with benefits about the same).

That said, we pretty much never hired anyone direct--everyone I knew came in as a postdoc or contractor before taking their permanent position. What did the people who offered you the job say about future opportunities?

D.S. said...

Thanks for the insight. They are saying I may have options like:(1) extension of contract, (2)apply for future full time openings and other opportunities once I get my foot in the door. As you said - if this is how most of the full time employees get into NL then I am doing no different and this makes me feel better.Thanks again.

chaseforever said...

Hello ProdicalAcademic. I applied a position I saw on NADigest. I emailed my CV the person who posted this Job. I also went the official web to submit my document. I am surprised that I got contacted by that person. He mentioned that do you know another professor in my department. I said yes. After a few days, he ask his friend in the lab to contact that professor and got a lot of good feedbacks. Hence, he has become interested in me and gave me an phone interview. Up to this point, I have applied 10 positions in the national labs and it is only one I have feedback. I am wondering if I got blessed by God. Afterwards, I successfully passed the phone interview and he set up my security check paper work in motion and I am looking forward to my on site interview. I am kind of happy but also nervous because I really want to get this position. What is the chance they will ask me to go and then reject me? Is it very low. What should do at this point according to your suggestion? Thank you very much and you have a wonderful day.

prodigal academic said...

I don't know about your chances. We never invited anyone for an onsite that we weren't serious about, but it is still an interview, and you will need to do well. Be yourself, and do a good job conveying your expertise. They are looking for someone with a particular skill set, and you want to show off yours as a good match. It is like any interview, really. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Recently I also went through a similar situation like you.I applied for a postdoc position in Neuroscience in US. After a breif telephonic interview, I was asked to visit the lab in US for a one day presentation of my work followed by a thorough interview.The whole day was hectic but a good experience. I am now back in my hometown since last week, and waiting for the final confirmation. I am just curious to know how much are the chances of being getting selected when someone invites for a job interview, paying the flight tickets and hotel reservation ?

prodigal academic said...

Anon, I don't know anything about your chances at a job. As I have said before, getting flown in for an interview is a good sign, but nothing unusual for hiring at this level. You've clearly made the first cut, but now you need to just wait and see.

There are many reasons why it might not work out that are no reflection on you, your interview, or your work (project not funded, skills not a good match for the requirements, someone else first a little better). Once you are highly qualified, getting a job depends a lot on being in the right place at the right time. Good luck!

xombie said...

Greetings, again. Seven months have elapsed since I joined this CA National Lab, and a few things have changed.

1) It didn't work out with my first group. Luckily, as I am hired by the computing center (and the group I was placed in was supposed to be a good 'fit', which it wasn't) I moved to a different group some four months after being hired.

2) Group 2 is working out rather well. Group 2's boss (my boss) is actively looking for money (she's shooting for a very big proposal with a team of very qualified and diverse group of people, and PIs - she's the head PI but as I see it, her role is to bring in the money). I am working with seven different groups all over the country, and one of the groups has made me a co-PI (only computer time, no real money) based on my work with them. My work, while not intellectually very great, seems to be useful in cleaning up the codes of various people, and it seems that everyone is happy.

One cause for concern is that I may not get too many papers out of this project - it is very applied, but of immense value for my boss's proposal, and she assures me that she will find me a position (probably based on her money that she is lobbying for).

However, I nurture hopes of getting back to my old field (more passion, less visibility) - in combustion, fires, and fluid dynamics some day - when I have more time, and I can secure blessings from other mentors. The new skills in computer science seem to be highly valued though. Right now, I am not too sure where my career will lead me to. However, I would definitely love it if I can stick around at this lab. When things are more settled I would like to get back to doing things that I like. I very much enjoy the freedom, money and atmosphere of this place.

prodigal academic said...

Hi xombie, good to hear from you! I am glad things are working out for you in your lab position. I found that it is relatively easy to switch groups once you are in the door. Certainly much easier than getting a position in the first place!

You need to find out how the Feds/permanent staff are evaluated. At National Lab, successful proposals and patents counted for as much as papers (and sometimes more), so if you on projects that will produce IP, that could be just as good.

Don't just listen to what your boss is telling you--if you are producing value for her, she has incentive to keep you where you are, even if it doesn't help you get hired permanently. You need to find out how things really work from some other staff members so you know how to plan your time in your postdoc if you want to be hired permanently or as a continuing contractor.

I also found that if you are efficient, it is not that hard to carve out a little time for side projects in the National Lab environment, especially before you become a PI. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Hi Prodigal, thanks for ur blog..very helpful..Recently, I have also applied to NRC fellowship.Few days back NRC imformed me that they recommended my application to my lab and i should hear their decision in a couple of weeks..FYI, i received a score of 94.7 in a 100 point scale..but not sure about my chances since only 5 award slots are available in my prospective lab [NIH(NIBIB)/NIST] do you rate my chance from your previous experiences?..Thanks, Joy

Anonymous said...

Hi Joy
I plan to apply NRC fellowships for upcoming review as one of the advisers liked my CV and asked me to write a proposal. I search around to get the format of proposal but could not find it. Can you give some information about the format of proposal. And what stage they ask you for interview on site or phone ? Thanks.Jay

Anonymous said...

My NRC application has been reviewed recently and I came to know that I have got a 'B'. Any chance of getting a position? The NRC coordinator at the NL said that the project will be funded if my advisor has money.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

It depends on the score. What is your score, if you are in the "B" category?

Anonymous said...

How do they grade your proposal as an A? Does it depend on the basis of your composite score (anyone over 90=A), or does it depend on the relative scores of all applicants in that review cycle?
Thanks a lot..

Anonymous said...

You can find the scoring breakdown on page 9 of this NRC document.

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