Our Experience in Academic, Government, and Industry Based Research Labs (pt 1 of 4)

I’m going to separate each post in this four part series into institution type, with a definition, and explain both of our positions while we were there, and whether the myths and rumors you hear are true. My husband does not have experience with the government, so this will be an explanation of my experience at two different institutions.


Site Description

Institution A: a government position tied to a major regional hospital

Institution B: independent government research site

Institution Size 

Institution A: The whole research group was relatively large, at >120 people, but my direct group was about 30 people

Institution B: You can see this more as independent labs similar to departments at a university, and my group was about the same size as Institution A, so around 25-ish people if you count interns like myself.

Time Spent There

Institution A: 2.5 years

Institution B: three week long working interviews/ site visits throughout the year, then a summer internship

Position & Short Job Description 

Institution A: Sr Research Assistant, Registered Dietitian; Coordinate all major studies, schedule research assistants for human research site each week, create databases and run participants, counsel participants on regular growth and development and diet

Institution B: Research Intern; basic science/ molecular biology as it relates to bone metabolism, main methods involved HPLC and blood draws for analysis of standards and blood analysis for various metabolic analytes

Gender Breakdown by Level  

Please keep in mind that this varies HIGHLY by field of research. During my time in government research I did either clinical/human work, or molecular biology related work.

Institution A: All of my labmates with a BS or MS and actually conducted the research were women. The majority of the lab was female, except two of my three direct bosses were men. One level above our direct management was all men. No one in higher management was female.

Institution B: This had pretty much the same breakdown as the other government lab I worked in. There were more males working within the same band as myself, but the head of my department was a man, as were the heads of all other groups I met while there. My department head’s “second in command” was a woman and I only met the boss of my direct department head, but that was also a man.

Interpersonal Interactions by Level  

How you’re treated based on educational background. I didn’t realize how important this was until I had a few VERY bad experiences in other types of labs. I personally feel that intelligence is completely independent of education and have met very intelligent people who did not finish high school or go to college, and I’ve met people with PhDs that I’m shocked could find their way to work everyday. I realized very quickly that not everyone believes this and it can make for a VERY unpleasant work environment.

Institution A: The fact I had an elevated position without as much work experience based strictly on education made some tension between certain staff members who had been with the site for 8ish years (and I later found out had applied for my job and didn’t get it because they lacked an MS and it was designed to help someone get into a PhD program). I never really had a problem in my position, but it was also a position designed with the intent that I would eventually go on to graduate school again.

Institution B: My boss here never made me or anyone else there feel “less than” because of our educational background. He listened to our opinions regardless of “rank” and took advice on things people had experience in. This being said, others MADE it an issue. The group rotated travel, and a new hire that happened between my last interview and my internship made a huge deal about the fact that the next person queued was a tech who had been there slightly longer but “only had a BS.” Myself and others stuck up for this person, one of the PhDs in the lab told her that if that was the way she wanted to play it, she should now address her as DOCTOR and SHE would be next in line, and not to knock how generous our boss was. (That PhD was also awesome by the way)

The person who complained was just a toxic individual and started dividing people within the lab saying how unfair things were, and outright picking on the BS tech (whom I’m still friends with today). The director had to step in, in front of the who group and announce that this wouldn’t be tolerated and that they would fire people if something didn’t change. My friend ended up leaving a month or two after my internship was done, and according to what she heard, the girl who was picking on people ended up getting fired after all.

Possibility for Advancement  

Institution A: Though I had less experience in research at the time, I was made a supervisor simply because I had an MS degree and had the specialized RD degree and passed the requisite exams after completing the year long program. I understood the RD requirement, because it’s regulated by federal law so you either have one or you don’t. The hierarchy was stratified exclusively on education. RAs had BSs, supervisors had MS/RDs, group leaders had PhDs and work experience. You didn’t pass into the next promotional level without that degree. No exceptions.

Institution B: This was pretty much the same as Institution A, except having the MS didn’t make you a group/team leader for any particular aim of research. These were all PhDs who had experience in that area. You would get small raises, but there was no real advancement opportunity without a PhD, and even with one, it was extremely limited, because the number of positions at this particular site was also very limited and essentially someone had to leave in order for you to make it into the very coveted upper position and there was still a high probability it went to an outside hire.

