On university campuses, students, postdocs, and professors are so ubiquitous that it would be easy not to notice the other Ph.D.-level professional scientists—often dubbed staff scientists—who roam the halls. Some of them work as lab managers or project directors; others direct or help operate university core facilities. Despite their low profile, staff scientists are numerous and make a major contribution to their institutions.
At the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison, between 700 and 800 members of the academic staff are Ph.D.-level scientists, estimates Heather Daniels, chair of the university’s Academic Staff Executive Committee. For comparison, the university has 2137 faculty members in all disciplines, with a number of staff scientists comparable to the number of science faculty members. The same may well be true at other, similar universities.
Many staff scientists write grants. In fact, UW Madison staff scientists brought in $120 million to the university last year, out of a total grant portfolio worth just over $1 billion. When you include grants on which staff scientists serve as co–principal investigators (co-PIs), that figure rises to $240 million.
The staff scientist role is not just a boon for universities. It is also a career destination for some of the tens of thousands of highly trained researchers who wish to remain in or close to academic research—a cadre that's far too large for the number of available faculty positions.
Such positions typically pay better than postdocs and sometimes about as well as assistant professor positions. At UW Madison, the minimum starting salary for an academic staff scientist is $40,055. Unfortunately, there is no mechanism for annual merit-based increases, so staff scientists typically receive raises only when the state pay plan calls for an across-the-board increase. As a result, “the longer you’re here, the more your salary tends to fall behind,” Daniels says.
Most staff scientists are grant supported, a fact that, in addition to creating job insecurity, limits the ability of staff-scientist PIs to perpetuate their own careers. According to federal rules, researchers are not allowed to use time supported by federal grants to write grants. Government auditors have interpreted the rules to stipulate that grant-funded researchers are on the clock 100% of the time, Daniels says, even if they work much longer weeks than the 40-hour standard. So whenever a staff scientist's salary comes entirely from federal grants, federal grant writing is effectively forbidden. The solution, usually, is to find non-federal money to pay part of that salary. “It’s been a struggle for a lot of universities,” she says, “to come up with non-grant dollars to give folks time to write grants. I think researchers are feeling really constrained by this.”
On the positive side, the role of staff scientist has several benefits. Staff scientists typically travel less, work fewer nights and weekends, spend less time writing grants, and have fewer administrative responsibilities than faculty members. They seldom have formal teaching responsibilities, which some staff scientists consider a perk. Much more than postdocs, staff scientists tend to have a hand in more than one scientific project at a time.
A nonfaculty career path can also provide geographic stability, notes Alexander Pico, a staff research scientist at the Gladstone Institutes, a group of research institutes closely affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). “If you go with the traditional route, you have to move a lot. You have to prove yourself as a Ph.D. student in one institution, then prove yourself in another as a postdoc, and then you're expected to continue that as faculty, proving yourself in one environment after another before you get tenure,” Pico says. “The staff position is a little more stable. I really like the working culture at Gladstone, and I would really hate to have to leave just because it's a convention in the career path.”
Here, we profile a sampling of staff scientists from two universities—UW Madison and UCSF—who have foregone the tenure track while remaining deeply rooted in university life.
Senior Scientist and Director, Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer Laboratory
Project Director, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine
Assistant Scientist and Laboratory Manager
Staff Research Scientist, Department of Bioinformatics
The Gladstone Institutes, UCSF
Senior Scientist, National Magnetic Resonance Facility and Department of Biochemistry
Director of the Cell Culture Facility