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 third and final academic lab. This post will focus on our experience post-graduating.
ACADEMIC SCIENCE AS STAFF
Because we’ve worked for 7 different institutions all around the US, I’m going to generalize the range of positions. We’ve both worked in human and animal work and had staff positions in large research 1 schools, private colleges, and the ivy league.
The smallest lab I worked in was in the Ivy League, where there was 8 people but grew to 15 at one point, and the largest was at a large R1 school, where there was around 30 people if you included the never ending stream of volunteers. My husband’s smallest lab is his current postdoc position, where there are three graduate students, a tech, and two undergrads.
Time Spent There
The maximum for both of us is 3.5 years, the minimum is 2 years in any given lab… which shows our age a little and how long we’ve been doing this (student related work isn’t included).
Position & Short Job Description
Dr Hops: He has been a post doc in two different labs. This isn’t really “staff” but it’s also not student, so I’m going to lump it in here. As a postdoc, he designs and carries out experiments. He writes papers and grants and interacts, when possible, at the administrative level, since he’s technically learning how to start his own lab.
Collheesi (me): since graduating I’ve been a tech, Sr tech, lab manager, clinical coordinator, and phelbotomist. This means I set up all studies, participated in every project in the lab, analyzed results and wrote papers, trained all new employees and students, handled budgets, ordering, all regulation paperwork and inspections, etc.
One professor also required me to do the following non-work related things: file all paperwork to finance their house, file all their divorce paperwork, sort and read all faculty applications, writing summaries so they didn’t need to read them, complete all of their evaluation paperwork, write offer letters, complete visa and other personal paperwork, move their house, set up their internet at home, serve food at what was supposed to be a lab party, babysit their child (in lab, without any notice… more than once)
As previously stated, please keep in mind that this varies HIGHLY by field of research.
This has been highly dependent on the individual lab we worked in. One of my labs was equally split between men and women and my professor was female (her boss and her bosses boss were both men). My husband was the only male in another lab, he had a female boss, but all the higher ups were men and his boss was one of two women in the entire department. The majority of my level (tech) positions in labs we’ve been associated with have been women, the higher you go the more likely the position is filled by a man.
Interpersonal Interactions by Level
How you’re treated based on educational background or position.
This is where my husband and I have a very different experience because he has a PhD and I don’t. I’ve had very good positions where I had thoughtful bosses who listened and appreciated all the overtime I worked, but my last position was quite possibly the worse job I’ve EVER had.* The professor I worked for treated everyone in the lab as disposable. We were only there to advance her career and she could care less what happened to us after leaving or if we gained any needed skills by working with her (the last point is more for students and postdocs). It was in this position I learned exactly how bad you can be treated as a tech and that I never wanted to work in academic science again.
Dr Hops has been a postdoc at two different institutions. The first offered no support or guidance and an attempt by a few faculty members and the postdocs in the department to put together a monthly advice meeting was thwarted by one particular faculty member who would over book the room, or crash their meeting and call their staff out so they could never attend (only to sit in this professor’s office while they edited a paper for two hours).
His current postdoc position is much better. His adviser speaks openly with him and the faculty have been very welcoming.
*this includes working in fast food and breaking three ribs while on the job, then being required to finish my 12 hour shift before going to the hospital.
Possibility for Advancement
This is a little obvious for my husband, being a postdoc, he can eventually move on to junior faculty and full professor, though this can take a while. Since I don’t have a PhD, the most advancement I can get is as a lab manager. I do have graduate degrees, so I can lecture freshman, but this would typically be on top of my current workload. In short, both my salary and position was maxed out after about 5 years.
Average Rate of Turnover
Most postdocs leave because they have moved on to a second postdoc, or have received funding and/or been offered a faculty position and are moving on. Most techs tend to leave as well. For every lab we’ve both worked in there are a few “lifers” that end up staying with a lab for their entire career (both PhDs and techs). In my previous lab, the average was 1.5 years for a research assistant (partially because our boss sucked so bad). Most of the labs we’ve both worked in techs typically work for 2-3 years while gaining research experience before moving on to some other form of graduate school (medical or research).
Common Academic Lab Staff Rumors Answered
You’re in a university so you keep the same hours as students (i.e. get summers off)
Everyone seems to think that because the university has summer classes that you don’t work during the summer (people who have never worked in science anyway). This isn’t the case, you put in a lot of hours ALL the time, but the summer is just an excuse to get even more done. This has been the case for all positions we have both had as well as for our bosses. Though it has been less extreme so far as major holidays are concerned now that neither of us are students.
Because you work for a school you get a lot of holidays
Some professors did allow major holidays for their lab employees and took the days off themselves, but you can still expect 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 highly variable 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.
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 70%-100% of your (school year,or 9 month) salary regardless of personal funding status (that’s more complex than it sounds too, but for another post). Because the institution covered their salary, they had teaching, advising, and committee responsibilities.
The private and Ivy schools we worked in covered none of the base salary for the professor. This means their income was solely tied to the number of grants they were able to bring in. The Ivy school we worked in self limited this because if it was government funding you had to specify a “percent effort” which could not exceed a total of 100%. This is also limiting because certain grants would have a minimum amount effort to cover salary, so the professor couldn’t cheat the system and just put 1% on every grant and then pay themselves much more (that percentage determines the amount of money they can take for salary, so they also don’t want to make it a low percentage).
For the R1 school, a professor was having funding issues so they did cover the gap for funding while they waited to hear back about a few grants, but to compensate they had to take additional student advising duties and serve on an additional committee. These things did NOT go away once she secured funding.