Our Experience in Government, Academic, and Industry Based Research Labs (pt 2 of 4)

This is the second post in this series, you can see the first post on government labs HERE. As stated before, I’m going to separate each of these 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.

We have both worked in a large number of academic labs, my husband is currently in his fourth lab, and I just completed my second and final academic lab. Because this can be so variable, I’m separating this into Academic-student and Academic-staff


Site Description

Because we’ve worked for 6 different institutions all around the US, I’m going to generalize the range of positions. We’ve both worked in human and animal work at small state schools, large research 1 schools, private colleges, and the ivy league.

Institution Size 

The smallest lab was one my husband worked in, as a graduate student, where he was the only graduate student in the lab, and there was only two permanent staff members. The smallest lab I worked in was in the Ivy League, where there was 8 people, and the largest was at a large R1 school, where there was around 30 people if you included the never ending stream of volunteers.

The smallest school was in the Ivy League with only a few thousand undergraduates and the largest was a state school with 40,000 undergraduates.

Time Spent There

The maximum for both of us is 5 years, the minimum is 2 years in any given lab… which shows our age a little and how long we’ve been doing this.

Position & Short Job Description 

Dr Hops:  he has been an MS graduate student in biology, after returning to school with a BA in education. His was a PhD student in physiology with emphasis in neuroscience, and has postdoced in a human neuroscience and psychology lab and is now in a neuroscience and genetics lab (keep your fingers crossed this is the last postdoc!).

Collheesi (me): I’ve been an MS graduate student in human clinical based research, and then did a second MS in nutritional biochemistry, with a research focus pertaining to molecular biology and analytical chemistry (I also took biomechanical engineering courses as part of my second MS). I also just enrolled in the first of several analytical chemistry and mass spec courses I will be taking over the next few years for my current job (yay, a student again).

Gender Breakdown

As previously stated, please keep in mind that this varies HIGHLY by field of research.

This changed slightly with institution, but the majority of the places we worked had a similar female to male student ratio of about half, with slight fluctuations normally with more females to males (about 60:40).

As stated previously, this depends HIGHLY on the field of study. As part of my MS research I took engineering classes and did the majority of the biomechanics portion of my project in an engineering lab. I was the only woman. All of the students, faculty, and staff were men. There was a female faculty member who technically physiology but since her research overlapped with my topic, I worked with her to help train her female undergraduate.

Right before the completion of my project (which took about a year), the main engineering lab I worked in accepted a female undergrad as a potential student. We used the same equipment and I finally asked her why no undergraduates end up here, and she explained that there is another lab in nanotechnology that tends to get more female students (she was a biotechonology major minoring in engineering… if my memory serves me right). She also told me that a higher percentage of female students declare engineering but end up switching it to their minor at best, but most opt out of that type of field all together.

I was one of two females in the biomechanics courses I took.

Interpersonal Interactions by Level  

How you’re treated based on educational background or position. See the first post in this series for a more complete description. This really wasn’t an issue at all as a student. The only thing I found that caused some discontent was that some people were allowed to fast-track because they were an RD and had an MS already (just like me), but some weren’t … I was on the latter end of that and had to basically start from scratch.

This was really the only thing that caused a bit of stress between students. One person who worked in another lab, finished her PhD project in 3 years because she had an MS… my lab took 3 years to finish an MS project regardless of previous experience. This wide range of expectations caused some friction with PhD students who were looking at an average of 6 or sometimes 7 years before completion.

Possibility for Advancement to Graduation

This isn’t a relevant topic under an academic position as I’ve outlined it in the previous post, but I wanted to address it simply because it is used in all other types of labs discussed. What does matter for advancement is how you pick your committee, if you get that option. I theoretically got to chose the three people who would judge me for candidacy and then for my comprehensives and final defense.

If you are in a rotational program, remember to ask the people you are interested in working with if they are looking for more students, and have open positions in the lab, or if they are just looking for a rotational student. Two people we were friends with in other programs chose to go to our university because of a single professor’s work, and when they were offered a rotation position decided they would pick that university over another university where they had several people they were interested in working with but they weren’t his first choice. After the completion of the rotation our friend asked the professor about positions only to be told they aren’t looking for new students for a few years due to funding. This person ended up in a lab they didn’t want to be in to finish an MS and reapply to programs they should have picked in the first place. The second friend went through the same thing 3 years later.


Average Rate of Turnover: Most common reasons for quitting   

If you’re in a very competitive program, just because you made it in doesn’t mean you’ll get to stay. About 20% of my group of 15 ended up dropping out, and my husband is the only one who made it through from his incoming class of 8. This is due to lots of reasons, including not fully considering what graduate school would be like, or if the job you actually want would require an advanced degree.

