Going Governmental

Federal agencies offer interesting opportunities for researchers looking to do more than bench work.

Rachel Nuwer
Dec 1, 2011


Molecular biologist Catherine Vrentas had never considered a career in government, and didn’t know much about positions available in her particular field—microbiology. “The usual accepted academic track is where your mind is,” she says. After attending a conference about opportunities at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Vrentas took a look at the postdoc positions advertised on the USDA’s website. One specifically referenced protein biochemistry and mentioned methods Vrentas was familiar with from her graduate-student days. Now a postdoc with the USDA, Vrentas spends her time analyzing prion proteins, and earns a significantly higher salary with a better work schedule than she had while working in academia.

Vrentas also values the fact that her work directly affects critical issues facing the nation. For example, her lab focuses on chronic wasting disease, a prion disease of species like deer and elk. Vrentas’s investigations help the...

Despite the seemingly low profile of government jobs, positions with federal, state, and local governments made up about 40 percent of the approximately 91,300 jobs held by biological scientists in 2008. The Scientist talked to researchers from various government agencies to get the inside scoop on the perks and pitfalls of this alternative to academic life.

The Budget Picture

Pro: Academics spend a lot of time applying for grants, but the government, for the most part, takes care of its own. On the federal level, for example, internal research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the USDA, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are all funded through congressional appropriations. This gives lead researchers more time to work on the projects that they signed on for. “I can order lab equipment without going through a week’s worth of paperwork and budgeting,” says Vrentas at the USDA. Some government researchers can also apply for outside funding to supplement their budgets. Eric Nicholson, a lead scientist at the USDA’s National Animal Disease Center (and Vrentas’s supervisor), can obtain additional research grants from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control, the NIH, the National Pork Board, and the Department of Defense, as well as from a number of private companies.

Con: Though government jobs tend to spare researchers from the woes of grant chasing, the vagaries of the federal budget can have immediate effects such as cancellation of research programs or forced relocation to a different job or department. “There are always concerns when the federal government has budget cuts,” says Nicholson. Today, budgets are diminishing across the board, which means government researchers can find it hard to make up for the reduced funds from other sources. And rules about obtaining outside funding vary from agency to agency.  

Research Focus

Pro: Like industry R&D, government research is expected to ultimately benefit the public, which many researchers find refreshing. “There’s a more complex set of activities than in academia,” says Gary Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). It’s the scale and urgency of the research problems that drew Nabel from his former lab at the University of Michigan to his present government position, where he oversees research on HIV and influenza vaccines.

At the USFWS and US Geological Survey (USGS), research conducted by government scientists helps shape policy and regulations aimed at protecting the nation’s natural resources. For example, thanks to a 19-year project that Howard Jelks, a fish biologist with the USGS, helped implement, the status of the Okaloosa darter of southern Florida was downlisted last year from endangered to threatened. Jelks’s work showing the fish’s range and population numbers justified the reduction to threatened status, which had immediate management implications for decisions on whether to protect or develop surrounding areas.

Con: Some of the intellectual freedom of academia is lost when a researcher joins the federal government. While scientists at the USFWS might be assigned to a shad habitat-restoration program, they won’t have the flexibility to research the incubation periods of fertilized oocytes of the fish, for example. Although there’s room for innovation and exploration within a particular project, topics are usually assigned rather than freely chosen.

Staying Put

Pro: Once you’re in, so long as you’re productive, your job will probably be secure. During times of economic hardship, federal jobs tend to suffer less from downsizing and layoffs than comparable jobs in industry. “Science isn’t something that gets solved instantly; there’s no sense that you’re going to cure cancer in 15 minutes,” says Philip Lenowitz, an NIH deputy director of human resources. The NIH generally doesn’t do layoffs and doesn’t expect to in the future, he adds. Similarly, at the USFWS, so long as you continue to perform well, “you have a long career ahead of you,” says Richard Bennett, a Northeast regional scientist at the agency.

Con: Senior employees have “bumping rights” at the USGS.  More-established researchers can displace junior employees from positions, says Jelks, which can make for “a lot of shake-up” within the agency. In other words, when an office or project gets shut down, senior employees and those with a good performance history can replace more-junior workers doing similar research.

Moving up

Pro: A benefit common to all federal programs is their intra-agency variation. “I’ve probably held eight different jobs since joining the FWS in 1989,” Bennett says. “There’s a breadth of diverse opportunities within the organization.” At the USFWS, researchers can work on habitat restoration or on environmental aspects of energy or on highway development. At the NIH, scientists can hold staff positions, work in the clinic, or manage grants. For those bent on climbing the ladder, advancement is performance-based. So long as you’re productive in turning out high-impact science and publishing in prominent journals, you will advance, says Jelks at the USGS. “If you’re doing well, there’s nothing to hold you back.” At the NIH, advancement follows the academic model: from tenure track, to tenure, to PI, to lab chief. Other government organizations have their own particular systems for moving up. Advancement is usually based on performance reviews, which are conducted every one to five years, depending on the organization and position.

Con: The government job-application process can be confusing at times. The lingo is different, and it doesn’t follow the scheme of a typical academic job posting. When Nicholson first began the application process at the USGS, he wasn’t even sure if the advertised positions were for postdocs, PIs, or the equivalent to an academic department head. “The wording’s just not written in the same way as it would be in an academic setting, which everyone’s familiar with,” Nicholson says.  He suggests getting in touch with the researchers directly involved in the work  to find out the details.

Work-Life Balance

Pro: The governmental work scheme affords greater flexibility than is often encountered in academia. Logging hours at a government lab is much more structured, says Vrentas, who fills out a time sheet every couple weeks. She enjoys the formality of clocking in and out of work, and points out that, unlike in an academic lab, if she takes off early one day, her boss can see that she put in extra hours on a different day. The USDA also has an annual leave system that allows Vrentas to earn credit for extra hours worked, hours which can be rolled over to take time off in the future. Under this scheme, she says she feels much more productive than she did in an academic lab. “I could choose to work on things in my free time or work overtime, but I don’t have to,” says Vrentas. Nabel from NIH adds, “I work long hours, but that’s just me. I love what I’m doing, and when you love what you’re doing it doesn’t feel like work.”

Con:  Working in government, you won’t enjoy some of the perks allotted to university scientists. Researchers may earn a higher salary if they work at large state schools that happen to have prominent sports teams, for example. And at places like Duke or Emory, scientists’ spouses and children can attend the university for free. Though the government offers some tuition reimbursement, it can’t compete with the offer of a free education at a $55,000-per-year institution.

By The Numbers

  Government Postdoctoral Position Academic Postdoctoral Position Government Lead Scientist Academic Lead Scientist
Funding Congress Grants Congress Grants
Flexibility of the research Determined by PI, but ultimately by government Determined by PI Usually allowed to address a prescribed research question; some flexibility within the topic Intellectual freedom, so long as the funds are there
Annual salary $38,500–53,100 (NIH 2011 stipend, depending on years
of experience)
$37,500 (median) $73,500 (mean) $59,200 (mean)