I’m pleased to introduce Dr. Matthew Bakker, our newest #postac coach. For many years I have sought a coach with experience working for the federal government; this has been difficult because federal work rules prevent employees from taking outside jobs. Matt fortunately has just transitioned from government to a tenure track job, and will be able to provide #postac coaching for anyone seeking STEM-focused careers as well as government work.
Academic research at universities is only one species in a larger research ecosystem. Private industry also makes substantial research investments, for example. Federal government agencies form another component of the research ecosystem that is less well-known. In the big picture, it is a good thing (in terms of productivity, innovation, and balance) that there are multiple research enterprises, each of which have different incentives and strengths.
What are some of the advantages available to those doing research as federal scientists? There are several.
1. Less time selling research, and more time doing research. Staff scientists may pursue grant funding for a variety of reasons, but it is rarely required that they do so. Less time, effort and attention directed toward chasing dollars can mean a more focused, cohesive and thorough research program. This should not be misconstrued as suggesting that federal research scientists are free to choose anything they want for a research subject, or that no time will be required to plan and justify a research agenda. There are certainly research planning efforts that can consume considerable amounts of time, and research plans are frequently evaluated via external peer review. However, these plans are often made on the scale of a team of several scientists, may extend for longer durations than most grants, and the emphasis of the evaluation process is more on ensuring excellent science than on competing for limited available dollars.
2. Clear performance expectations. For many, the nebulous requirements and expectations for earning tenure are unsettling to say the least. Poorly defined expectations contribute to over commitment, and a continual feeling that ‘I should be doing more!’ Performance expectations are substantially more explicit as a federal employee. Each employee has a performance plan that lays out duties and expectations in yearly increments. Mandatory performance reviews with your supervisor provide a structure for receiving frequent feedback on performance. As a research scientist, it was valuable to know that submitting two original research reports in a given year would satisfy my primary performance expectation, and that productivity greater than this would be evaluated as being above the satisfactory level.
3. Equipment! One of the quirks of the federal appropriations process is that federal agencies are nearly always prohibited from carrying any funds over from one fiscal year to the next. You’ve likely heard news of threatened or actual ‘government shutdowns’ from time to time; this is the underlying reason. US law requires that congress make new funds available to the government each year, and without congress performing that basic function, government operations must cease. Monies appropriated to a federal agency but not spent by the end of the fiscal year must be returned to the treasury. Naturally, most agencies find useful and appropriate ways to spend their balances down to zero, rather than giving up funds. For researchers, this can mean relatively frequent access to one-time cash, enabling the purchase of equipment and instrumentation that many academic researchers could only dream of.
Conclusion: Research in the federal government service offers some real perks and advantages. However, many trainees and job seekers are unaware of these opportunities, in part because location and security requirements can ‘hide’ government labs from view. If you’ve never considered this career option, I encourage you to do so!A future post will look at some of the challenges and disadvantages of doing science in a government lab.