Thursday, August 28, 2008

What happens to research faculty?

Are research faculty positions a good career move or are they career suicide?

Our 80-year old department head is about to retire and as a result his entire lab, which consists entirely of research faculty, must move on. However, after a year of job hunting, most of them are not fairing well.

The Research Faculty (RF) in the department head's lab have been there for about 8-10 years, some of them for as long as fifteen. In that time, only one of them applied for and obtained independent funding. Most of them publish on a regular basis, but not in Science or Nature-level journals. All of them are excellent scientists with untouchable technical skills. Of course, they should have some mad skills after being at the bench for as long as they have.

The RFs started looking for new jobs about a year ago.
RF1, wants a faculty position, and while RF1 publishes regularly, s/he never applied for or obtained any independent funding during the last 15 years. RF1 wants a tenure-track faculty position, but the consensus among the faculty is that it's unlikely. Interestingly, our department is hiring new faculty and my advisor is pretty open about things the department are looking for, do and don'ts of interviewing for a faculty position, etc. From what I can gather, when looking at applications, the faculty assume something is wrong with an applicant that currently holds an RF position. This makes me wonder if you can recover from taking an RF position. I know some people do it, but is it rare or is my department weird in this respect.
RF2 has been employed in department heads lab for over 10 years, most of it as an RF. S/he taught a couple classes a semester at the local community college during her/his time as RF. S/he obtained a teaching position at a medium-sized university located about 1.5h from the graduate school. This university does not have a graduate program in the sciences. RF2 is very happy with this new position.
RF3. Again, this person has been in the lab for about 10years, but I am not sure how much of this time is as a research faculty. RF3 must stay in the US until her/his children graduate from school. It is my understanding that RF3 did not produce a first author publication during the time spent in my department heads lab, but s/he does have many middle author papers. RF3 recently took a job in another lab in our department as a research associate.
RF4. This individual published many first author papers and actually obtained independent funding. When we spoke a few weeks ago, they informed me that they were looking into truck-driving school because they felt too old to start over in another lab as a post-doc and didn't feel that there were many other options for them in science.

I am not sure about the remaining RFs from this lab.

The fallout.
These individuals are used in our department as a cautionary tale about what happens when you become a career post-doc or research faculty. All of the faculty in my department view research faculty positions as a dead-end job. They even remark about applications they receive for tenure-track faculty positions from research faculty. They say they wonder "what is wrong with them." Is it this bad everywhere, does my department just have a short-sighted view or both?

If research faculty positions are a dead end job, then they certainly seem like a scary option. What is an RF to do after 10-20 yrs of working in a lab and their boss decides to retire? Do all departments look so negatively at people who take research faculty positions or is it more about the time spent as a research faculty member?

Personally, I think it is unfortunate, and the attitude that the tenure-track faculty in my department have toward research faculty is disheartening to say the least. I don't particularly want to work with people like this and worse, I don't want to become someone with this type of condescending attitude. I have enough personality quarks already.


Cath@VWXYNot? said...

It's a real shame because in some ways I am very attracted to that kind of postion... you are right though, attitudes are still stuck in the 80s.

microbiologist xx said...

I agree. In many ways, I would prefer a research faculty position too. I see that it can be dangerous to get stuck there, but I wish that it wasn't frowned upon to spend some time as a research faculty. Some people may not be ready to give up the bench work for desk work after one post-doc.

chall said...

i think it might work _if_ the lab you're in gets "taken over by one of the post docs" ... we have a lab like that in my present department where the FAculty is retirering but oneof his very successful post docs is taking over the lab with everything....

I guess this might be an unusual thing.

I do think that you are right in the assumption that Faculty at the moment look upon RF as "they didn't want to move on and therefore are a little suspect"....

I wouldn't mind that RF job ither. But I don't want to stand unemployable yet again in 20 years time...

Thomas Joseph said...

Honestly, I see the RF position as a glorified post-doc. Essentially, you tie your career to someone else, and if they go down ... you go down. If you want such a position, you could look for "Category 3" scientist positions in the US government. They probably pay a bit better than academia, and they have a fair amount of job security because they're not tied to a single faculty member. In the government, if I (the research scientist) gets the axe, my technician still has a job and just waits for the next research scientist to show up.

I do want to harp on this one comment though: ... not in Science or Nature-level journals.

Is this still such a "big deal"? Here, where I work ... if I publish in FEMS Microbiology, I get the same amount of credit for that publication as I do if I publish in Science. They both count as only 1 of my 2 required publications a year. In the long run the Science paper may help me with my "impact factor" (not determined by the number of citations) but you have to walk before you can run. I seriously hope people don't get wrapped up in this "Where do you publish?" question because a ton of great work occurs outside of those two journals.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Did you see Mad Hatter's post on this topic on the Alternative Scientist blog? She'll be writing more parts to this series soon...

microbiologist xx said...

chall - that is exactly my thoughts.

thomas joseph - I do think this type of position is one of the many advantages of working for a gov. lab.

Also, I only mentioned the types of journals that they published in so that I could give any readers a better sense of these research faculty's particular experiences. I certainly don't think every paper needs to be in C/N/S and I totally agree, a lot of good work comes out of many other journals. I like Molecular Microbiology in particular. :)

cath - I did not see that blog post. Thanks for the heads up.

Srini said...

This is interesting... seems like all of you have a bio background. I come from chemistry and doing computational modeling for materials. Next week I have an interview for the Research Faculty position. In this bad economy... I immediately decided to go for the interview when they called. Let me first do my job and IF they offer me this position, then I can think and decide.

One difference though, these people mentioned to me that it will not be tied to any single faculty and the RF has to conduct his/her own research (under a braodly defined catogery).

Anyway... let me see how it goes.

microbiologist xx said...

Srini - Good luck with your interview.
I am always interested in how different things are from field to field and I would love to know how things turn out.

Dimitris said...

At UCLA where I am the research faculty are treated like 2nd class citizens even if they do good work. A post doc has more job security than a research faculty. It is very elitist I think. These are faculty that are more productive by far than some (if not most) of the tenured professors around. As for the journals I agree. I am an HIV person so J Virol (impact factor 5.5) is our main turf and a lot of seminal work is published there.
Nice blog microbiologist XX.

microbiologist xx said...

dimitris - Thanks! This sounds very similar to how things were at my grad. school. It just seems like some faculty see anything other than tenure-track faculty at an academic institution is failing at science. I will say that alot of the younger faculty don't seem to share this view, but even they caution against spending too much time as a research faculty member. Good luck with everything and please keep us posted when you succeed. I love it when people buck the system and are successful.