Other times culture shock was an issue, and people (even US citizens) had issues adapting to being out of a familiar environment. My husband and I definitely went through this our first year in the Northeast. Being from the south, we weren’t used to long, cold winters with actual winter weather, or the cultural differences of the New England area and the many southern states we lived in previously.

The final most common reason we’ve had students drop out is because of family life. One person who entered my program the year after me thought she could work another full-time job and still pull her full stipend while being a mom of 4. When she realized she would be either in class or lab most work hours so that would be her only form of income, she dropped out. Another friend was in her second year and found out she was pregnant and decided she didn’t want to go all the way through the PhD program with a newborn, so she changed to an MS and moved back to the state she was from to be closer to family who could help with the baby.

Common Academic Lab Rumors Answered 

You’re a student so you keep the same hours as students (i.e. get summers off)

SOOOOOO not correct for most labs. I didn’t get a vacation for the three years I was a student and my husband didn’t until I became staff (then he got a week a year). Both of our labs had a very high bar for work hours, see below for holidays.

All of the students in both of our departments didn’t do this. Most of my husband’s program kept similar hours as we did, or they didn’t end up graduating. I think most science based lab keep more hours. I know several of our neighbors weren’t in science and they were always home.. and not all of them received stipends and those that did didn’t make even half what a science major did.

Because you work for a school you get a lot of holidays 

NOPE. My husband and I both worked in different labs, but worked ALL major holidays for nearly 5 years. Yes, this includes Christmas AND Thanksgiving. We worked as much as 3 months straight without a single (complete) day where we were not in the lab. This means our bosses ALSO worked these days, but this isn’t always true for all labs.

Some professors did allow major holidays for their lab employees and students and took the days off themselves, but you can still expect as either staff or student for your work to bleed in to both the night, early morning, and/or weekends. As staff this was much better for me, and I did get more weekends off than I did as a student. The last year I was staff in this same lab I also got two weeks of vacation for the year.

When we did human research, the hours were a little better for holidays, because participants typically don’t show for holiday appointments. Because a lot of the research related to when people were available, we did work a lot of hours and it included LOTS of weekends with no compensation time (getting to take a day off or leave early if you came in early). We did get 3 weeks vacation every year after the first year.

All the graduate students working in one department make the same amount of money a year

This is a much more complex question than people realize, mostly because not all students working in one department might be actual students of THAT department. How is that possible? One professor can have related research interests that give them a main appointment in one department (where their lab is located) and crosslists them in other departments, so they can accept students from those departments. So even one specific lab can have students from multiple programs (both mine and my husbands did). They are also paid by the department for a different length of time depending on the program. My program was paid by our professor from the day we started, my husband wasn’t paid by his professor until after he completed his coursework (end of second year). When we were in the ivy league, the first three years were paid by the department, and then the professor had to show proof that they could support that student for three years beyond that or they wouldn’t approve the student taking a position in that lab.

The second issue is that even students who are working in labs and are part of the programs those labs are in can have a variable salary. The reason is simple, there is a minimum that the department requires, and then it’s up to the individual professors how they make up your “summer” pay. All the programs we’ve been affiliated with set a minimum of 20 hours of lab work through the school year (it would be highly frowned upon if you only work 20 hours, typically it was 40 for the school year). So your pay was prorated for this amount. During the summer, my boss paid us for 40-hours so our salary doubled (keep in mind this actually translated to 60+ actual work hours). A friend the same year as me in the same department as me but a different lab made half of what I did in the summer, because her professor didn’t adjust their salary though their hours increased.

The salary they offer you as a student your first year is the minimum you’ll make from then on in graduate school 

For me, this was true, but it wasn’t true for my husband or many of my friends in other programs. Their departments had a set amount of money to offer for positions each year, if they accepted fewer students than anticipated, some programs use this to subsidize the first year income for the students entering that year. The different programs my husband and friends were in called this “top off” money and went away after their first year, so they actually made LESS the second year than they did the first.

There is also a transition in pay if you’re paid by the department and then are transferred over to being paid by your professor (see all graduate students make the same amount). My husband also had a problem. His adviser couldn’t pay him as much as the department did, but the department offered him a subsidy to teach and have his salary remain about the same as it was when completely covered by the department.

Your salary is guaranteed by the university

This depends highly on the institution in question. As a professor you can be in a research based institution, a teaching heavy university or some blend of the two. This determines the “base salary” you get from the institution. Pretty much all of the state schools, regardless of size, offered to cover 80% of your salary regardless of personal funding status (that’s more complex than it sounds too, but for another post).



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