This article is published in the May 2009 issue.

Opportunities for Researchers at Government Labs

Expanding the Pipeline

Graduate students planning a research career in computer science are often asked, “Do you want to go into academia or industry after your Ph.D.?” However, there is a stealth third option for a researcher: a career at a government lab. This column sheds some light on this “hidden” career.

There are many government labs in the United States conducting computer science research (for a partial list, see:

Although some of these institutions focus on classified or weapons research, most include unclassified or basic research in their missions, and a substantial minority work only on unclassified research. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), for example, is a member of the national laboratory system supported by the U.S. Department of Energy through its Office of Science. It is managed by the University of California and is charged with conducting unclassified research across a wide range of scientific disciplines, including studying how human activities will change global climate over the next few decades, sustainable energy, and the fundamental nature of the universe. All of these scientific disciplines are producing exponentially more data every year, leading to the need for novel computational approaches to compute, store, process, retrieve, visualize, and make sense out of vast amounts of data.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Government Lab Positions

There are both advantages and disadvantages to choosing a government lab position over one in academia. Some key distinctions are that starting salaries tend to be higher than those in academia, and there is no requirement to teach. If your primary goal is research, you will be able to devote more time to that work. In a government lab, however, you will be working on the projects your manager deems important to the lab’s mission and that have successfully received funding. Until you apply for and receive your own grants, you will be working on others’ ideas. As an assistant professor at a university, start-up funding gives you freedom to work on research of your choosing for the first couple of years, when you are not occupied with preparing for classes or serving on committees.

Government funding programs tend to be very large, multi-institution operations where principal investigators devote substantial amounts of their time to writing proposals, while a staff of researchers focuses on technical work. Thus, if you choose, at a government lab you can stay close to the technical work, and do not have to become exclusively a manager or proposal writer. Additionally, there is no question of not receiving summer salary; government lab appointments are full-time, year-round positions just as they are in industry.

Government researchers in computer science tend to write more software than university professors do. Depending on your career goals, this can be either an advantage or a disadvantage. On the other hand, you are subject to changing research directions mandated by program managers or political shifts. You have to be willing to change the direction of your research, possibly substantially, into whatever is being currently funded. Additionally, in computer science, you will typically be working on applied research in support of basic science, rather than fundamental computer science research itself.

Although there is no requirement to teach, if your lab is co-located with or near a university, you will have the option to teach classes (on your own time, of course) and interact with students. Your lab will likely have funding for summer students and research assistantships during the school year. This type of activity is more common at unclassified institutions.

Postdoctoral positions provide an option if you wish to spend a few years learning the ropes and developing your own research program before searching for a permanent position. Such positions are available at government labs as well as universities. However, they are often funded out of project money, and so may provide less freedom to pursue your own ideas. Before you accept a postdoctoral position at a government lab, make sure that you understand what the research requirements are, and whether you are committed to project deliverables in order to ensure continued funding. Additionally, such positions are generally time-limited and often do not provide a path into future employment as permanent staff at the lab.

Perhaps the major disadvantage of being a researcher at a government lab is the lack of tenure. Even what are known as “permanent” research positions are usually so-called “soft money” positions, meaning that if you cannot find funding—for example, if your program manager (the federal government employee who approved your funding proposal) retires or there are major cutbacks in government spending—you can be laid off.  However, this is no different from life in private industry, where even the most successful researchers are subject to the whims of upper management. On the other hand, government funding tends to be somewhat more stable than that of private industry, and because government labs are working to develop science and technology for the general benefit of the U.S. taxpayers rather than to turn a profit, there is an overall understanding of the virtue of retaining talented staff, and less rapid changes in research directions. Lab management typically works very hard to retain funding for its existing staff, because they realize that once they lose that talent it can be very hard to build up a team again.

Relative to industry research, a possible advantage of working for the government is that your research goal is to benefit humanity, rather than make your CEO and shareholders a larger profit. As such, you can work on extremely interesting problems with substantial impact for the good of society, rather than worrying how next quarter’s bottom line will be impacted by your research.

A Typical Day in a Government Researcher’s Life

Xiaoye Li, Staff Computer Scientist

Staff computer scientist Dr. Xiaoye (Sherry) Li spends a typical day designing parallel numerical algorithms and mathematical software for large-scale, high-performance computing systems.

“One of the most rewarding aspects is to see that the software tools I am developing are actually used by the other scientists and engineers while they are doing scientific simulations using supercomputers, such as in fusion energy research, accelerator structure design, astrophysics, and quantum mechanics,” says Li.

Li feels the government lab setting allows her to be more focused. At Berkeley Lab she does not need to juggle many things like teaching, writing papers and proposals, in addition to supervising students. She believes that the most valuable aspect of working in a government laboratory is the ability to collaborate with researchers in different disciplines.

“We often encounter real world problems that are much larger in scale and more difficult than those typically seen in academia. It is a big challenge to develop efficient algorithms and implement them in portable software to solve those problems,” she adds.

Li’s advice to women pursuing a computing sciences degree is to establish a broad foundation in school.

“I am somewhat regretful that I did not take many courses outside computer science areas when I was a Ph.D. student. If I had taken more courses in physics and other engineering disciplines, I would have a better understanding of the applications problems that I am working with,” says Li, who received a doctorate in Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley.

Daniela Ushizima, Postdoctoral Researcher

For Daniela Ushizima, a postdoc in Berkeley Lab’s Computational Research Division (CRD), a typical day is spent collaborating with researchers from a wide range of scientific disciplines, and using her computer science background to investigate potential areas to apply pattern recognition to their large datasets. Ushizima works in CRD’s Analytics and Visualization group, as well as its Math and Bioimaging group.

“The government laboratory has provided me with wonderful opportunities to develop new research on important topics like energy and health,” says Ushizima, who was an Assistant Professor of Intelligent Systems at the Catholic University of Santos, Brazil, before arriving at Berkeley Lab.

“Women pursuing computing sciences degrees and hoping to work in a national lab setting should enjoy challenges, multidisciplinary and collaborative work, and frequently recycling research. My advice would be to search for ongoing research projects while getting a degree and try to help,” says Ushizima.

Opportunities to Learn More

For undergraduates, the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program sponsored by the DOE’s Office of Science lets students participate in a research project at a national laboratory. Likewise, the Office of Science and the National Science Foundation’s Faculty and Student Teams Program provides hands-on summer research opportunities for teachers and students at national laboratories. In addition, individual national labs offer undergraduate and graduate internships in specific research areas.  For example, DOE offers a Computational Science Graduate Fellowship and Berkeley Lab awards the Luis W. Alvarez Postdoctoral Fellowship in Computational Science.


Cecilia Aragon has been a Staff Scientist in the Computational Research Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2005.
Linda Vu has been a writer with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Computing Sciences Communications Group since August 2008.

Opportunities for Researchers at Government Labs