Life as a Postdoc at a National Laboratory
Feb 6, 2017 • Christine Klymko
This article by Christine Klymko at Lawrence Livermoe National Laboratory discusses her experience as a postdoctoral position in a government lab.
One of the most common questions you hear as you come close to finishing your dissertation in applied/computation mathematics (or, at least, it was a question that I was often asked) is “industry or academia?” The tradeoffs between the two are assumed to be clear: a high salary and some geographical choice versus research freedom and conference travel. Based on advice from my advisor and two good experiences during summer internships, I chose a third path and became apostdoc at a national laboratory.
I am currently finishing my postdoc in the Center for Applied Scientific Computing (CASC) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), where I have been for the past 2 1/2 years. My research focuses on using numerical linear algebra and graph theory to develop and apply methodologies for analyzing real world complex networks. In many ways, my postdoc at LLNL can been seen as a hybrid between an academic and an industrial position. The work done at CASC ranges from applying mathematics to solve difficult problems at the lab to developing and publishing fundamental research. While research staff in CASC need to ensure they have funding, in general there is a large enough range of funding sources that people have the ability to choose projects that fit their research interests and publication goals. Postdocs, however, are encouragedto spend the majority of their time on publishable research. Currently, my time is split between three projects: a study to understand how to measure the importance of computers on the lab network in order to help make operational decisions, a fundamental research study on random walks in temporal graphs, and work with external collaborators to use machine learning to classify malware. The last project is done using my “25% time”, which is time given to every postdoc at LLNL to allow them enough freedom to pursue their own research interests, begin to establish credentials as an independent researcher, and aid them in successfully launching their career. This 25% time was a large appeal of LLNL as I was applying to postdoctoral positions.
Any lab funded research must be geared towards advancing the mission of the lab, which in the case of LLNL, is developing and applying science with the goal of strengthening the national security of the United States. The majority of the projects at the lab fall within one of the main mission areas (which include biosecurity, energy, intelligence, and science, among others), although there are also projects funded by various sponsors and clients of the lab (these are mostly other organizations in the US government). Due to this, postdocs and staff research at LLNL do not have quite the same breadth of freedom in terms of research direction that is often found in academia. However, I have personally not found this to be restrictive. As an applied mathematician, I enjoy the motivation that comes from developing math that will solve specific problems in other domains. There is plenty of opportunity for fundamental mathematics research within the scope of the laboratory mission and my work here has given me many opportunities to pursue interesting research.
The main differences between being a postdoc at a national laboratory and being a university postdoc (to the best of my knowledge, given that this will be my only postdoc) are twofold. First, the relative lack of students and classes in the laboratory environment: during the academic year, there are few students at the lab. Even though there are many undergraduate and graduate student interns during the summer, as a postdoc there is no requirement to teach or mentor. However, in CASC postdocs are encouraged to interact with the interns working on their projects and even take on interns of their own. Last summer, I mentored one graduate intern. The second main difference between a university postdoc and a national laboratory postdoc concerns disseminating research. While working at the lab, any paper you publish or slides you make for a talk have to go through a formal (though relatively painless) “review and release” before they can be presented publicly. This is due to the fact that there is sensitive and classified work being done at the lab and it is necessary to ensure that everything released doesn’t contain any such information. Additionally, there is some research at the laboratory that cannot be published due to the nature of the work. However, there is no requirement that postdocs obtain a clearance and, in CASC, we are encouraged to spend the majority of our time on unclassified, publishable work. The biggest consequence of this “review and release process”” for me has been that I finish presentation slides before leaving for a conference rather than in the hotel room the night before, which is actually less stressful!
As I approach the end of my postdoc at LLNL, I am preparing to transition to a staff researcher position here. I have also known postdocs who have transitioned to successful careers in academia, industry, as well as others who have stayed within the national lab system, so a national lab postdoc is a good way to advance research and skills without closing doors on any specific career path. I currently feel that my postdoc opened many options for me and helped me to prepare for and decide upon the next steps in my mathematics career.