Part II: The Academia Food Chain

Here is the second installation to the “What is Science?” series (find the first here). An essential aspect of understanding what science is is knowing who does the work. After all, critical thinking by scientists gets the work done and from that  discoveries are inferred. The data can’t speak for itself. Let’s take a closer look at the folks who speak “data”.

Undergraduates: Most people pursuing a career in research begin their journey as an undergraduate. This was my first exposure and I fell in love. Some research groups utilize their undergraduates as glorified dishwashers because many of them are just looking for a bullet on their resume. However, ambitious students overcome this and get to do some real work. The projects are usually simpler with a shorter, anticipated duration, but can produce valuable results. Their research is normally supervised by the next person in the food chain, a graduate student.

My advice to motivated undergraduates is to look into doing a REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program. They exist at many universities in a wide variety of fields. If you are still questioning your future and interests, the programs allow you to peer into life as a graduate student without committing to the whole experience. Many of these positions are paid and can make for a rewarding summer job. Also, they are an excellent way to accomplish research necessary for an undergraduate thesis or honors project.

Graduate Students: Graduate students are in the process of pursuing a masters degree or a Ph.D. by definition, however their job usually encompasses many duties. Universities often expect their graduate students to teach laboratory or discussion sections of undergraduate courses to pay their own way (teaching assistantship). However, the lucky ones are paid by their advisor or a grant (research assistantship). Aside from teaching, graduate students spend their time balancing between coursework and research. Granted, all programs are different and don’t consist of the same components, but there seems to be a general formula. A major variable in the formula is area of study because certain disciplines tend to emphasize either coursework or research.

Graduate research projects are often long term ending in a thesis or dissertation. Many graduate students are expected to publish their results in peer reviewed journals, but again this varies drastically on field of study. A graduate student’s mentors are either an older graduate student, a postdoctoral fellow, staff research scientist, or a principal investigator. There is a lot of variation depending on the dynamics of a particular research group.

Post-doctoral Fellows: A post-doctoral fellow, also known as a post-doc, is the next person in the academic food chain. As indicated from the name, this position arises once completing your Ph.D. Many researchers say it is the most productive research period of their life because you get to wear only one hat: research. (there are post-docs with other foci e.g. teaching) No matter what your position is, that is your focus. That is your job. The principal investigator expects that you are in the laboratory all the time getting shit done. Occasionally, post-docs are over-worked and underpaid (especially considering you have a Ph.D.). Often post-docs transition into a slightly different field of research allowing them to diversify their skill set. The position lasts 2-5 years and is generally expected before applying to an academic faculty position.

Principal Investigator: Finally, we reach the top of the food chain. A principal investigator (PI), also known as a professor in university settings, exist in other habitats such as national laboratories. These folks are large and in charge. They are expected to bring in the money with their ideas and get their minions to do the work. Even at this point in the food chain there are several levels that include Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor. Many say being an Assistant Professor is the most stressful period of one’s research career. It is the time a person is trying to obtain the holy grail, tenure. Once tenure is obtained, you are deemed an Associate or Full Professor depending on how many years and your productivity at the university. A PI wears many, many hats: instructor, grant writer, committee member, researcher, mentor, etc. It takes a successful combination of all these things to be productive and attain tenure. Tenure equates to job security, a desire for everyone.

Staff Scientist/Technician: These two positions aren’t necessarily the same thing. Staff scientists usually perform their own research, often this can be under the supervision of a PI. Many times this person has a Ph.D., but isn’t considered a PI yet or they don’t desire that position. A technician is usually in charge of maintaining some equipment, but can also do research. I am going to leave these definitions brief because they can vary drastically and by no means does my quick summary encompass the complete picture of these positions.

This is meant to be a generalized look at people in science. The article was limited to people in academia, however researchers in industry are extremely valuable. Excellent research is executed by companies and these scientists are extremely valuable. I invite our wonderful commenters to expand on this topic as my knowledge is reasonably limited.

Stay tuned for Part III…


Jacqueline, a true Floridian, wandered up to the tundra of Athens, Georgia to receive her PhD in computational quantum chemistry. Returning to her roots, she is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in Tampa in the field of computational biochemistry investigating the wonders of penicillin-like drugs. When she is not slaving over the computer, her varied interests include international travel, Brazilian jiu jitsu, kickboxing, fancy food, (American) football, and Belgian quadrupels. She is also the founder of, a football blog with an exclusive female writing staff. Check out her sports ramblings there or follow her on Twitter @jhargis9.

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  1. Nice overview of the structure of academia! I would even say that most of this is true for all disciplines in academia, even if they’re not scientific (sans laboratory work–that’s definitely specific to scientists). Thanks for the post. =)

    1. Glad to hear it translates well to other disciplines. I tried to add bits in an attempt to accomodate a wider audience.

  2. You forget the corporate scientist where the progression is

    Undergrad –> Corporate Lab Peon –> Mid-Level Lab Manager –> Lab Manager with lots of cool toys.

    I worked in aerospace R&D for a while, it was super posh compared to the university labs I was used to. Also, I got paid much more. We did lots of science there for sure, but its motivations weren’t quite as noble.

    1. Thanks for adding in the bit about a corporate scientist. Without any experience in that world, I didn’t want to write any inaccuracies.

        1. That would be great! I would love to read it particularly before I write the next installment in the series (and credit you for it, of course).

  3. Let’s not forget the MD/PhDs:

    undergraduate(4 years)–>masters degree(3 years)
    –>medical school/Phd(7 years)–>sudden realization that you are in deep debt–>Family Medicine residency(3 years)–>private practice to pay off college debt, mortgage, college for kids and retirement

    Of course there are those who luck out and obtain the coveted Orthopedics or Ophthalmology residency. You can add trips to the Cayman Islands after the last arrow.

    Although, there are few that stay in academia and with any shred of luck get an RO1 grant via the NIH. And with even less luck eventually matriculate to full tenured professor.

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