Ever find yourself hanging out in your school lab thinking, “I really love science, but this is just not for me.” Yeah? I did too. I spent five years in an academic lab doing basic science research, answering questions that might someday have an impact on human health, but were a far cry from the applications-based research that sparked my interest.
It wasn’t that my graduate experience was more horrible than most. Yes, there were times where I wondered why I was even in science, but everyone has these thoughts while pursuing higher education. I think what really did it for me was the atmosphere. It just wasn’t user friendly, if you know what I mean. You had to come in with $$ in your pocket, ready to do research, amazing track record, great ideas to support a small army of researchers. I had seen too many professors fail because they couldn’t bring in the dollars and the college wasn’t in a position to support them until they got back on their feet. I didn’t want to be responsible for someone’s livelihood because I wasn’t creative enough, or didn’t have a strong enough background, or couldn’t convey my thoughts effectively to get grants.
When I got my PhD and had to consider “What next?” I decided that the traditional academic research track was not for me. Yeah, I still wanted to do research. Yeah, I still loved science. I just would rather devote my time to research that would have an appreciable product at the end of the project. In addition, I could never decide what it was I actually wanted to devote my life to. There are too many subjects that I find fascinating that it was hard to narrow down the field of research to develop into a faculty appointment in academia.
At first, I thought that perhaps there was something wrong with me. I didn’t think like all of my peers when it came to career aspirations. So, I started looking into alternative research careers. I knew I wanted to stay in research, and I probably needed a postdoc position with the limited research experience and publication track record I had. I also wanted to change scientific fields. My PhD was in the biomedical realm, and I wanted to get into marine sciences. I also wanted a position at an institute with some prestige. Pedigree can be everything, you know.
Because I think people can do science anywhere, I picked a location in the US that I wanted to live and focused my job search there. Lucky for me, marine sciences is big on the Pacific coast. So I emailed the group manager of the marine biotechnology group at Pacific Northwest National Labs to see how difficult it would be to transition my molecular biology background into marine sciences, and it just so happened they were looking to expand their molecular capabilities in the marine biotechnology field. It is not always this simple, but I got lucky.
I have been at PNNL now for two and a half years, and I love it. Government research is completely different from academia in the sense that the research is client-driven. Most people do not do research here for the sake of curiosity. They do it because people need solutions to their problems. There is still basic research being pursued, but the majority of what I do has an application-driven goal at the end of the project. We address questions such as “If we put large under-water hydrokinetic turbines in the marine environment to produce energy, are they going to impact the environment?” or “How do we develop a better, more cost-effective sensor to detect contaminants in the environment?”
It was not a difficult decision to pursue a non-academic career path because I am still doing research. In my graduate advisor’s eyes, so long as I was still doing research, he would support any career path I chose. The only difficult part is adjusting your brain to think “Client, client, client” instead of “NIH, NIH, NIH.”
Pursuing a postdoc position at a national lab is not so much different than pursuing a postdoc in academia. You have a mentor, you work on a project, you publish results. There are some major differences as well. You tend to dapple in a lot of different research areas instead of becoming an expert in one subject area. Senior scientists get hired on because the lab needs to fill a capability gap. Depending on their level, that scientist only has to bring in enough funding to fill his time card. Rarely does someone get an NIH- or NSF-funded grant, where funding agencies can cancel their projects at any time. Yes, it may seem like government research has its downfalls, but so does being in science anywhere. Getting funding is difficult for anyone in this economy.
My thoughts after being in a government lab for the last few years: I am never going back to academic research.