Grinding along the Research Assistant career path
March 19, 2013 3:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm a baby Australian scientist trying to earn experience and cash prior to embarking on a PhD, but landing a relevant job is turning out to be a bit of an ordeal.

In undergrad I majored in biochem and microbiology; I graduated from my Honours year last November with a great GPA and some useful skills. Rather than segue straight into a PhD, I want to work for a few years in labs as a research assistant and broaden my skill base and hopefully get a couple of publications. Unfortunately, my Honours supervisor was not able to offer me anything, so I'm left with responding to publicly posted ads.

From three months of applications, probably around 40 at this point, I've only scored a single interview, which went well, but unfortunately not well enough. Following up, the interviewer said that I did "wonderfully", that she found the hiring decision very difficult, and that she would happily consider me should another position open up. On the other hand, she also said that the job posting attracted over 130 applicants. I'm getting a bit dispirited, not to mention low on resources. I know I can be a useful asset to a lab, but the competition is so ferocious that I feel like it's statistically unlikely I'm going to land something at all this year.

Are there other avenues I should pursue? Any positions that may not be so competitive to land but that would still be at least tangentially useful to my future work? Something at which I could build contacts to network my way into a research position? I've applied for a few clinical jobs, biochemistry and microbiology both, but no luck there so far.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot to Work & Money (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would suggest starting your PhD - it will give you leverage that you don't currently have and give you more of an ability to network.

Most of the research assistant job ads I've read require applicants to be working towards a PhD anyway.
posted by heyjude at 3:39 PM on March 19, 2013

Often times funding for a research assistant position depends on grant funding and that can be hard to come by for a primary investigator. If you are in a position to volunteer some hours to a lab as a starting point, I'm sure you will find a whole range of people who would be eager to take you up on the offer. You can then leverage that experience by gaining applicable skills you can use to market yourself to other labs, and can also make connections within the field that will make it easier to network for available positions.

Good luck!
posted by goggie at 3:43 PM on March 19, 2013

Go back to the interviewer who said she liked you and ask her if she has colleagues who are looking for someone.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:00 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm afraid I don't know much about academic research in Australia, but I would suggest not starting your PhD until you get some research experience. The worst thing that could happen is that you start your graduate study, and two years go by before you realize you dislike academia and can't stick it out for the rest.

I agree with starting on a volunteer basis. In the last four years in my lab, one person has been hired that way, one has been hired the "normal" way (applying on the university's HR page), and one has been hired by starting on an hourly temporary basis (and also being in a relationship with an existing staff member). Everyone else was an undergrad working with the PI.

You should focus your attention on young researchers-- new faculty who have a lot of energy but not a lot of money. (Again, sorry; that's assuming similar funding avenues.) Cold-call/e-mail them and ask to volunteer with them. At the very very least, you'll get a brief taste of academic research before your resources run out, and you'll make connections for potential future employers/PhD advisers. At best, you'll get hired at a rate that can sustain you until school.
posted by supercres at 4:14 PM on March 19, 2013

Try industry.
posted by fshgrl at 4:50 PM on March 19, 2013

I would suggest starting your PhD if you are really interested in the academic research / university side of things. In my lab, we've never hired a research assistant with fewer qualification than a Masters degree. Research assistants in a lot of fields are a rare bonus - you'd be lucky to find someone with a grant that includes a position for someone with just a Bachelor's degree, and there is an unlimited stream of Honours / PhD students willing to do the work instead. Admittedly the situation is a bit better in microbiology due to the necessity of lots of lab techs.

As fshgrl suggests, industry might be the more likely option for a job - but it won't necessarily give you the academic preparation / publications you're looking for.
posted by Jimbob at 5:39 PM on March 19, 2013

but I would suggest not starting your PhD until you get some research experience.

In Australia, the Honours degree nicolas léonard sadi carnot has pretty much covers this. It's the purpose of the Honours year.
posted by Jimbob at 5:40 PM on March 19, 2013

I'm largely ignorant of the specifics of Australia's education system and how most academic scientific research is funded there, but I think I still know enough to suggest anyone who aspires to be a scientist should think critically about the fact that competition for research tech positions is as brutal as it seems to be.

Such questions may seem too mundane for someone of your curiosity, intellect, and training, but if you step back, you will realize that it isn't much of an exaggeration to say that your life depends on the answer.

I would absolutely not, as some here have suggested, hurry yourself directly into a PhD program. Until you have evidence to the contrary, the most likely explanation for your difficulty finding a job is that the supply of science grads far exceeds the demand for research assistants in academic research.

