What is life like as a research scientist?
December 11, 2007 11:12 AM   Subscribe

Nosy filter: You are a research scientist in psychology, neuroscience, brain imaging, and/or related. What is your job like? Tell me anything and everything...before I apply to grad school.

For example...What are your hours? What do you do each day? Do you work for a university or in the private sector? Do you profess as well? Do you work mostly alone, or mostly with others? Do you work with people or animals? Do you travel? What is a typical day like? Do you enjoy it? Is it high stress? Are you burning out? Any advice for someone just starting out? Thank ye in advance - and feel free to email me.
posted by infinityjinx to Work & Money (11 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
From an old comment of mine:
Thanks to OmieWise, I've been listening to readings from Disciplined Minds from the Unwelcome Guests archive (starts on episode 176). Only one book, but pretty interesting.
posted by Chuckles at 11:48 AM on December 11, 2007

Caveat: I'm not a grad student in neuroscience specifically, but many of my peers are, and in most ways, their experiences are very similar to mine.

If you're thinking about a career in science, there are a number of different general tracks you can take (after grad school)
  1. Academia
    • Top-tier Research University: You're the PI of a lab, and you typically spend very little time doing benchwork. You operate on a higher plane, coming up with ideas, applying for grants, and schmoozing your peers. Stakes are high, and a failure to secure funding will likely mean that you're looking for another job after you burn through your start-up money. The actual science gets done by your grad students and postdocs. Teaching is limited to giving a few lectures a year, almost always on your specialty.
    • Medium University: You'll split your time more evenly between teaching and running your lab. Still need grant money, but not as much, and your research won't be as cutting edge. Don't expect to publish in Nature or Science, but you'll be churning out a decent number of publications and will have a few grad students (and a few small grants). You'll be responsible for teaching whole courses now, but will have TAs to help with the load.
    • Small Liberal Arts College: Teaching is your primary objective, and you may not be at a school that even has a graduate program in your field. Your research will be funded by small grants, and you'll be working with undergraduates, teaching them and giving them lab experience. You'll be teaching several courses and involved in lots of extracurriculars, as these types of schools place a larger emphasis on service and community

  2. Industry: These jobs are many and varied. You could be anything from a bench scientist to a team manager. If you're at a small startup, you may wear lots of different hats, depending on what day of the week it is. The money is typically a little better in industry, but with it comes a loss of academic freedom.
Your other questions:

Hours: Not many academic scientists work 40-hour weeks. There are always grant deadlines, experiments to do, lab emergencies, etc. (Industry isn't necessarily any better) It helps if you (and your spouse) are willing to move, as you'll likely be in one city for grad school, another for your post-doc, and yet another when you finally land a permanent position (usually in your mid-30s)

Stress: Every level of science comes with a certain amount of stress (see Hours:). If you're working in a hot field, there's always a question of whether you're going to get scooped, whether you'll be able to secure funding, and whether your experiments will work. Science also contains a lot of ups and downs. Some days, you make a cool discovery and everythign is great. Other days, nothing works, and you consider running away to join the circus (yet again). If you can't handle these ups and downs with grace, science may not be for you.

Collaboration: In today's highly interconnected world, not many people work alone. The big questions being asked require knowledge from people with many different specialties. You'll need to get good at networking, and good at communicating well with others.

Keep in mind that you'll be signing up for 5 or so years of graduate school (and likely an additional few as a post-doc). The pay isn't great, and the hours can be long some days. That said, those who are passionate about science wouldn't dream of going back to a 9-5 office drudge.

Do a search on AskMe for some of the previous threads on grad school, and you'll find lots of good info about that experience as well. Good luck!
posted by chrisamiller at 11:53 AM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have my Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience (psychology department). I did two postdocs and had two good faculty jobs. I loved grad school and disliked being a professor. I now work in business and love it. I will break down what I believe are MY reasons for the above statements (others undoubtedly have different experiences):

--Grad school is great because you are learning at a tremendous rate and exposed to so many exciting new ideas with a team of similar-aged classmates. You are challenged and gain incredible confidence from overcoming the challenges of thesis/dissertation. You develop poise and teaching makes you think on your feet. It is quite social due to going through these challenges with classmates.

