Finding a job at a national lab

8/17/2018 5:01:56 PM

The Department of Energy’s national laboratories are leading the way in advancing energy science research. There’s a lot of work being done in the biochemical and life sciences domains, from studying photosynthesis to design biohybrid solar-energy systems to genetically engineering crops for improved biofuel production. Recently, ASBMB science writer Laurel Oldach wrote an article for the ASBMB Today Careers Issue that features Q&As with two national lab employees who work in research and science communications. Be sure to check out the article to gain more insight on what it’s like to work at a national lab.  

This week, I'll introduce you to how to find jobs and research opportunities at national labs. This can be a bit tricky because the national lab system is so large, each lab is independently operated and there are lots of different recent graduate and student research programs available. So, here’s my attempt to demystify the process for you.  

  • The Department of Energy funds 17 national laboratories across the U.S. Of these labs, 10 directly report to the DOE’s Office of Science with the remainder reporting to the National Nuclear Security Administration or other DOE program offices. There are a limited number of positions directly hired as DOE employees. These tend to be high-level positions, such as program managers and field site coordinators. Any of these open positions would be advertised through You can read more information on how the DOE is organized on its website.  
  • There are a number of full-time career opportunities at the national labs, from staff scientists and research support (e.g., lab managers and technicians) to operations and project management jobs. But none of these jobs will be listed on the aforementioned Instead, each of the national labs is operated by an independent contractor (usually a collaboration of a nonprofit organization [i.e., Battelle] and/or local universities) and has its own human resources department. There is no one job portal for all of the national labs. That means you need to check the job openings on each individual lab’s website. (No, they don’t make this easy for you at all.) A listing of all the national lab job boards can be found on the DOE website, and, FYI, a few of these links are broken.   
  • There also are a number of joint research institutes, centers (e.g., Energy Frontier Research Centers) and user facilities located at national laboratories that may or may not hire through the lab itself. Appointments may be made through a collaborating academic institution. For example, faculty members often are hired by a university and given a joint appointment at an affiliated national lab. These user facilities also accept user proposals from any researcher to use specialized instrumentation and services for their research needs and is free-of-charge. This can be a good way to build collaborations and network with national lab researchers.  
  • The organization of a national lab is similar to any other academic institution, and, likewise, most of the research is done by postgraduate and student researchers. To the best of my knowledge, most of the national labs manage their postdoc programs in-house, and so these openings will be listed on the national lab job boards mentioned above. There also are lab-sponsored and distinguished postdoc fellowship programs, so carefully review the labs’ websites for more info. You also may want to read this previous ASBMB Policy Blotter blog post for a listing of other relevant DOE resources for early-career scientists.  
  • The DOE jobs webpage also lists links to student and internship programs at each lab. The hiring of post-bachelor's, post-master's and student internship positions may be further subcontracted out to another organization that handles the paperwork. For several national labs, this is completed through the Oak Ridge Institute of Science Education managed by Oak Ridge Associated Universities. ORISE runs its own recruiting programs and advertises positions through a separate system called Zintellect. They also manage the application process for a number of DOE-sponsored internships and fellowships.  
  • Overall, if you’re looking to do a postdoc or other research internship program at a national lab, I highly recommend networking as much as possible. Try to find out who is doing research that interests you, and reach out to them by email, on LinkedIn, at conferences, etc. Many positions may not even be advertised yet. And the researcher who is hiring may not have much to do with the hiring process itself. If they know you’re interested then they can ask to pull your application materials into the interview pool. Most people I know who have done postgraduate research at a national lab landed their position by knowing someone who knows someone (and so forth).  
  • Finally, if you’re truly interested in working at a national lab, you really need to do your homework to understand the structure of each lab and who all hires for what. One suggestion is to dissect the DOE website and those of each national lab to make note of what research and funding opportunities exist and find out the hiring process involved. A future careers blog post will focus more on the research ongoing at specific national labs and related job openings. 

Donna Kridelbaugh is a contributor to the ASBMB Careers Blog. She holds an advanced degree in microbiology and is a former lab manager.   

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