Edit
Career area: Research / service positions in universities / institutes/ infrastructures (non-PI roles) – EMBL Fellows' Career Service

EMBL Careers

A life science careers blog for early career researchers

This blog aims to inspire early career researchers exploring different career options. We provide interview-based profiles of life scientists working in diverse science-related careers and articles on a broad range of career-related topics, with new content added on a regular basis.

Career area: Research / service positions in universities / institutes/ infrastructures (non-PI roles)

When early career researchers think of an academic research career, a principal investigator (PI) role leading a research group is normally the first option that comes to mind. However, there are also a wide range of non-PI research-focused roles within university departments, research institutes and research infrastructures. These include a variety of scientific staff roles in research and service-oriented teams (e.g. staff scientist, scientific officers, lab technicians, lab managers), as well as leadership roles in core facilities and other research service teams.

Roles and responsibilities

Possible tasks may include a subset of the following activities:

  • Developing new methods, technologies and protocols; documenting standard procedures
  • Planning and carrying out protocols / experiments / analysis for the research projects of others, and/or assisting users who are carrying out their experiments 
  • Delivering training for applying specific techniques or using specific equipment/instrumentation 
  • Leading one/more research projects and associated tasks 
  • Day-to-day supervision of more junior group members 
  • Staying up to date with advancements in the field / technology
  • Maintaining existing instrumentation, making recommendations & arranging new instrument purchases
  • For scientific services e.g.; (collectively) identifying urgent priorities and distributing assignments; optimizing procedures & workflows; day-to-day communication / administration; making the service visible to users; identifying changes in the needs of users’, planning service improvements accordingly
  • Taking care of the day-to-day running of a lab e.g. ordering consumables (for wet-labs) and other organisational matters
  • For team leaders: reporting to management / advisory groups, deciding on/justifying a budget, engaging with industry partners, designing service fee models etc; formal supervision of an entire team; in some cases, applying for external funding.

Knowledge and skills

The knowledge and skills required for non-PI roles include many developed during research training – such as scientific knowledge and problem-solving skills. Compared to the PI-track, there is likely to be more focus on organizational skills and willingness/ability to support others. For manager roles in infrastructures and core facilities, excellent leadership skills and deep knowledge of the technologies are also a must.

Our careers & skills survey was completed by:

  •  19 scientists working as academic research staff, 
  • 4 scientists working as staff members in core facilities or scientific services/infrastructures
  • 9 scientists leading facilities or infrastructures

We asked them which competencies they use most.

Academic research staff most frequently selected the following competencies:

  • resilient problem solving (selected by 53% of respondents)
  • organization (selected by 53% of respondents)
  • visualizing data and ideas (selected by 47% of respondents)
  • independent thought (selected by 42% of respondents)
  • team work (selected by 42% of respondents)

Scientists working as staff members in core facilities or scientific services/infrastructures most frequently selected the following competencies:

  • organization  (selected by 100% of respondents)
  • team work  (selected by 75% of respondents)
  • broad scientific knowledge  (selected by 50% of respondents)
  • resilient problem solving  (selected by 50% of respondents)

Additional resource: EMBL’s Career Accelerator for Research Infrastructures (ARISE) has developed a detailed competency framework describing the specific skills, knowledge and behaviour that can support research infrastructure scientists in their role. This is available at the EBI Competency Hub.

Scientists leading facilities or infrastructures most frequently selected the following competencies:

  • deep knowledge of a technology (selected by 78% of respondents)
  • organization (selected by 78% of respondents)
  • networking (selected by 56% of respondents)
  • mentoring and leadership (selected by 44% of respondents)
  • resilient problem solving (selected by 44% of respondents)

Additional resource: RItrain has developed a detailed competency framework describing the specific skills, knowledge and behaviour that can support research infrastructure managers in their role. This is available at the EBI Competency Hub.

Language skills

Fifteen respondents to our careers & skills survey were working in non-PI academic roles in countries where English is not the main language. Two-thirds of these (10 people) indicated that they needed to have some knowledge of the local language for their jobs, just over one quarter (4 people) did not need to understand the local language for their work and just 1 person indicated that their job required fluency in the local language.

Career entry and progression

Non-PI positions may be permanent or fixed-term contracts (often when linked to a specific project funding). In some countries – for example, France – there is a yearly, central recruitment scheme for permanent non-PI research positions, but in most cases positions are individually advertised. Entry into research, service and infrastructure roles can be very competitive. Postdoc experience is often advantageous and might facilitate entry at the manager level (e.g. in small core facilities). 

Career progression

Based on data from our career tracking study, we believe that most EMBL PhD and postdoc alumni who enter non-PI academic positions remain in a similar position or advance to leadership positions in research and services. Of the EMBL alumni whose career path we know, and who held at least one non-PI academic role during their career:

  •  52% are still working in non-PI academic positions, of which 13% were leading core facilities. 
  •  23% became academic PIs (AcPI) (note: non-PI to PI transitions were typically from a research-focused staff-scientist role to a PI position, or sometimes when a scientist initially hired to run a core facility and then started a research line alongside their service work.)
  •  12% moved to industry research 
  • around 10% moved to non-research roles (e.g. project management, sales, application specialist).
  • a small number held a position not related to science or moved into a postdoc role

Overall, this suggests that non-PI roles generally provide attractive opportunities to remain working in or close to academic research, as well as opportunities for career advancement or reorientation. Nevertheless, as with many career areas, there are a wide range of roles, some of which have ill-defined career paths and occasionally limited advancement opportunities.  Therefore, it is essential to explore the exact responsibilities, stability and development opportunities of any role you apply to, to ensure that it will provide long-term perspectives and/or opportunities that will facilitate a transition to another type of role in future.

Example job titles:

  • Staff scientist
  • Lab manager
  • Technician
  • Scientific officer
  • Researcher
  • [Research / bioinformatics / cell biology / imaging /…] specialist
  • Staff [bioinformatician / cell biologist / ….] 
  • Research engineer
  • Beamline scientist 
  • Core facility manager
  • Service team leader
  • Biocurator

Why consider this career area?

In our careers and skills survey, 27 scientists working in non-PI roles told us that they appreciate that their work:

  • is intellectually stimulating
  • involves collaboration / working closely in a team
  • allows them to be creative

Want to learn more?

Sources / further reading

Staff scientist or lab manager roles:

Core facility/service roles:

Further internal resources

For EMBL fellows

Within EMBL, further internal resources (e.g. recorded career seminars) can be found on our career exploration intranet pages.

Informational interviews

For all career areas, we highly recommend first learning more about the careers using the resources above, then conducting informational interviews to gain further insights directly from former PhDs working in career areas that interest you.

Last update: October 2022

EU flag and text, co-funded by the European Union
The EMBL Fellows' Career Service incorporates the EMBL Interdisciplinary Postdoc (EIPOD) career development programme. EI3POD and EIPOD4 have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreements 664726 (2015-2020) and 847543 (2019-present) respectively.
Edit