--Being a professor is very lonely. You don't come in with an incoming class and have to adjust to being alone often. Now, I am a very social person, so this may not apply to you. Teaching is fun until you realize it is quite repetitive semester after semester. Again, this was my experience...some people adore everything about being a professor. Also, you are poor and work 80 hours a week. I did not like this.

--My days were a blend of research and teaching, just like graduate school. Teaching takes a tremendous amount of preparation.

--I worked with both people and rodents. I liked rodents better sometimes.

--I definitely burned out and lost interest, but I believe that was due to my motivations being extrinsic rather than having an intrinsic, passionate interest in my subject, which many professors possess. In my experience, the happiest professors were those who would do what they were doing in their spare time or if they didn't get paid. Neuroscience is not what I would do in my spare time. To be perfectly honest, I had outside pressure to follow this path. I honored this parental wish but got out. I do not regret any of it and learned and gained so much. But listen to your heart and follow your bliss. It is hard work if it isn't what you love.

--It is stressful to get NIH grants, yes. It can be done, but it is stressful. For everyone, even those who love love love it.

--I am now in a biomedical business and adore the intersection of science and business. I like being in the real world with adults (who aren't histrionic or socially impaired) and being able to control my own income.

Let me reiterate that many neuroscientists adore academia. I am N = 1. Good luck.
posted by frumious bandersnatch at 11:57 AM on December 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

It's been nearly 20 years since I was a graduate student and I'm a biochemist, not a neuroscientist, but it's safe to say that graduate school is a soul-crushing experience for nearly everybody who goes through it. The hours are insanely long, the stipends are minimal, and your fate is in the hands of your PI, who generally won't think you are ready to start writing your thesis until you've been near the end of your rope for a couple of years (at one point I seriously thought about dropping out of graduate school and joining the Navy, which in retrospect is the Worst Plan in the History of Forever, but that's how bad it was).

So be really really sure you want to live your life as a neuroscientist in some capacity before you embark on multiple years of misery. Although, you can always start grad school and bail out with an "exit master's" if you decide it's not for you.

Life after graduate school is an improvement (there's nowhere to go but up, really). Being a postdoc is pretty bad, but you have a little more money, autonomy, and respect. After doing a postdoc I went into industry because I didn't want the stress and responsibility of constantly trying to get funding to keep my lab going. Industry has its downside too (primarily lack of freedom to investigate what really interests you), and I've been unemployed a few times which also sucks, but on the whole I'm content with the way my life has turned out.

Having a PhD means I'm eligible for fewer but far more interesting jobs in biotech, and living an austere life as a broke-ass student and postdoc trained me not to get too enamored of shiny things. No credit card debt, paid off the mortgage way ahead of schedule - I honestly couldn't think of anything else to spend my salary on.

Graduate school was probably the worst 6 years of my life (which has admittedly been quite sheltered). But looking back on it now I'm glad I gritted my teeth and stuck out the misery until I earned that doctorate. It's the Navy's loss, really!
posted by Quietgal at 12:28 PM on December 11, 2007

I am not in this industry, but your ideal answerer describes my SO and I pretty much live all this each day anyway as a result. (I try to keep my SO away from AskMe so A- he isn’t distracted and B-he can’t read all the stuff I write about him!). He was in grad school and is now a postdoctoral research fellow in a lab. Not much has changed between the two roles, as I can see it. (On preview: this is all written from the research university prospective per chrisamiller's comment)

It is really freaking hard. But you can still slack off (correctly) and be successful. He works all the time. But it is/was a priority to have a life and outside interests, so he carved out time for those things. It was time he would otherwise have been in the lab, so there was a trade-off, but it was important for his sanity to have an outlet outside of school/work. I think sometimes he thinks he doesn’t work as long or as hard as he could, but I don’t know if that’s him having high expectations or not.

