Day in The Life of a professor or research scientist
March 14, 2013 7:11 AM   Subscribe

I'm wondering if anyone can shed some light on the daily experience of a university researcher in either psychology or the basic sciences as well as a meta-review of the job as a whole.

What was the path to employment like for you?
What skills- both practical and interpersonal- would you say are important to doing your job well? What factors contribute to your success?
What are some challenges or drawbacks of life as a PA? ( Please be specific if at all possible)
What opportunities would you say there are for growth/advancement?
These are just general guidelines. Feel free to ( and in fact I would ask you to) to speak to your individual experience and add whatever two cents you may have. This started as an assignment, yes, but I'm also genuinely interested in making an informed decision about my future. Thanks everyone!
posted by marsbar77 to Work & Money (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I am a non-Ph.D. research coordinator in an experimental psychology lab. This is all direct observation (I've been doing this for a long time).

Path to employment is... tricky. But straightforward, if that makes any sense. It's better than the outlook for humanities Ph.D.s, but expect 5+ years in grad school, 3+ years of postdoc, then a tenure-track assistant professorship. That's if you're lucky, have great advisors, do great research, and publish well. There might be some adjunct teaching or non-tenure assistant professorships in there as well. We've had a couple faculty searches here recently, and I've seen the job talks; it's tough. These candidates come out of the best labs (usually at least two good labs each), and have some killer publications.

The biggest leap from undergrad to grad is doing research independently and with a lot of self-motivation; like, crazy-strong work ethic. The biggest leap from grad to postdoc is having even less supervision, and starting to supervise. The toughest is postdoc to asst. prof, where you have to be able to manage a lab, including applying for large grants, and oversee your trainees. (Once you're full, you can pay someone to do a lot of that for you.) Once you have trainees, your reputation and success are predicated on their successful research careers, so being able to motivate people is key.

It seems like the tough part about going from being a student or postdoc to faculty is that you just can't be as directly involved in research. New faculty sometimes have to teach two classes at a time, all year. Add grant-writing on top of that, and there's not much time for research and writing. But you have to! Otherwise you won't get tenure. (Once you get grants, you can "buy out" of classes.)

The good part about academia is that you have your career path laid out ahead of you: grad student, postdoc, asst prof, TENURED assoc prof, full prof, retire. Plus, job security.

So if you're a senior, I'm guessing you didn't apply this year? Your course of action should probably be to apply to RA positions in the fields you're interested in (or any fields at all) to get a first-hand look at academic research. Unless you were really involved in research as an undergrad, having some RA time is almost a necessity to get into a good grad program. Getting those positions is almost an art on its own...
posted by supercres at 7:27 AM on March 14, 2013

You might want to check out the forums at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Lots of early-career academics freaking out on there all the time.
posted by mskyle at 8:35 AM on March 14, 2013

There are a number of answers from people in every stage of the prof/research scientist track in the epic What do you do all day? thread
posted by rockindata at 8:36 AM on March 14, 2013

Best answer: I'm a psych phd dropout married to a former classmate who is now a tenured psych prof.

The path to her current tenured position at an American university was a long one.

6 years of grad school
2 X 2 year post-docs with some adjunct instructing in the mix.
8 years overseas as a lecturer/senior lecturer.

Titanic debt. You are looking at a lot of poverty level living before you get to the lottery draw stage for the real but still underpaid post-doc jobs.

The biggest factor for success is not what most people tell you it is (luck or intelligence). There is a huge grinding aspect to it and some cleverness required (but not as much as you would think) but the most important thing for success is to network extensively and exhaustively very early in your graduate career. This is where your post-doc and first job opportunities will come from. Without this you are dead in the water and no wind is ever likely to blow. Of course this increases your debt load - attending conferences costs a lot of money you won't have.

Networking doesn't stop then either because good students are advised to apply based on both the quality of the science and the reputation of the adviser and to get that personality reputation people have to actually know you.

In general, I'd say it is a great life in a lot of ways but the days while unstructured and largely free-form, are very long and you are essentially a subsidized entrepreneur with the pro's and con's that entails. The odds of getting a tenure track position are abysmally low and the pay is pretty low for the time, effort and training required. The job security once tenured is wonderful. The inability to control your geographical destiny can be pretty frustrating. There are not a lot of openings and you have to go to where they are and the competition for the jobs in good locations is extra fierce. Being married complicates this. Visa issues are a pain (particularly for non-Americans working in America) Being married to another scientist makes it damn near impossible unless you are brilliant or both very very good.

The other thing I will say is to chose your program/adviser very carefully. A big name researcher can be a big leg up in the job market. Ditto for a big name program. However, a lot of these places don't really do a lot of advising and instead coast on the quality of the incoming students. If you really want to be advised/taught you need to be sure that is what the adviser/program does. There are people out there who never actually graduate any of their students. There are labs that have too many students. There are faculty who are never actually even at their institution. There are faculty listed on some university website who have died or retired - making it unlikely you can work with them.
posted by srboisvert at 8:40 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Regarding debt; any "good" psych grad program (or even mediocre; basically anywhere but a PhD diploma mill), in the United States at least, should be able to provide funding to cover tuition and living expenses. It is indeed approximately poverty level, but it should be enough to live on (barely) while in grad school. I didn't have to take out any loans while in grad school for a PhD in psych. If you accumulate debt while you're in grad school for psychology, You're Doing It Wrong.
posted by w1nt3rmut3 at 2:29 PM on March 14, 2013

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