National Labs 101: What They Are, What They Offer

23. March 2012

Tyler S. Ralston 

So you are finishing your degree, and you need to decide what to do with your life. Some science grads simplify this into a decision between academia or industry. However, there is a third option—a national laboratory.

 In the United States, many national labs are federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC) that are operated and staffed by private corporations or academic universities under contract to the government. In several ways, these labs straddle the gap between academia and industry.

Broadening your professional pursuits
When Ph.D.s finish their degrees, they often feel they are so specialized that they have few options. Fortunately, in a national lab, there is room to expand and diversify. National labs generally have several thousand people with several groups working on projects. They have seminars that allow you to see what other projects are being developed around the lab. This is a great way to survey many projects and find new opportunities to apply your specialty.

Publish or patent?
While a national lab doesn't necessarily subscribe to the “publish or perish” adage from academia, there is value ascribed to publishing research articles (albeit sometimes classified ones). Similarly, patent writing skills are a valuable skill to have in a national lab. The onus is on you to complete the paper or patent while pushing forward your project's objectives.

Research and development
National labs differ from industry in that there are generally few projects with manufactured deliverable systems. The deliverables tend to be technical analysis, system research and development, and proof-of-concept prototypes.

The types of funding agencies can vary, but it's safe to say that a majority of the financial support comes from defense- and energy-related grants. In academia, on the other hand, funding derives from a variety of sources, both government and private. Having grant ideas to push forward the lab’s mission areas are important. For ideas that need preliminary investigation, there are generally opportunities within the labs to apply for internal funding.

For each funding cycle, the labs have a budget for laboratory-directed R&D, which is used to promote highly innovative and exploratory research that supports the lab’s mission. Generally, an advanced concepts committee reviews proposals and funds research that supports the strategic initiatives of the lab. Beyond this, other opportunities for funding include funds set aside for collaboration with associated campus laboratories.

Reputation-building
Many FFRDCs operate by way of a technical meritocracy. That is, employees advance on the basis of their talent and achievements. For that reason, the first several months can be very critical in your career development; it's the time when you'll set the course for your career at the institution.

The more you can hit the ground running, the more opportunities you’ll have to demonstrate your skills and build achievements. It's important to find a mentor and a project so that you can see your contributions flower.

I was once given excellent advice that I will now pass on to you: Select the people and projects that best suit your vision of your career direction. National labs give you a unique opportunity to get a lay of the land entering a job. Don't be afraid to survey your appointment after a trial period and apply yourself within the groups that best suit your abilities.

Career roles
There are four main career roles at a national lab:

Technical Guru: a field expert who may be well renowned for publications, leadership, and participation in professional societies. He or she may bridge gaps between universities and the lab for collaborative research.

Capability Leader: This person is involved in lab review committees and programmatic strategic planning opportunities, which build the lab capabilities.

Program Developer: Someone who often responds to proposal calls. He or she has broad knowledge of the lab’s programs and the sponsors’ needs.

Project Manager: A specialist at organizing tasks and projects. This role involves managing finances, scheduling, and subject matter experts.

Any member of the lab staff may take on multiple roles throughout their career. A technical staff position is often thought of as secure and stable employment. In my opinion, a national lab is the best place to grow and learn skills rapidly.

Tyler Ralston (tralston@gmail.com) has worked at Battelle Memorial institute, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, MIT/LL and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He is currently partnered with an advanced technology startup.

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