What are your hours?
In school, his hours were roughly 10 am to 8 pm and they are the same now. He could go to work earlier, but no one is there before 10 and they would all wonder why he is leaving early. Depending on what is going on, he may work later than 8. He usually works weekends, at least Sunday if not both days.

What do you do each day?
He did/does experiments mostly and from my perspective, it seems incredibly tedious, like something I would hand off to an intern in the business world. Obviously there is much more to it than that, and it took years of schooling to be able to learn/think how to best do those experiments, but it would bore me to tears. He and his classmates/coworkers can spend years on one experiment.

The other major component is the writing. I don’t think people realize how important the writing is. In school, you need to be able to write papers for publication (and as a native English speaker, he did a significant amount of editing the work of his lab mates for publication). After graduation, his focus was on funding and writing for grants. Throughout his career, he’ll need to write papers for publications. I would not underestimate the amount of writing that goes into this sort of career.

Later on, when he gets his own lab, he’ll probably spend his days managing. Running a lab is like running a small business, and from what I can tell, a lot time is spent being the “management” rather than just doing research all the time.

Do you work mostly alone, or mostly with others?
I would say there was a fair amount of collaboration – he may work alone on his experiments, but use data from colleagues to support his research and ideas. In some cases he did experiments to help others in his lab that may have been pressed for time, etc. Sometimes he collaborates with people from other labs too.

Do you travel?
Travel appears to be mostly limited to conferences. Don’t pass those up. There may be some travel to other labs or corporations, etc. There might be some lab/department retreats, but that's probably not what you had in mind.

What is a typical day like? Do you enjoy it? Is it high stress? Are you burning out?
A typical day is disappointing. I hate to say it, but it’s true. There may be a few small victories though. Like I said, it takes a long time for anything to come to fruition, and several people have told me that part of it is sheer luck sometimes. A lot of experiments fail or the results aren’t what you expected. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad career by any means, or that you’ll be miserable and depressed, but just that you have to know you are going to have to get through some muck before reaching gold. This is where my outside perspective is not as helpful, because somehow something is keeping these people going, and I don’t know what it is. I think it’s the thrill of the chase and the quest for an answer, and they have far more stamina than I.

Any advice for someone just starting out?
I would say that creativity is important too. You need to be able to think of new questions to answer, new experiments or new ways of running an experiment, etc. I don’t think scientists are really known as “creative” in the sense that one ascribes that term to an artist, etc, but it really is an important skill to be able to stretch your mind and come up with new research ideas that haven’t been done and have merit.

On a practical level, you should probably learn how to budget. While you will likely earn money in school, your stipend will be low and you won't make much when you graduate either (unless you go into private industry). Honestly, I would probably say that no matter what your career, budgeting effectively is important.

(on preview: Chrisamiller raises good points about stressors and mobility.)

You may want to also check out this thread (What advice do you have for a new PhD candidate?).

Good luck!
posted by ml98tu at 12:30 PM on December 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is my n=1.

I am a neuroscience (neuroendocrinology) post-doc in a medical school. My research is on steroid and growth hormone interactions in the hypothalamus and effects on gonadotropin secretion and sexual behavior.

What are your hours?
Whatever I make them. I generally work a 40-50 hour week, although that may include weekends and a 4 hour day on Tuesday or whatever.

What do you do each day?
I work with rodents, so some of my day is spent dealing with them (weighing, estrous cycle monitoring etc.) Some labs have a technician to do that, indeed mine does, but I do it myself. I generally spend about 5 or so hours doing lab stuff, in my case surgeries, killing animals for tissue, processing tissue, monitoring behavior, setting up immunohistochemistry runs or western blots, doing ELISAs, etc. etc. etc. I probably spend about 2-3 hours a day in front of the computer, reading, writing up my methods (and of course checking mefi).

Do you profess as well?
Not at this one. I did some lecturing at my last post-doc position, to graduate students. I did a lot more teaching in graduate school, but it was at an institution with undergraduates.