Average Rate of Turnover   

Institution A: Other than the major layoff that happened a few months after I left, there was almost no turnover. Period. The only position that seemed to change with time was mine, because it was typically someone who wanted to go back to graduate school after a few years of full time research.

Institution B: This was pretty similar to Institution A, in that a lot of the staff would be “lifers” in that they wouldn’t leave unless they were laied off. There was an expansion of staff between my first visit and the summer I worked there, which rapidly changed the dynamic of the lab, but most of the people planned to stay there once they had the job.

Common Government Lab Rumors Answered 

You get federal benefits because you work for the government

In some cases this is true, but the vast majority of people are actually hired in one of two ways 1) through the non-government related hospital associated with the federal site, or 2) through contract services so you aren’t actually considered a federal employee. In one of the institutions only one of my direct coworkers was an actual government employee, in the other (institution B), only the head of the division and the senior scientist working as is associate director were actual government employees.

As long as you get hired, it doesn’t matter which contact group you get the job through.

Because Institution A gave people positions in the hospital or associated university, this wasn’t an issue as there really was only one way to get the job. If you were faculty at the university you worked in both, if you weren’t, you worked for the hospital. My formal position was in the hospital, were I also worked as a fill-in clinical dietitian.

Institution B was much more complex. As an intern this didn’t directly affect me, but I heard all of my coworkers complain pretty much constantly. This facility used two contract groups pretty much exclusively. One was for all individuals without a PhD, the other was only if you had a doctorate (they called this the PhD mill). The first typically offered a lower salary but better fringe benefits, like reduced pricing/discounts to events, free tickets to local sporting events to promote team building, etc. The PhD mill offered a higher salary. One PhD in the lab ended up getting her position through the non-PhD contract group, she didn’t make as much as the exact sample position that went through the PhD mill, but still received all the benefits from the group she was in, even though she had a PhD. The PhD mill basically didn’t get any of the fringe benefits.

Because it’s the government, you have a lot of job security

This is somewhat true. The downsizing at Institution B was pretty common, and happened twice over the course of my year of visits. Institution A I would say was much more stable, but about 3 months after I left they fired 75% of the staff. I still know people who work there and there hasn’t been another layoff since then, but this institution was on government funding and had a huge budget slash around the time I left, so that is the likely reason that both groups had a layoff around the same time.

You make a lot more money than in academic labs 

Majorly, majorly not true. Because they typically use contract systems, this allows them to get around actually paying you per government standards. The few government employees do make quite a bit more than their academic (but not industry) counterparts of equal education and experience.

You get to do the research you wanted/ have research freedom like you do in academic labs 

Kind of a yes? For Institution A, if your research interest happened to fill a need they had, then yes, you would technically get to do the work you want to. Institution B was a lot more strict. In the same vein of Institution A, if your skills met the need, then yes you’ll get to do what you wanted, but it ultimately comes down to what that government site wants from your department.

Because you’re government you get funding automatically, so it’s never an issue 

Also a major nope. Because the institutions are tied to the government research budget they are at the whims of the government as well. Institution A relied on government funding in a slightly different way, and had to work with other sites on capabilities and distribution of work. Institution B has a specific budget designated by the government, and when they decide they are reducing funding in that area, the same is true as Institution A, they have to distribute that reduced budget throughout the sites that do similar research.

Because Institution B is an independent government research site, there was a worry at some point in the past about them being wasteful or doing research not related to the mission of the site, because of this, the government requires this site to BID for the work they get.  As an example, the site released a notice they were interested in a particular topic, my lab had to submit a grant (and budget) and several academic labs did as well. Because the government group is already on site, they don’t have to travel to work with the specific population of people they are interested in, and they already have specialized equipment, so my director told me they are NORMALLY the cheaper option and get the funding… but not always, and that fact combined with general budget cuts by the government has lead to layoffs in the past.

On the plus side, both government positions I’ve had experience with have a basal budget and the additional funding they request is from a much smaller, specialized pool of applicants, increasing their chances.

Work-Life balance is pretty good and you have normal hours 

This is pretty true for both groups I worked with. Institution A would occasionally require an early morning or a weekend day, but also required that you compensate your time by leaving early or taking a weekday off. No one but the directors seem to put in “excessive”* hours or take their work home with them, though the higher you are the more likely this is, and with all science you still need to keep up with the literature, which is almost always done on your own time

*this is still much fewer hours than other types of labs I’ve worked in.

NEXT UP: Academic Labs from a Student Perspective 


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