Despite doing research at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station while earning his undergraduate degree at St Mary’s College of Maryland, Jonathan Kwolek wasn’t planning to pursue government research as a career. But after earning his PhD in November 2019, he applied for and earned a postdoctoral position at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). “I looked at my options and didn’t love academia,” Kwolek says.
Postdoc positions are common for new PhDs. According to the Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics (publisher of Physics Today), around half of those earning physics PhDs in 2019 and 2020 started their careers as postdocs. The temporary positions, generally lasting two or three years, provide laboratory experience and networking opportunities and help open doors to permanent positions, such as professorships and other faculty jobs.
Of the physics postdocs in the Statistical Research Center survey, around 73% stay in academia, whereas only 23% move into government labs. To entice more newly minted PhDs, more than 20 federal government agencies participate in the Research Associateship Programs (RAP), launched by the National Academies and NIST in 1954 as a recruitment initiative for NIST. Over the years, more agencies joined, and now the participating agencies include the National Security Agency, US Army Research Laboratory, and NOAA. RAP postdocs typically work for two or three years on a specific research project advised by a researcher at the government lab.
The application process is rigorous and time consuming—Kwolek says it took him about three months. Potential applicants must first look through the available research projects (currently there are more than 1500) and find one they are interested in. Then they must contact the project’s principal investigator to express interest and confirm that the project has funding.
The PI’s interest in the applicant is just as important as the applicant’s interest in the project, notes Tom Jurkiw, one of the RAP program administrators. Before applying, Kwolek was interviewed and invited for a tour of the lab. Only then—around the time he graduated—did Kwolek submit his application, which included college transcripts, a description of previous research, and a proposal for his work at NRL.
Applications are reviewed by experts from academia and various agencies every February, May, August, and November. Each lab then individually awards positions on the basis of the expert review and available funding. As a result, each lab and application cycle has a different acceptance rate. NIST, for example, is particularly competitive and hires only during the February and August application cycles. On average across all the participating labs, 45% of applicants get an offer, says Jurkiw.
In addition to the research experience, a competitive stipend, relocation assistance, health benefits, a travel allowance, and other incentives attract early-career scientists to government labs. The stipend and travel allowance were particularly appealing to Bradley Lusk, who was a postdoc at NRL from January 2019 to August 2020. Before earning his spot through RAP, he taught briefly at a community college and a four-year university.
Lusk says he enjoyed his postdoc research on protonically conductive cable bacteria, which are unusual filamentous bacteria that conduct protons along their length. He also attended three conferences and made connections with NASA exobiologists and other researchers studying bioelectronics and design. “Being in [RAP] definitely put me in the [research] mind-set,” Lusk says. “I was still actively engaged in my research area.”
The focus on research was also important to Kwolek. He explains that at NRL, the scientists lead the direction of research, and afterward the military determines potential applications. In contrast, industry scientists must focus on what will create profits for the company that employs them. Kwolek says he felt supported to focus on his work in quantum physics. Much of his time in RAP was spent planning and building atom interferometry experiments. He also spent a significant amount of time writing—he published two papers—and presenting results.
Another benefit of RAP, Lusk says, is that a postdoc has a US government salary level of GS-12 ($45 000 to $95 000, depending on the agency). The GS pay scale ranges from GS-1 to GS-15, and experience at a given level allows one to apply for a position at the next level in the future. By the time postdocs complete their RAP research, they are eligible for GS-13 positions, which include supervisor and advanced specialist posts.
RAP also offers shorter research associateships for senior-level professionals who have held their PhD for at least five years. Jurkiw said many researchers use the opportunity as a kind of sabbatical from another job. Senior-level projects are offered at most of the participating agencies.
After completing their postdoc at a national lab, those in the program end up in all sorts of positions in government, industry, and academia, Jurkiw says. Although Lusk saw RAP help his peers advance in their careers, he decided to move away from government research. He began applying for other positions a year into his postdoc at NRL and ended up with an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. Now, Lusk is the full-time CEO for a biotech startup company.
Still, Lusk doesn’t regret his experience as a federal government employee. “If you want to do something, just try it,” he says. “Don’t wait for ‘your turn.’ ”
For Kwolek, his postdoc was the beginning of his career in government research. He was hired full time as a researcher at NRL in March 2021, and eventually he hopes to be an adviser to future RAP postdocs.