Although I decided to go for an industrial career, I still had a chance to get a taste in a national lab before I graduated. I knew I wouldn’t be working there in the future, so I took a more objective angle to look at everything there.
As the saying goes, every coin has two sides. The experience in national lab had things that I liked and things that were not that appealing to me.
The first impression in most national labs might be the same: Cool!!! How come? Did you see the high security level all over the facility? For young guys like me, seeing a bunch of high tech security measures is always a turn on, like in a movie. Plus, I can always show off my DOE badge to my friends when we are drinking. That actually feels pretty good.
During the time in the national lab, I found that funding was never a problem. I never saw anyone struggling with insufficient research funding for projects. I even saw a lot of university professors coming from hundreds of miles away to our facility, just to give a presentation. Most of them are trying to get an opportunity to collaborate with us for research funding. If you are a PI in a lab, you are not only worry-free about money, but also have the privilege to choose your outsource. Again, feels good.
From a research standpoint, national labs have another dominant advantage over universities—the equipment. For some premier labs, their equipment could be considered as “magnificent.” In today’s research, say, if we don’t have a second Einstein, then in many cases better equipment could significantly increase the chance of producing high quality work. Especially in experimental sciences, better equipment means more publications and a higher impact factor.
My background is in materials science. From the numerous papers I read, it is not hard to make the conclusion about the impact of quality equipment. Even if you have a break through idea in research, you still need great experimental equipment to realize it. Not to mention that only a few of us could have a “break through idea.” When you are working in the top-level state of the arts clean room, yes, it feels great.
However, for some people, who might consider industrial/business related careers, national labs have their own down sides.
The first thing is people’s working style. It appears to me that most of the researchers there are not in a hurry. Yes, I totally agree that research and scientific discovery takes time, but there is nothing wrong with being more efficient.
Maybe not everybody is in the lay back style. The younger new comers, like me, want to have a quick and solid start in their careers. We always want to make things happen faster. However, in government or government contract facilities, things are always slower than outside. Part of the reason is bureaucracy. One downside is that federal employees have no worry about losing jobs and less worry about the project’s progress. The hardest working people in national labs are usually the people on a shorter-term contract or just someone who wants to make a real change. Thus, for people who prefer highly efficient and fast pace work, national labs might not be the No. 1 choice.
Another thing is, national labs are not 100% a perfect place to prepare yourself for industrial/business related career. We know most of the work carried out in national labs falls into the scientific exploration category. Another way to say this is they can’t be readily used in industry/business. Thus, if you are planning to get an industrial job with 3-4 years, this national lab experience might not be considered as highly valuable as an equivalent job in academic institutes. I can’t deny I did see people doing really well in industries after working in national labs, but I have to say that the number of such scientist is not very big.
The industrial/business world usually prefer people with good people skills and business sense. After all, the employer wants to hire someone who can make a,profit for the company. The way we carry out a scientific discovery project in national labs won’t work in industries. This is always a problem.
I remember this story: A company researcher says, “Why did you do the experiment with DI water? It doesn’t make any sense for product application!” And a professor replies “why would we do it with tap water? It’s not publishable data!” The successful industrial research people I know, they all understand the customer needs and knows the business very well. One of them told me that after he changed his academic way of thinking to the business oriented way, his productivity increased from one patent a year to 4 patents a year.
It is a fact that industries rarely hire people who stayed in a national lab for more than 5 years.
So, a national lab is a great way to start your academia career, while perhaps not a sure thing for an industrial career.