While attending a Gordon conference last June, I was approached by a graduate student and invited to give a seminar at their institution. However, I was not invited to give a science talk, but a career talk. Apparently, doing research at a non-profit organization is a career path with which not many people are familiar. To be honest, I never considered it until I was offered this position...
Even though I was very familiar with research when I started my graduate studies, I was never doubtful that I would follow the academic path. All the discussions I had with other students always referred to the age long debate between academia and industry. Hence, I was naively convinced that if I wanted to do basic science instead of having my research dictated by stakeholders, navigating through the academic pipeline was my only option. For me, alternatives comprised choosing between small or large settings -- such as teaching colleges and R01 Universities. The doubt was always the ratio between teaching and research.
Somewhere during my graduate studies, I realized that the scientific universe was not so black and white. I became aware of government laboratories and research institutes, both linked and independent from academic institutions. Not to mention start-up companies -- in contrast to large corporations whose name are easy to recognize. As I was set on bench science, I never investigated any of the alternative careers in law, business or journalism. However, it was not until my postdoc options started waning -- mostly due to family constraints -- that I started questioning my true options. And when I thought my options were truly dim, a new path arose from an unforeseen quarter: a non-profit research center.
When I thought of non-profits, the image that came to my mind was humanitarian organizations and NGOs -- not laboratory research. After investigating the topic, I realized that large research institutes such as Scripps fall under this category. I also became aware not only that there are several large institutes spread around the country, but that there are also small ones whose names are mostly unknown. Nevertheless, the parallel in the for-profit world is very clear: big companies started out as small companies -- and there are many small start-up companies out there.
Hence, I am heading out this week to tell a group of graduate students and postdocs that there are small non-profit research centers out there. Places where one can do a postdoc or even find a more long-term position. Places where you can do science at a more independent level, as long as you can bring in funding for your research -- which is also true in academia. It is not a career that would suit many people, as it requires independence and self-motivation in high levels and comprises a degree of isolation. Nonetheless, it is worth including as a career option and students should know we exist.