Have you always been fascinated by science? Do you dream about performing experiments no one has ever done before? Do you want to contribute to the scientific understanding of how the world works? If yes, then a career as a research scientist might just be the one for you!
In this article, we’ll look at what research scientists do and how you can become one! Beware, it’s not all about carrying around test tubes and people with Einstein-like hair.
What is a Research Scientist?
A research scientist works within a research lab on a specific project, usually for a fixed period of time (2-5 years). The job can be based in a university, hospital, specialist research institute or in industry.
As a researcher, you’ll be involved in planning and carrying out experiments and analysing results. The nature of your project can vary. It could either be for a definite end use, such as to develop a new vaccine, or to broaden scientific understanding in general.
Most of the time you’ll carry out your experiments and research on your own. However, you’ll still be part of a larger team. You will share your findings and relevant information with colleagues. This can be done through the publication of research papers or at international conferences.
Research scientists work in almost every area of science imaginable. Their experiments and investigations are spread across a range of areas. This includes medical research, natural sciences, geoscience, and pharmacology. However, these are broad research areas. A research scientist will most likely be involved in a much more specialist project. For example, research scientists could work in stem cell biology or particle physics.
Characteristics of a Research Scientist
These professional skills are crucial in helping research scientists perform their job:
- Scientific and numerical skills
- Being logical and having an independent mind
- Meticulous attention to detail and accuracy
- Organisation skills
- Excellent analytical skills
- Oral and written communication skills
- Interpersonal skills
Education and Training
To become a research scientist, you’ll need a good honours degree (a 2.1 or above). This should be in a science subject related to your area of interest. Most research scientists then go on to study for a postgraduate qualification like a PhD or a research-based MSc. Such qualifications are important especially if you’re interested in permanent positions.
Post-doctoral research and/or practical research/laboratory work experience is also beneficial and frequently required for academic posts.
Nature of their Work
The exact nature of your work will depend on your specialist field, but may include:
- Planning and carrying out experiments
- Keeping accurate records of results
- Analysing results and data
- Presenting your findings at conferences, in scientific journals or books
- Collaborating with industry/academia to apply the results of research and develop new techniques, products or practices
- Carrying out fieldwork (collecting samples and monitoring environmental factors)
- Teaching, lecturing or supervising students (in academia)
- Drawing up research proposals and applying for funding
- Attending international academic conferences and regularly reading industry journals
- Carrying out peer reviews of written publications and presentations to validate theories
- PhD funding is available through various routes and one of these is a PhD studentship. In addition to covering tuition fees and project/training costs, some studentships also provide maintenance grants known as a ‘stipend’. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) set a minimum amount for the stipend and for 2020/21 it is £15,285. Some institutions may pay more than this.
- Once you are working as a research scientist after completing your PhD, you could earn in the region of £25,000 to £40,000 depending on your specialist subject and experience.
- University professors or senior researchers with high levels of responsibility, such as at principal investigator level, can achieve salaries of £50,000 to £75,000.
The starting salaries vary between academia and industry. Bear in mind that private sector salaries at senior levels are likely to be higher, especially within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology areas.
In academia, hours are fairly standard at approximately 37 hours per week, usually from 9am to 5pm. Sometimes you may have to stay after hours or to go in at weekends to finish off experiments. However, most organisations tend to offer flexible working arrangements to accommodate this.
Moreover, if you’re based in industry, your hours may be slightly longer and you may have to work to fit in with shift patterns and commercial deadlines.
If you want to improve your chances when applying for research jobs, try to gain practical laboratory experience and knowledge of the range of techniques used. You can achieve this experience through a sandwich year placement in industry as part of your degree or vacation work.
Try to gain experience in both industry and academia as it will help you understand how the two environments differ and make an informed future career choice.
You should also try to keep up with developments in the area and read peer reviews.
Once again, your chosen specialist field will strongly affect what career options are available to you as a research scientist. Nevertheless, careers in science can generally be broken down into two basic categories: academia and industry.
Academic research scientists typically work for universities or government agencies. Their research may or may not contribute directly to the creation of new products. Regardless, it still provides highly valuable data for humankind.
Majority of the research scientists at universities also work as professors, teaching classes a few days a week while carrying out their research the rest of the time.
Senior academic roles are accompanied by increased responsibility (i.e. securing funding) and additional teaching, supervisory and administrative duties.
Industrial research scientists are employed by large corporations. They work on developing new products and improving the existing ones. Furthermore, they might carry out research testing new medical drugs, or try to develop improved pesticides that cause less harm to the environment.
Career progression in industrial positions usually follows the same track as other corporate jobs, with promotions resulting in greater responsibilities and management of groups.
Alternatively, it’s also possible to move into a different area of the organisation, such as business development, production or a regulatory role.
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