To summarize the rest, I work alone, mainly, but this is very different between labs, even within my lab there are people that tend to work together, or other post-docs whose projects just coincide more. I am very independent and like to do my own thing, which is both a good and bad thing, in that sometimes I can get isolated and unmotivated, but then again, I don't have to work according to anyone else's schedule. I travel for conferences, 2 a year, every few years I get to go to Europe for work. Again, this is different for a lot of people. One of my best friends is a post-doc in a lab whose PI sends them off to random places around the world to learn and teach techniques all the time. (their lab has a lot of money!)

I don't really find it high stress, in terms of a day-to-day routine, but in terms of finding a job in academia, if that's what you want to do, it's very stressful, the constant deadlines and publishing. I'm applying for faculty positions at the moment, and there is always the sense of how I could have done more or better during my grad school and post-doc years.

Advice? Don't let anyone push you into picking a lab too early, find out if your preferred mentor has grant money for the whole time you are there, apply for an NRSA early and often. I have a lot more advice, but this is already getting too long. Feel free to mefi mail me.
posted by gaspode at 12:48 PM on December 11, 2007

One thing a friend of mine said when I was starting grad school was, "think of this as a 007 license". It's true, there are lots of things you can do with a PhD, once you've done your time, it's like boot camp and other scientists like to see that you've got the mettle to get through it. If you love academics, you can stay, or you can branch out with those three letters being your calling card.

Gaspode is right - picking your advisor carefully is the best way to ensure success. And get someone who isn't hell-bent on keeping you from graduating once you have done the work and become valuable to them.
posted by MiffyCLB at 1:37 PM on December 11, 2007

right now I'm in the beginning stages of a post-doc in cognitive development at a fairly large research university. I am unusually lazy at the moment (I'm currently in the "reading and researching" phase), but I anticipate that won't last much longer - probably once the winter quarter starts I'll have to dig in a bit more, especially as I'll have to start running my own studies, applying for grants, writing up results for publication, applying for conferences, etc. However, as a post-doc I do have the luxury of setting my own hours. Since I have sole care of a neurotic dog who doesn't like to be left alone, it's so far been completely acceptable for me to work either mornings or afternoons, but not both. in the future I might look into a dog-walking service so I can work a full 9-5 day (well, maybe 10-5), which is when my lab is open. What I (will be) do(ing): mostly, run studies, put together stimuli, analyze data, and deal with undergraduate research assistants. I spend a lot of time working with others, since a cognitive development lab needs subjects (babies and children) and research assistants to keep things going. at the moment I'm not teaching, but I anticipate as a faculty member that I would spend more time teaching, applying for funding, and thinking about broader research programs, and less time being hands-on the lab. Travel is mostly dependent on conferences and if you're lucky enough to be invited for talks, you get to visit other universities then, too. I'm hoping my job will provide the opportunity to go do research in other places (like China). Right now I'm not too stressed, but if my grad school experience is any indicator, the times that are high stress are EXTREMELY difficult. luckily there are long stretches of time when you can relax and enjoy life a little more. I'm not burnt out yet; if anything, I'm loving my life. but I anticipate that the burning out may well happen down the line (particularly when grant applications are due).

I definitely agree with the previously-mentioned advice that your choice of advisor is the biggest determiner of whether you'll be successful (and hopefully happy) in grad school. I made a huge mistake with my first advisor, and I almost had to leave my program (she was doing her best to get me kicked out). luckily, I found someone else who would take me on as a student and we had a wonderful and productive working relationship, which led to me getting this stellar and awesome post-doc (which I would never have gotten working with my first advisor). another thing to keep in mind is that it's easy to be starry-eyed about academia, but the reality is that if you end up being a professor, you will spend a lot of your time dealing with bureaucracy (endless departmental meetings where everyone airs all their various resentments and petty feuds) and grubbing for money (since your ability to stay employed, at least for non-teaching jobs, depends a lot on whether you bring in grant money and publish, and only somewhat on service to the department and teaching excellence. this view might be a little cynical, but if you're shooting for a big research job, you have to be realistic about what you're letting yourself in for). another reality of academia is that if you're planning to be involved with someone or have any kind of personal life, you have to be aware that your job will not be secure until you get tenure, and it could be years before you reach that stage - graduate school takes a long time, and post-docs are almost mandatory now to get any kind of job, even teaching. if you're lucky enough to be involved with someone with a portable career, good for you. but if you happen to be attached to another academic, you have to be realistic about whether you are going to be able to stay together and find jobs in the same area. again, I'm cynical, but I'm speaking from personal experience here. however, there are tons of non-academic jobs in the field so there are definitely other options - more so for people in neuroscience than in cognitive development, sadly.
posted by dropkick queen at 3:21 PM on December 11, 2007

You should check out jobbook.org.

