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How do national labs work?

  • Thread starter flemmyd
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Main Question or Discussion Point

Sorry if this question seems incredibly ignorant.

Anyway, my quick question is what is the structure of a national lab (in the US).
I'm familiar with the traditional university model (grad students = cheap labor, post docs = better cheap labor, professors, etc), but how do national labs work?

Are the qualifications for someone to be a PI at a national lab the same as an assistant professor at a university?
Where does most of the labor in a national lab come from? I've seen plenty of post-doc positions/a few summer undergrad positions, but who is doing the majority of the labor? Do PhD students from local universities come over? Do they hire people on full-time jobs?
 

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  • #2
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I'm interested in this as well. Does anybody here happen to work at one? What's it like in them?
 
  • #3
fss
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Are the qualifications for someone to be a PI at a national lab the same as an assistant professor at a university?
Generally, yes.

Where does most of the labor in a national lab come from?
The qualified populace.

I've seen plenty of post-doc positions/a few summer undergrad positions, but who is doing the majority of the labor? Do PhD students from local universities come over?
I've seen it happen.

Do they hire people on full-time jobs?
Yes.
 
  • #4
Gokul43201
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Perhaps also worth mentioning is that many National Labs maintain significant user facilities: the Lab provides the source of (say) x-rays and the work is done primarily by research groups (from academia and industry) who buy time at the source. The Lab maintains staff whose responsibilities include support for user groups in addition to performing their own research.
 
  • #5
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Anyway, my quick question is what is the structure of a national lab (in the US).
It varies but typically, the US government will fund the lab through an agency like the Department of Energy or DOD. The government agency will then sign a contract with a university, group of universities, a private corporation, or in some cases a public-private consortium to run the lab. The lab staff will maintain facilities. The lab itself will sponsor some research from its budget, but some of the research will be done as professors from other places submit project proposals which are reviewed. When an outside researcher proposes a project, they usually will bring their own money and graduate students. Also most labs will work closely with a university and the university will also bring graduate students.

Are the qualifications for someone to be a PI at a national lab the same as an assistant professor at a university?
Pretty much.

Where does most of the labor in a national lab come from? I've seen plenty of post-doc positions/a few summer undergrad positions, but who is doing the majority of the labor? Do PhD students from local universities come over? Do they hire people on full-time jobs?
A mix of the above. The national lab doesn't give out degrees, but it offers facilities for universities that bring grad students that are using the national lab to do their dissertation.
 

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