From there, you can consider the reasons why there would be such an imbalance. It might be that there isn't much funding. That may well be the case, but I would think that in the face of scarce funding, researchers would try and take as much advantage of research assistants as possible, since they should be, on the whole, cheaper than graduate students since the grad students have more training. Or, maybe researchers find that they have an oversupply of grad students and that grad students are actually a better value than research techs because they have more education and less freedom and might actually be paid less.

If you continue working this through, I think you will realize that things don't exactly look better for grad students or recently minted PhDs either.

In the US, people are starting to come to terms with a few things: First, a lot of people entering science PhD programs aren't ending up in the academic research positions that they are being trained for. Many are bailing out with masters, and of those remaining, many are leaving before they defend their dissertations, and of those who make it that far, many are still not ending up in traditional academic, or even industry research positions. Second, while these outcomes are more common than they were in "the good old days," they weren't exactly rare, even then. These realizations are causing some to question whether science graduate programs are doing right by their students, and what they can do to better help the people who end up taking "non traditional," career paths.

People's awareness of these currents may differ between the US and Australia, but I doubt the fundamental situation is different. Either way, it behooves you to consider the similarities and differences before you commit yourself to a PhD program.
posted by Good Brain at 8:10 PM on March 19, 2013

You're right, Good Brain, that supply exceeds demand. However, the result of this is that if you want to do this sort of work, qualification level matters a lot. A research assistant job isn't a gateway to a PhD, rather, a PhD is a gateway to a research job.
posted by Jimbob at 8:46 PM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have a job similar to what you're looking for, and there are a few of us at my work. Staff turnover here is really low. As far as I can tell, these positions are pretty rare in the wider research world (maybe biochem is different the chem, but I'm amazed you found forty jobs in research facilities to apply to). Most other research labs seem to only hire post-docs, technicians, or use students.

Start your PhD, or look at industry if it's just for the money. Barring work experience kids and visiting PhD students, I've never known a volunteer at a lab here - I think that the insurance issues would be crazy (mostly they get in the way, they are suffered more than welcomed).
posted by kjs4 at 8:53 PM on March 19, 2013

Thanks everyone for their contributions and advice. While I could probably score an APA (how most PhD students in Australia get funded), I don't think I'm ready to choose a lab / topic just yet. I'll look more into graduate programs for pharma and biotech companies, and I've answered a posting for a blood products technician at the Red Cross. Fingers crossed.

Jimbob, about never hiring an RA with less than a Masters, that genuinely surprises me! Perhaps your field requires a much broader / deeper skillset for someone to be useful. In protein biochem or micro it seems not at all unusual for Honours grads to be doing RA work. That said, most of those jobs also seem to come about through the largess of well-funded supervisors / groups.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 5:03 AM on March 20, 2013

Jimbob, what you say is certainly true. People determined to go into science and follow a traditional academic career path absolutely need to cultivate the right qualifications, and for most that means a graduate study and writing and successfully defending a dissertation. What I'm saying is that the OP should think rigorously about whether he(?) really wants to go down that road.

I've been making the same point to students I've been mentoring from my alma matter. Committing themselves to a career identity that defines itself, in part, by poverty and deprivation often has the unintended effect of making life *worse* for everyone who shares the same values.

The US has long been a bastion of academic scientific research. It trained a lot of scientists from its own population, and many more from around the world, and gave them good lifelong careers. That is changing, in part, because other countries are stepping up their investment in research, but also because the US has been pulling back from its commitment to both research and higher education due to short-term economic problems, and a more enduring idealogical determination to undermine and vandalize public institutions in favor of private corporate interests.

This has made career prospects for scientists in the US more uncertain than they've ever been. And, given the fact that the US has, historically, trained and employed a lot of scientists from outside the country, I assume it has ripple effects around the globe. It may well be that other countries are taking advantage of the shortsightedness of US politicians by training and employing enough scientists to prevent collapse of demand in the global job market for scientists, but I don't know that. I do think that anyone, at least anyone who isn't independently wealthy, should investigate the question for themselves before committing themselves to a decade or so as an ill-paid, overworked grad student and post-doc. I think anyone who professes to train people for a career in science has an ethical responsibility to do the same thing. Anyone who is far enough into their careers to have graduate students of their own should not assume that things are more or less the same way they were when they were in the same position.
posted by Good Brain at 5:55 PM on March 20, 2013

The problems of competition for such positions that exist aside, the PhD->postdoc treadmill in Australia is significantly gentler than in the US, I believe. 3-4 years for the PhD, with a decent government stipend, and possibly supplemental teaching; then postdocs generally earn around 70k, which is pretty solid. It's still a huge career-defining commitment, of course, and who knows if the situation will change in the next half-decade or so.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 8:53 PM on March 20, 2013

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