The site is a list of interviews with people from different fields about what their job is like. It's designed for students who want to get an impression of the job they're aiming for.

If the job listing isn't there, you can interview someone and post the interview on the site.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 4:42 PM on December 11, 2007

I used to be the research coordinator for a neuroscience lab (and before that a cognitive science lab), so I've observed the daily habits of postdocs and professors for many years, though I've opted not to go that route myself.

Hours: The postdocs seemed to work something like 10-7 in the office most weeks. At crunch times for grants, I'd get emails sent at 2 a.m., or they'd work straight through the weekend. The flip side is that at non-crunch times they had a lot of flexibility - could work from home a lot, move their hours around at will. The professors seemed to work late and on weekends pretty much all the time, crunch or not. At crunch times they pretty much just stopped sleeping.

What do they do: The postdocs spent about half their week analyzing data, a quarter in meetings to design new experiments or look at other results coming out of the lab, and the rest of the time writing. That breakdown's a little misleading, because at least in the fMRI world, the data analysis can crunch away on its own forever so most of the time they were writing they also had data analysis going on in the background and would just check in on it periodically. Once every couple of weeks they'd actually sit in on an experiment, but otherwise the data-gathering was handled by research associates or me, the friendly neighborhood research coordinator. I'm less certain how the professors handled their time; they didn't do any actual data analysis and were only involved in experiment design in the initial and final stages, not any of the intermediate stuff. Mostly they seemed to be in conference calls with their funding agencies and collaborators all the time, pursuing new funding opportunities, teaching or preparing to teach, or writing.

Where: My experience was all university; a medium-size research university pretty well known for its cognitive neurosci department.

Professing: The professors tended to teach one class a semester; usually the same one they'd been teaching forever, so there wasn't a lot of new prep work from year to year. One semester, one of the professors had a postdoc take over the class; otherwise, the postdocs might do a guest lecture once or twice a semester but that was it for teaching.

People/animals: All my experience is in human research.

Travel: The professors traveled a lot. The postdocs, maybe 2-3 conferences a year; one big international and a couple of more local ones. I suspect this varies wildly depending on funding; I'm working with a lab now where the postdocs have much more limited funding available for travel.

Burnout: One postdoc burned out pretty badly while we worked together (to be fair, I burned out pretty badly too at that lab.) The others all seemed to pretty much love what they did. Some had ambitions of moving on to run their own labs; others seemed happy as permanent postdocs, and will probably be at those labs as long as they're in existence.
posted by Stacey at 4:56 PM on December 11, 2007

I'm home now so I can write more at leisure. Most replies so far have focused on life as a graduate student and postdoc, which are the necessary first stages to becoming a practising research scientist. I can tell you a bit about what happens after that, since you need to decide whether it will be worth it for you in the end.

During your postdoc you will start looking for a job in academia, industry, or government (there are other options but these are the most common). Some advisors see this as a way to exercise their own clout, by "horse trading" good postdocs with other university departments. My advisor clearly had his own plans for me and was furious when I found a biotech job without his help. (He was a shithead so I wanted outta there ASAP, with or without his approval.) I applied to about 40 jobs before getting an interview - this was back before online job postings, so you can probably multiply that by about 10 now. It was pretty discouraging so if you are on good terms with your advisor, definitely let them help you find a position. The "old boy" network can really work to your advantage.

I have worked in the biotech industry since then, with a few periods of unemployment. Make sure you always have enough savings to live for several months with no income! The more senior you are, the longer it will take to find the next job, so start saving now. There is no security in biotech or big pharma (or anywhere outside the tenured Ivory Tower) so accept that for some of your career you'll probably be unemployed. Embrace that austere lifestyle you'll learn as a graduate student and let it carry you through the lean times.

