Description: The US government employs biomedical scientists in a number of centers, institutes, and agencies, including those represented by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). The NIH, for example, employs in a highly esteemed Intramural Research Program that comprises approximately 1200 principal investigators (and 4,000 postdocs) aligned with most of its 27 Institutes and Centers. The principal investigators run ‘Sections’ or ‘Units’ devoted to independent research aims, much as scientists in academia operate. They receive support from their Institute or Center and are reviewed every four years by an external Board of Scientific Counselors for the quality and value of the research being performed. A tenure process exists within NIH, again much like that in academia. The CDC similarly employs a large number of scientists, albeit to conduct research that is much more directed. The focus of the CDC is primarily infectious diseases. What distinguishes research programs in the CDC, whether basic or applied, is that they must yield to practical issues and disease problems relevant to outbreaks that can emerge quite quickly. The focus of research in the FDA is epidemiology, microbiology, pharmacology, and toxicology. Tenure is not provided in either of the latter two organizations.
Advantages of an advanced degree: An advanced degree (PhD or MD) is essential for any realistic pursuit of research in government settings at a level beyond that of providing rote technical support. Postdoctoral experience, in the sense broadening technical expertise and independence, can be advantageous.
Key competencies: Please see ‘Competencies Intrinsic to Scientific Endeavor’ elsewhere in this website. Competencies relating to critical thinking, mathematical and computational facility, and experimental design are essential, of course, but one cannot undervalue those of management and communication especially in environments provided by the CDC and FDA in which activities among many different investigators and teams can be tightly integrated.
On-campus student organizations: None
First steps: The most practical step beyond evaluation of printed and web-based resources is, as almost always, contacting alumni who work in the field. NIH sponsors several training programs available to graduate students, including a Summer Internship Program (SIP) and Graduate Partnerships Program (GPP), and a quite large postdoctoral training program. Information regarding these and other features of intramural training can be found through Office of Intramural Training & Education at the link below. The CDC and FDA, too, have a variety of internship and postdoctoral programs found through the links below.