Staff scientists find satisfaction in playing the support role


As a new postdoc contemplating the tenure-track job hunt, Megan Spurgeon saw how mightily her fellow postdocs struggled to launch principal investigator (PI) careers. When she took her next career step 4 years later, she knew she didn’t want to spend all her time looking for funding, and she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to be the person in charge. But Spurgeon wanted to stay in academia—it was familiar, and she liked the collaborative environment. So she embarked on the staff scientist path. After almost 3 years as a staff scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, in the lab where she began as a postdoc, she relishes her scientific freedom and the opportunity to mentor junior scientists. The job isn’t perfect: It’s an underappreciated role, she feels, and career advancement can be challenging. But, she says, “I’m happy to share the pressure and play a supportive role.”

Filling new shoes

With the small number of tenure-track faculty positions available and the large number of Ph.D. holders in career limbo, many are advocating for increased numbers of staff scientist positions. As of 2015, doctorate-granting universities employed roughly 25,200 doctoral-level staff scientists (see chart below for the top 15 employers). This is an 18% increase from the approximately 21,300 in 2010, but it still doesn’t come close to the 63,861 postdoctoral fellows working at these institutions. The extent to which the number of staff scientist positions will continue increasing remains to be seen, but the role can offer an appealing option for those who want to stay close to research while also expanding their skills and responsibilities.

Spurgeon also pursues her own research projects and collaborations, and appreciates having the freedom to pursue new scientific angles. “As a postdoc, I was very much wedded to a specific research project,” she says, because she was focused on developing a research narrative to present in faculty job interviews. Now, she’s still expected to produce and publish original work, but, she says, “I feel like I don’t have the pressure to stay within one particular niche of the lab.”

She also helps her PI write grant applications, in addition to applying for ones for herself. Until recently, her salary, like that of most staff scientists, came from her PI’s grants. But as of last September, she has 5 years of salary support from an individual National Cancer Institute Research Specialist Award, or R50 for short. Having the R50 offers her peace of mind, she says, but such funding mechanisms specifically aimed at staff scientists are rare, and relying on a PI’s grants being funded can be stressful. “I know a lot of [staff] scientists who do have to worry on a year-to-year basis whether they’re going to have a job next year,” Spurgeon says. It was a source of uncertainty she accepted when she chose the path. On the other hand, PIs and institutions can offer some stability for the researchers their grants support. When a grant ends, for example, a PI can start paying a researcher from another one, and if a staff scientist has to change labs, institutions may have hiring policies that favor current employees.  

That’s not the case across the board, though. Greg Finak, a senior staff scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, describes his role as a “mini-faculty” member. In his division, staff scientists can apply for and hold grants and participate in faculty meetings. Staff scientists can climb a clear career ladder, with the responsibilities becoming more similar to those of a PI at each step.

But regardless of whether an institution has well-established resources and infrastructure to support staff scientists, the greater responsibilities of the role inevitably lead to career and professional development. Finak, for example, learned to budget his time more effectively as he got involved with more projects. “I realized I couldn’t do everything myself, which is something you tend to do as a postdoc,” Finak says. Delegating tasks became an important time management method. For Spurgeon, editing manuscripts for the lab’s grad students and writing grants has further strengthened her communication skills. In many ways, the staff scientist position offers the opportunity to grow and learn while preserving the high points of research that can get lost in the grind of leading a lab.

Making the move

Like Spurgeon, Finak became a staff scientist in his postdoc lab. Around the time that he was thinking about what he would do after his postdoc, his PI was preparing to move to a new institution in a new city. Finak thought that moving with his PI would be a good career opportunity. He also wanted a job that could offer some stability for his family, so he brought up the possibility of a staff scientist role, and his PI was on board. After moving, Finak considered faculty and industry positions, but pursuing those opportunities meant having to pack up and move his family again. “That wasn’t something we wanted to go through,” he says. Moreover, he had a good working relationship with his PI—which is crucial when considering staff scientist positions because you work together so closely—and enjoyed working at the institute. So, continuing on as a staff scientist was an optimal opportunity for him.

Experience in the lab’s bread-and-butter experimental techniques is the most straightforward way to present yourself as a strong candidate, but that doesn’t have to be a limitation. When Conklin joined his lab, he had no experience in his PI’s core area of cancer research, but he brought valuable expertise in cell imaging techniques. The PI wanted to expand her work in this direction, and Conklin went on to adapt the techniques he had originally used to examine brain cells so that they could be applied to cancer cells.

There can be a stigma against the role, staff scientists acknowledge. It can be seen as the position for Ph.D.s who don’t have enough drive or who failed at becoming PIs—but “I think it’s getting better,” Spurgeon says. Those contemplating the staff scientist path need to address these perceptions in themselves, too. When Spurgeon was deciding what to do after her postdoc, she asked herself whether she was failing if she didn’t push on for the faculty track. Ultimately, though, she decided that she wanted to stay close to the science and wasn’t interested in leading a lab. “I consider it a privilege to still be able to do science,” she says, and she works to make her career “something that I can be proud of.”

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