Conducting part of your PhD thesis research at a national lab:
The DOE SCGSR Program

Amnon Ortoll-Bloch

As PhD students in STEM fields, we are typically attached to our institutions. We need particular instruments and facilities to run our experiments or computer clusters to run our simulations. Sometimes, we are able to travel to other universities or facilities, when we get beam time at a synchrotron source or we go to work at a collaborator’s lab, for example. However, these research trips are typically short. What if we could do a longer internship at a national lab, working with experts in our field and using state-of-the-art facilities?

The Department of Energy Office of Science Graduate Student Research (DOE SCGSR) Program is an excellent opportunity that allows PhD students to spend 3 to 12 months at a DOE national laboratory, conducting part of their thesis research with a host DOE laboratory scientist, while receiving a stipend to cover your expenses. Yes, that means that all of the work you complete during a DOE SCGSR award period should (and will) form part of your dissertation (and publications from graduate school)! This program is a great way to explore what research and life are like at a national lab, learn about the different kinds of jobs available there, and make valuable connections with other scientists in your field.

As a DOE SCGSR awardee, I was able to spend several months at Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) in Richland, WA. I truly enjoyed my experience there. During my award period at PNNL, I was able to collaborate with multiple staff scientists besides my official host. I got to learn a lot about the cutting-edge research being conducted in my host’s group, as well as the approaches and techniques that they use for their work. I was able to network and meet other young researchers from several fields of study, and I believe I established what will be long-lasting connections.

Eligibility

To be eligible to apply, you need to:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
  • Be pursuing a PhD at an accredited college or university in the U.S. or its territories.
  • Have passed your PhD candidacy exam: The requirements to become a PhD candidate vary depending on your institution and program. You will need to provide official proof that you have completed your institution’s PhD candidacy requirements, such as a letter from your department’s chair.
  • Make sure your PhD thesis research is in an area of fundamental research aligned with the DOE Office of Science Priority Research Areas.
  • Identify a collaborating scientist at a DOE lab.

Application process

The first thing you should do is find a collaborating DOE lab scientist who would be interested in hosting you. It is a good idea to first reach out to your advisor. They might know a scientist in your field at a national lab, with whom they might have even collaborated in the past, and could expedite the process of getting in touch with them. If your advisor cannot think of anyone, you can go through the literature in your field. Are any of the corresponding authors on important papers in your field at a DOE lab? Have you met any DOE lab scientists at conferences you have attended? If you are early on in your PhD program (have ways to go before obtaining PhD candidacy) and are interested in applying to the DOE SCGSR program, when attending conferences, you can be on the lookout for DOE lab scientists whose research is related to yours.

Once you have identified a potential DOE lab host, contact them with research ideas for the work you could do with them. You can come up with these ideas with your advisor. Another point that you can bring up in your initial contact with the potential host is the facilities and instruments available at that DOE lab. Do some previous research on the available facilities on that particular DOE lab’s website. What instruments does that DOE lab have that you could use for your research, and that are not available at your PhD home institution? Learning more about the instruments available at the national lab can also help inspire and inform the initial research ideas that you will introduce to the potential DOE host.

When the DOE scientist confirms that they would be willing to host you and would like you to apply for the award, start discussing the research proposal in more detail. Start working on the proposal as soon as possible. The proposed research must be conducted at your host’s DOE lab during the proposed period, which can range from 3 to 12 months.

The research proposal must:

  • Focus on research that is an integral part of your overall PhD thesis project.
  • Address aims in at least one of the DOE Office of Science Priority Research Areas.
  • Be co-developed between you and the collaborating DOE host in consultation with your PhD advisor. All three of you must approve of the final proposal before you submit your application.

Some of my suggestions for the research proposal:

  • Write a clear background section that is comprehensible to scientists that might not necessarily be in your field. Define important terms and concepts that will be used throughout the proposal.
  • Cite relevant publications in your background section: your own, your advisor’s, and your collaborator’s. Having these references will stress that it is likely that the research will be completed successfully thanks to the related previous work you all have done.
  • Mention any relevant previous work you have completed that could serve as a foundation for the proposed research. Include any preliminary data that led you to develop the proposed research and that supports the likeliness of the proposed work being successful.
  • Emphasize why it is important for you to conduct the proposed research at that DOE lab specifically. State what facilities and instruments you will use and elaborate on the type of data that you will obtain.
  • Highlight your DOE host’s expertise and how it will help with the proposed research.
  • Underscore how the proposed research will be an essential part of your PhD thesis.
  • If the proposed research will require the use of multiple different techniques, elaborate on the potential of the combined approach, how it is synergistic, and how the different types of data complement each other to provide a fuller picture of the scientific problem you are trying to study.

Other writing sections of the application:

  • An abstract of your PhD thesis. A good abstract should include a short background, your thesis goals and chapters, the techniques/approaches you will use to address those questions, your results so far, and future work. It is also a good idea to emphasize here as well how the proposed research at the DOE lab will fit into your thesis goals.
  • A paragraph for each prior scientific research experience. You can add up to three experiences. For each experience, I suggest writing where and with whom you worked, your research goal, what you did and what your results were, and what you learned from the experience.
  • An abstract of your DOE SCGSR research proposal.
  • A paragraph on the anticipated training. You should underscore how the skills you will gain from your work at the DOE lab complement the skills you have gained so far in your PhD at your home institution.
  • A paragraph on the relevance of the proposed research to the DOE Office of Science Mission Areas. Make sure to carefully read the description of the DOE Office of Science Priority Research Area that your proposed research is aligned with.

You will also need:

  • A letter of support from your PhD advisor
  • A letter of support from your DOE host
  • Official graduate school transcripts
  • Official letter confirming that you have completed the PhD candidacy requirements

Lastly, there are two solicitations per year: one with a May deadline and one with a November deadline. Each solicitation has a specific range of dates within which the award period can begin.

Based on my experience as a DOE SCGSR awardee, I can say that it is a highly worthwhile opportunity. From the application process, where you get to collaboratively develop a research proposal with a DOE lab scientist, to the actual award period, where you get to do exciting research, the DOE SCGSR program is deeply rewarding.

Amnon Ortoll-Bloch is a PhD student in materials chemistry at Cornell University.

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