The Ecology of Research Faculty

Academic field guide

As a scientist, you get used to the fact that most of your friends and family don’t understand exactly what you do. My grandparents once misidentified both my field and institution on their Christmas newsletter, for example. Folks were especially confused when I was a postdoc, a bizarre hybrid of intern and professional that has no real parallel in the larger world. In my current position, things are better. People outside the ivory tower generally accept that I’m some kind of a professor and ask no further questions, since they know what a professor is. The twist is that now my fellow academics are befuddled. Do I have my own lab, or am I in someone else’s lab? Do I have students? Am I here permanently? Does the buck stop with me or someone else?


My job title is alternatively punctuated as “Assistant Professor, Senior Research,” “Assistant Professor (Senior Research),” or “Assistant Professor Senior Research.” I am considered to be “research faculty.” Because this position is outside the traditional path of grad student to postdoc to tenure-track faculty, other university employees aren’t always sure where I fall in the pecking order. Students want to know whether my job is any good, and if so, how to get a similar one. So let me clarify things. What exactly makes someone research faculty, anyway?


First, how does research at universities happen? Federal agencies like the NSF and the NIH offer grants for scientific projects that support their missions. Professors apply for these grants. A successful prof is able to fund a lab full of students and employees, at least for a few years. Typically, most of a professor’s salary is paid for by the school, so they have a job whether they get a grant or not. Their long-term survival depends on getting tenure, but that’s a story for another day. My own salary, in contrast, is funded primarily with grant money. I have a job as long as there is funding for it.


Although research faculty could theoretically act independently, that rarely happens. Instead, we usually work closely with more established faculty. There are several reasons for this. For one, we are seldom given the space and startup funds provided to tenure-track faculty to initiate sovereign labs. For another, our uncertain long-term employment makes us a risky venture for students seeking advisors. In my case, I collaborate with two different tenured professors on two unrelated projects in evolutionary genomics, one focused on snails and another on strawberries. I also have a hand in various other projects with other scientists. I get no payment or direct benefit from these side projects, but getting my name on publications is the key to securing future grants. The beauty of this arrangement is that I can spend nearly all my time on my favorite activities: analyzing data, reading the scientific literature, writing papers, and planning future projects. Other people (mostly technicians, students, and postdocs) handle the actual organisms and benchwork. Still other people (mostly tenured profs) handle the majority of the paperwork for funding and personnel. I set my own schedule, which is a major boon as a parent. As long as I’m productive, everyone is happy. If it seems like I’m getting away with something, well that’s how I often feel, too. This is a really great gig. I do have a few other duties: I occasionally teach, serve on committees, and go to faculty meetings. But mostly I get to just be a scientist.


In some ways I’m like a glorified postdoc. That may sound self-deprecating, given the underappreciated state of many postdocs, but I don’t mean it that way. Postdocs actually get to practice the most distilled essence of science. The fun part. And the postdoctoral downsides, like low salary and poor benefits, are mostly ameliorated for research faculty. Alternatively, in some ways I’m like a second-class professor. Wouldn’t I prefer the security and status of tenure? Partially yes, but all that responsibility is a double-edged sword. Juggling my spouse’s career and other family obligations, I value the flexibility of the hours, and even the relative ease of transitioning to a job elsewhere someday if need be. We’ll see what the future brings.


The key to thriving in this work is collaboration. Like a factory assembly line, efficient science relies on division of labor. I’ve published on amphibians, reptiles, humans, nematodes, snails, strawberries, and pine trees. I am definitely not an expert in the natural history of so many disparate species. Instead, this research succeeds because I work with the real experts, while I provide my own expertise in genomics, evolution, or computational biology. Compare my approach with Hope Jahren’s, as laid out in her memoir Lab Girl. It’s an entertaining read, and it clearly resonates deeply with a lot of scientists. But her story is not my story. Dr. Jahren is driven by the dream to run her own lab, a place where she and her sibling-like technician call the shots. I may have my own lab someday, but for me it’s not a goal in itself. And I’m sure I will continue to depend heavily on my colleagues. They know things I don’t, and many of them would rather collect organisms in remote fieldsites, or dissect tissues under a microscope, than parse gigabytes of DNA sequence data (my forte). But all of those steps need to happen if we want to find the genes affecting those tissues in those organisms. Carlos, the generic yet sexy scientist from the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, asserts, “A scientist is self-reliant. It’s the first thing a scientist is.” Like many aspects of Night Vale, Carlos’ view differs from reality. In my experience, science is a group venture.


I like my job. If you enjoy science but find the pursuit of increasingly elusive tenure to be daunting, you might like it too. To get here, you need to build a solid CV, of course, but more importantly you need to cultivate relationships. I have this position because my senior colleagues wanted to keep working with me and went to bat for me. Science is not the hierarchy is sometimes seems. It’s more like an ecosystem. Just as a food web is a more accurate depiction of energy flow than a food chain, scientists form a complex tangle of interactions. Everyone has a niche. And in the middle of the teeming symbioses, the richest mutualisms that reach across departments and institutions and disciplines, are the research faculty.


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