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What are Government research jobs like in physics?

  1. Jun 5, 2015 #1
    I am going to be a college freshmen majoring in physics and am trying to learn about all of the different options I have in the future. I can't seem to find any good information about what government research jobs in physics are like. What does a day look like as a government researcher? Are the jobs hard to get? How do they pay and is there security? What does it take to work in a government lab?

    Thanks for any input as I can't find anything else out there.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 6, 2015 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Which government? People from PF come from all over the world.
  4. Jun 6, 2015 #3
    Good point. I should've mentioned that I am talking about the United States
  5. Jun 7, 2015 #4


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    I'm an engineer at a US National Lab. I do a lot of projects with the physicsts here.

    What does a day look like as a government researcher?

    Like any creative job it varies so much it is difficult to describe a typical day. It is very much like being a professor except you don't teach (although you do supervise students) and so you do more hands-on work. But it can vary from setting up experiments to writing code to writing grant applications and papers. As you progress you do more supervision and grant hunting and less lab work.

    Are the jobs hard to get?

    Yes. It is as difficult to get a staff position at a National Lab as it is to be a tenure-track professor at a research university. It is much easier to get postdocs and Project Scientist (non-tenure track) jobs, just like it is at a University. It can be done, obviously, but Physics is in decline at my lab (and in the DOE in general).

    How do they pay and is there security?

    The pay is terrible for a postdoc (like $50k - 70k for someone in their 30s with a PhD and a lot of experience). It is a lot better (six figures topping out at about 150k - 175k or so for someone nearing retirement) for a staff physicst. It depends a lot on the lab. In my area it is about 20% less than you could get in industry for similar skills. But, that said, I love working here. There is security (at least more than in industry) in that we have a tenure-like system called "Career Track". If funding runs out and you can't find another project to accept you it is possible to be laid off even if you have Career Status but it is very rare. I've seen them call for early retirements before and enough people took the offer they didn't have to lay anyone off.

    What does it take to work in a government lab?

    Not sure exactly what you're asking. If you want to be a physicist you need a Ph.D. with a strong research record (which typically means you went to a well-known school). You also need to do one or more postdocs and be lucky enough for some jobs to be open when you are ready to apply. Good luck!
  6. Jun 7, 2015 #5
    Sorry to chime in but I have a related question too: do you need a US citizenship to work in government labs (in the US)? For instance, if you have been an international student since undergrad and graduated from top schools but you don't have citizenship, can you still work in government and federally-funded labs?
  7. Jun 7, 2015 #6
    That is a bit depressing... Everything I read makes it seem like getting a job anywhere where you are actually doing physics research is nearly impossible. I always get the feeling that pursuing a career in science will be an awful idea, but it is where I am most passionate.

    I could see myself going into another science or engineering field, but I think working as a researcher in that field (as opposed to to something like a mechanical engineer designing cars) is what I would really enjoy. Is the job market for research jobs across the board hard to come by in government? Even industry as well? Academia just sounds like a pain with the politics and teaching involved so that option isn't very a attractive (not that it is a practical option because of the scarcity of jobs).
  8. Jun 7, 2015 #7


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    You absolutely DO NOT need US Citizenship to work in governmental labs. There are some positions dealing with classified information that either require US Citizenship or that you be a US Person (that indicates you are a US Citizen or hold a Green Card) but most positions are unclassified. There are a few labs which focus on national security but even within them a lot of positions are not cleared.

    In my group we have 8 engineers and 3 of us are not citizens. I think something like 25% or so of the employees at my Lab are international employees (primarily from China and Europe).

    If you're an international student currently in graduate school by all means keep the National Labs in mind.

    My work is about 50% research. I define research where the "deliverable" is a conference publication or journal article (or even internal report) and development where the deliverable is a physical piece of hardware or software that will be used. To be honest I prefer the development part of my job. I get a lot more personal satisfaction seeing the fruits of my labors being used by scientists to advance knowledge.

    You're just getting started so keep an open mind. I think design is a truly fascinating activity. Sometimes I can't believe I get paid to do what I do. And academia is full of politics, but so is industry, sadly.
  9. Jun 8, 2015 #8
    That is very true. I still have zero experience doing research or design, but I would like to have an idea of what my options are after schooling if I go in either direction. My greatest fear is that I won't be able to get a job and is, for good reason, a big factor in deciding what kind of work I want to go into. Would you say that it is difficult to get an engineering job doing research rather than design or a 50/50 mix like yourself?
  10. Jun 8, 2015 #9
    Thank you for the reply! Exactly what I wanted to know and hoped for.
  11. Jun 8, 2015 #10


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    Well the good news is you won't have to decide between research and design until you get a job because in engineering at least they are similar job functions on a day-to-day basis. If you get a Ph.D., for example, you'll be doing research in your field, but most of your job offers will be in design. (it will be hard to get a research job without a Ph.D. unless you're OK with being second-fiddle to the Engineers with Ph.Ds)

    I should point out there is a fascinating middle ground where I have spent a lot of my career called Advanced Development. Basically you aren't working on the current products of your company but exploring new products. It can feel a lot like research because you're coming up with and trying new ideas without the crushing pressure of having to get a design out the door yesterday. My current job is like that and that is why I said 50/50 research and design. My current project is making a usable system out of some research my group did a couple of years ago. It's all related.

    As far as engineering research in companies, there is some but it is limited. The really big companies (Intel, GM, Bosch, Lockheed, etc) do have strong research groups and publish in big journals. Smaller companies can claim to do research but it is largely advanced development (with some exceptions).

