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Working in National Labs

Stability, opportunities for collaboration

By Peggy Albright

National research laboratories offer computing professionals a wide range of fascinating and highly rewarding career opportunities. Funded by the US government, these labs are working hard to solve some of the country’s most pressing problems, from investigating climate change models and advancing our understanding of the universe and oceans to finding ways to improve human health and energy production and develop weapons systems.

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Computing is essential to all of these endeavors. Computing professionals who work in these facilities can play a wide range of roles, from supporting specific research projects to helping build or run the supercomputing systems needed to process the vast amounts of data generated and used by these facilities.

Is work in a research lab appropriate for you? If you think you’ve got the right mix of skills and career goals, it’s definitely worth considering. There are several hundred labs operating in the US under the auspices of the government’s top departmental agencies, led by the defense and energy departments, which support more facilities than the others.

Opportunities for collaboration

While each lab has its own research objectives and research culture, the labs have many common traits. Computing professionals who work in these labs say their careers are very personally rewarding and intellectually stimulating. Projects are typically conducted by multidisciplinary teams, which give participants the opportunity to work in close collaboration with specialists from a variety of fields who are employed by their own lab, other labs in the system as well as academia and private companies.

Everyone working on a project shares the accomplishment and recognition when the work is completed and if the work goes on to win a notable award, perhaps a Nobel Prize, team members are recognized for their contributions and gain exposure from that work too. Entrepreneurial thinking is welcome: innovative ideas from staff are highly valued in the research culture and can lead to a funded project if the idea aligns with organizational objectives.

Pay and benefits outlook

Those working in the corporate world often assume that government-funded organizations don’t pay as well as the private sector, but managers who are hiring computing professionals at several recognized labs say they can offer competitive salaries and in fact they must do so in order to attract talented experts for high-priority projects. On the other hand, some labs say they have found it difficult to hire and retain top computer scientists when companies in the private sector have competed for these experts with lucrative hiring packages.

Employees at national labs receive traditional benefits that many private-sector jobs often don’t provide anymore: three weeks vacation plus sick leave and support for continuing education. Flexible working arrangements for personnel are usually accommodated to allow telecommuting and even temporary leaves of absence to raise children, attend school, or pursue other personal goals.

Jobs at national labs are also considered stable. There is little turnover and those who find jobs in the system tend to stay for lengthy careers. The facilities tend to be large employers, typically with several thousand employees, so there are multiple career paths available to computing professionals who come to work in these facilities. For those who apply for jobs at these labs, the process can take longer than it does in the private sector because the vetting process is much more detailed.

Funding is a concern, because the national labs do rely on federal money that is subject to annual budget cycles that are in turn influenced by government policies. Yet even in today’s budget-cutting environment, job security can be as good as—and perhaps even better than--the private sector. That’s because each lab’s base budget is fixed, funding is established a year in advance, and because the problems the researchers are working on often take years to resolve.

“Since computer science remains a core capability at the national laboratories, these individuals and projects are in a strong position to retain much of their funding in order to supply fundamental services and research,” said Jeff Nichols, associate laboratory director, computing and computational sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The sudden cancellation of a project resulting in employee layoffs, which is not unheard of in the corporate world, would be unusual at a national lab. Also, despite the state of the economy and the anticipation of general budget cuts, computing professionals are highly needed in these research organizations, which adds another layer of job protection in uncertain times.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

ORNL, located near Oak Ridge, Tenn., performs work for the Department of Energy and focuses on energy and environmental research. It includes the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, which is building an exascale supercomputer that should be operational by 2018.

Nichols said that computer scientists, engineers, architects, cybersecurity experts, programmers and software developers work at ORNL in roles ranging from IT support to developing next-generation supercomputing tools. Computational science is embedded in most area of research at the facility, from neutron science to climate change, renewable energy research, electric grid research, fusion, nuclear modeling, and simulation and materials research.

ORNL has been in a significant growth mode for the past 18 months, which is good for job seekers. It also has many opportunities for computing professionals generally. The lab has hired at least one technical person per week in computing and computational sciences for the past half-dozen years, Nichols said. Those interested in investigating job opportunities should go to http://jobs.ornl.gov/. Security clearances are generally not required for ORNL staff, however a certain security clearances from DOE and DOD may be requested for certain projects.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

LBNL, located in Berkeley, Calif., is supported by the DOE but managed by the University of California. It conducts unclassified research across 15 scientific disciplines. Computing sciences are the focus of two divisions at the lab, one of which operates a large-scale supercomputer for the DOE and the other that supports a large national network for DOE that peers with other research networks around the world.