My first job was the most enjoyable, my current job is probably my next fave, one company was ... interesting ... shall we say, and the other jobs sucked. That's probably a fairly typical distribution. The worst jobs were the ones that involved lots of FDA regulations for GMP and GLP work (any time you venture out of basic research you risk getting sucked into the GXP vortex). No flexibility, no room for improvisation, everything is completely nailed down and it destroys your brain and kills your soul. The problem is, the hardest jobs to find are the ones in basic research, so if you leave academia you'll undoubtedly wind up under the yoke of the GXPs at some point. It's an occupational hazard but after being trained so intensively to think for yourself, it really hurts to unplug your brain and become a paper-pushing automaton.

A typical work day for me currently runs from 7 or 8 to 4:30, although most people come in later and leave later. I currently spend about half my time at the bench, although it's ranged from 0 - 80% at other jobs. I have supervised anywhere from 0 - 4 RAs but 1 or 2 is most typical. I'm a bit unusual for doing so much of my own bench work: most PhDs with a few years' seniority have RAs do the wet work and the PhDs plan experiments and analyze the data. I fight to stay at the bench because I enjoy it and also because I want to remain intimately acquainted with the limitations of my analytical methods and instruments, and the potential artifacts involved. Nevertheless, this is a somewhat career-limiting philosophy, so apply with caution: Management doesn't like to see expensive PhDs piddling around with pipettors, and a threadbare lab coat with blown-out elbows just doesn't project that image of "leadership".

Working with others: I generally have my own project/s, with or without RAs to help, but I usually interact extensively with other employees. Especially at small companies, everyone's projects intersect somewhere and you rely heavily on others for their specialized skills and equipment. Currently I produce samples for the mass spectrometrists, who rely on me to grok their requirements and make samples they can actually use. A good company has an internal pipeline in which samples flow from one group to the next, and data flows in all directions.

Travel: maybe one meeting a year if I'm lucky, and nothing international (although the top brass go to those pretty often).

Teaching: nothing official since I'm in industry, although there are lots of enjoyable opportunities for training people in various techniques.

Stress: hell yeah, but name me one job that doesn't. Most of the stress comes from the incessant demands of management to do things faster and get more done in the day, and to somehow take care of all the "housekeeping" (lab notebooks, reports, meetings etc) without actually spending any time on it. After a while you just accept that there will always be this stress, it will never go away because it's human nature, and your choices are either to take it to heart and make yourself sick, or listen gravely to the boss's ranting and then slowly, painfully, shrug it off after the meeting. (It's hard but it gets a little easier as you get older and more cynical. Also having a decent nest egg in the bank helps too.)

Burnout: happens all the time. I know an organic chemist who's now a patent agent, another one who's working in the construction industry, and a molecular biologist who does science presentations to elementary school kids. All 3 have PhDs and I think "there but for the grace of God go I". Too much frustration (part and parcel of research), not enough gratification, and the temptation to chuck it all becomes overwhelming. PhDs are a stubborn bunch almost by definition (you have to be stubborn to finish grad school), but even we throw in the towel occasionally. I haven't peered into the abyss since my brush with the Navy in graduate school, but I don't think I'm ever all that far from the edge. Only the thought of how much blood, sweat and tears (literally! all 3!) my career has cost me has kept me from chucking it on several occasions.

But on a good day I realize that I'm truly one of the lucky ones: I earn a decent salary, my jobs are usually interesting and challenging, my coworkers are wicked smart and funny, and there's really nothing else on earth I'd be better suited for.

Best of luck to you in making your decision, infinityjinx, and may you find what you are truly suited for.

My apologies to any Navy folks who might be reading this thread: I didn't intend the quip in my previous post to imply that joining the Navy is an intrinsically bad idea, just that for me personally it would have been stupid for a whole lot of reasons. Both the Navy and I are better off for my staying in graduate school.
posted by Quietgal at 8:38 PM on December 11, 2007

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