    I don't think there is a real danger pursuing engineering research jobs. If you're qualified to do research you'll be highly qualified and sought-after to do design. You'll be in a good position.
  12. Jun 9, 2015 #11


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    There is also something that needs to be clarified and added here.

    You should never aim your career towards a LOCATION or facility. That is just way too narrow. It is already hard enough to get a job in one's particular field of study. To narrow it down further by aiming for a particular type of location or facility, that's even worse. I cringe everytime I see some people here wanting to work at NASA or CERN, etc., rather than aiming for a broader field of study and let it lands where ever the opportunity opens.

    Secondly, a large majority of people who do work at US Nat'l Lab are NOT employed by that lab! This may be shocking to know, but it is true. Many US Nat'l Labs are home to users facilities such as a synchrotron light source, a neutron spallation source, a particle accelerator, a particle collider, etc.. etc. Scientists and engineers from other institutions, and even from other country, perform their research using these facilities. So there is a constant presence of visitors to these various labs. This is also true for CERN and the LHC. Just look at the publications coming out of CERN. You will see that the overwhelming majority of the authors on those papers are NOT affiliated with CERN!

    Thirdly, employees of US Labs have significantly tighter and stricter regulations to abide by, especially in terms of safety issues. You will be saddled with a lot more safety courses that you must take and update through the years, and are required to complied with a host of other government directives. Nothing like this is even close when you work at, say, universities.

    Fourthly, in most cases, you are not a government employee, even though your are expected to obey most of the same rules as any government agency (such as your per diem expenses when you travel). You are usually considered as a government contractor, where your employer is the agency or institution that runs that lab under contract from the Dept. of Energy.

    Lastly, a large percentage of your funding comes from the US Dept. of Energy, which owns that lab and everything that you do. While you can seek external funding from other agencies and private companies, one glaring agency in which you usually cannot get funding from directly is the National Science Foundation. While the NSF do fund projects that make use of DOE facilities, and in other cases, co-fund a major project with DOE, you can't, unlike employees of academic institutions, apply for funding from NSF. This means that a significant portion of US science funding is not available to you directly.

    But on the upside, the benefits (medical and retirement) are usually generous, more so than in private sectors.

  13. Jun 10, 2015 #12


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    I see you've had to take the "how to lift a box" class too.
  14. Jun 10, 2015 #13


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    A question for you, analogdesign. When you say that physics is in decline at your lab (and in the DOE in general), is this decline coming at the expense of expanding research in other areas of science/engineering (i.e. research in physics is being replaced by other research), or is this decline due to an overall decline in research & development across the DOE, perhaps due to budget cutbacks (i.e. all research is being cut back substantially)?
  15. Jun 10, 2015 #14
    It's a prerequisite for the "how to use a ladder" course.
  16. Jun 11, 2015 #15


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    Hi StatGuy2000,

    I would say it is a little bit of both (DOE Office of Science Funding has been essentially flat (inflation adjusted) for years). Physics research funding, however, has not done well. For example, the DOE High-Energy Physics funding in FY2013 was $72.7MM. In FY1998 it was $66.7MM. According to the BLS inflation calculator, to maintain flat funding in 15 years, the budget in FY2013 should have been $95.3MM. So, funding has been slowly eroding on an inflation-adjusted basis nationwide. Part of that is due to SLAC being re-born as a BES (Basic Energy Sciences) lab. How much, I don't know. I do know Fermilab has been hurting.

    I don't have any data, but it certainly seems to me that the funding levels at my lab have been more or less flat or slightly increasing (adjusted for inflation) and there have been significant pushes towards biological research/genomics, computation, and energy independence, as opposed to more physics. So, I think the balance is shifting away from physics.

    When I was first an intern in this group in the mid-90s, we had a lot of physics instrumentation jobs to do. After grad school I spent some time in industry before I came back. Now, 20 years later, we're still doing some work for ATLAS and such, but most of our new business is in instrumenting light sources and in bio-instrumentation. Just the way it is.
  17. Jun 11, 2015 #16
    I work at one of the three "weapons" national laboratories (LANL, SNL, LLNL) and have had a couple of careers. The first was related to my PhD in photonics, which was applied physics research, and the second is now machine learning and cyber security.

    At these laboratories, it is significantly easier to get employment if you are a US citizen. However, in the research/science heavy divisions, it is possible without US citizenship. The pay is OK (less than industry, better than most of academia) and the job security is generally good. You can also more or less pursue your own interests, provided there is overlap with the mission and you have an open mind.

    It is pretty competitive these days to get a position as a staff researcher in physics or other hard sciences (e.g. chemistry). If you come from a top school and have a good publication record (e.g. MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Harvard, Princeton, etc.), you can sometimes negotiate a staff position without doing a postdoc first.

    On the other hand, because of the Tech Boom!, it is easier for computer science types. As a result, its easier to get a position, if you want to do or learn computational R&D. If you are an OK programmer and decent at math, you could do machine learning, cyber or physics simulation development.

    The closer you are to applied / engineering research, the easier it is to get a job or to get a staff position. If you want to do pure chemistry, materials science or theoretical physics, it is tough. However, if you are willing to spend part of your time (e.g. 50%) working on national security projects that require US citizenship, you can often swing a staff position even if you didn't go to the very best university.

    The best piece of advice I can give you is to apply to a few job offers at various national labs that require US citizenship and a security clearance. Then, hopefully you get multiple job offers (some postdoc, one staff), and can negotiate to get a staff position for the one you want the most.
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