In addition to the computing experts who work in those divisions, LBNL also uses numerous computing professionals to support researchers throughout the laboratory. In these various capacities, computing professionals at LBL will be working closely with researchers on a range of important and fascinating topics like modeling climate change, improving carbon capture in coal-fired power plants, seeking a better understanding of how the universe is expanding, or pursuing techniques to help restore ecosystems to protect endangered species, such as salmon.

“An important advantage I see in working here is the opportunity to work with leaders in their fields on the problems that really matter in our understanding of the world and on major issues we face as a society,” said Deb Agarwal, staff computer scientist at LBNL, who is a department head in the computational research division at the laboratory.

Many computing professionals at LBNL have PhD degrees and many of its computer scientists and computer systems engineers may have master’s degrees, but an advanced degree is not required for most positions. LBNL does not conduct any classified research on-site so no security clearances are required for any position at the lab. For information about jobs at LBNL, visit http://www.lbl.gov/.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

LLNL, based in Livermore, Calif., is part of the DOE. It was founded in the 1950s as a nuclear weapons lab and today continues to perform research related to nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. Work under way at LLNL seeks to ensure the safety of the country’s nuclear stockpile and prevent the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction. LLNL research also addresses several other important areas, such as global warming, cleaning up the environment, battling cancer, decoding the human genome, and exploring the universe.

Computing is involved in every research area at the lab, which is known for its high-performance computing as well as the hardware and software tools it develops to support researchers at the lab. In the computing profession, it employs researchers, IT system software developers, and specialists in data mining, visualization, simulation, scientific computing, and high-performance computing. It has a strong mentoring program to encourage students to pursue careers in science and develop skills that can be used later to obtain positions at the lab.

“We are looking for individuals who have a really key interest in work that is in the national interest, solves really complicated problems that are science focused,” said Tony Baylis, computation workforce manager in the computation division at LLNL.”We have success with those individuals who express that desire, and they end up staying for long periods of time.”

Baylis said LLNL has job openings for full-time, summer, and entry-level positions. Depending on the job, candidates should have a bachelor’s or master’s degree or PhD. Because LLNL is one of the country’s classified labs, candidates must have a security clearance. Because of this, for most roles, employees need to be US citizens. Those interested in working at LLNL should contact Baylis directly. His email address is baylis3@llnl.gov.

Los Alamos National Laboratory

LANL, based in Los Alamos, New Mexico, is a DOE national security research lab whose mission is to oversee the US nuclear weapons program, but it is also known for non-related pursuits, such as global climate modeling, including ocean and sea ice modeling, as well as modeling of the HIV virus. The projects it works on range from understanding the building blocks of matter at the subatomic level to cosmology and the evolution of the universe.

Stephen Lee, leader of the computer, computational, and statistical sciences division at LANL, said his organization has around 200 scientific staff and most have PhDs in fields such as computer science, physics, engineering, or mathematics. The lab is most interested in people whose educational experience includes significant background in computational science combined with the ability to create advanced physics applications on high-performance computers.

The lab recruits and hires people with these skills, while acknowledging that typical graduate programs do not offer training in these combined disciplines. It will train students and postdocs to generate future scientists of this caliber for work at the lab. Lee said LANL has more postdocs than most other national labs and generally builds its staff from this postdoc pipeline. Because of its highly selective nature, it also hires fewer mid-career scientists than other labs.

“My experience is that Los Alamos tends to be the most picky about hiring scientific staff and it tends to be more difficult to be hired at Los Alamos than at other national laboratories,” Lee said.

Because of its national security focus, many jobs at LLNL require a security clearance, but there is a large number of staff working on challenging programs that do not require a security clearance. For more information about this facility, go to http://www.lanl.gov.

Other National Labs

The Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer offers a useful list of several hundred federally funded laboratory facilities, segmented according to the sponsoring agencies, with links to their web sites and indications of the region and state where the labs are located. To use this resource, go to http://www.federallabs.org/labs/results/ CW (4 April, 2011)

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