Research within life sciences covers a whole range of scientific disciplines including:
- plant sciences;
- cancer studies;
- stem cell research.
The work is close to the medical sciences but also crosses over into other areas such as biochemistry.
Researchers within this field are primarily involved in planning and conducting experiments and analysing results, either with a definite end use (to develop new products, processes or commercial applications), or to broaden scientific understanding in general.
As a researcher, you will usually carry out your experiments and research on your own, but you will typically be part of a larger team and will share your findings and relevant information with professional colleagues. This is sometimes done at international conferences or through the publication of research papers.
You can find employment in commercial or government laboratories, hospitals and higher education institutions.
The exact nature of the work depends on the level of seniority of a research post, the specific area of life sciences studied and also whether the context is industrial or academic. However, it is likely that typical tasks will include:
- creating and conducting experiments;
- processing and analysing results and data;
- communicating results to the scientific community via published papers;
- collaborating with industry/academia to apply the results of research and develop new techniques, products or practices;
- presenting ongoing work and findings to colleagues at academic conferences, and summarising the nature of the research, methodology and results;
- carrying out field work to inform research;
- teaching, demonstrating to or supervising students (in academia) and training and supervising other members of staff;
- devising or helping to draw up new research proposals and applying for funding and grants;
- working in multidisciplinary teams, in different faculties or schools in academia, and in different functions of the business in industry.
Peer reviews of written publications and presentations are needed to validate theories and inform research.
It is also important to keep abreast of the work of other scientists both within the life sciences arena and in the wider scientific community.
Attendance at academic conferences across the world is considered part of the job, rather than an additional activity. Reading journals is another important aspect of the work.
- PhD studentships which allow you to study for a PhD while also carrying out research work usually come with a stipend set at the minimum Research Councils UK rate of £13,863 but some may be higher than this.
- Research scientists who have completed an MSc, MPhil or PhD typically earn in the region of £25,000 to £35,000.
- At a senior level, research scientists can earn £30,000 to £45,000.
- University professors or researchers with high levels of responsibility, such as at principal investigator level, can achieve salaries of £50,000 to £70,000.
Starting salaries are comparable between academia and industry, but private sector salaries at senior levels tend to be higher, particularly within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology areas.
Many researchers are employed on fixed-term contracts, associated with finite funding for particular projects. Most contracts last for several years. Permanent posts are highly sought after.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
In academia, hours are fairly standard at approximately 37 hours per week and generally 9am to 5pm. Sometimes researchers are required to stay after hours or come in at weekends to complete experiments, but most organisations offer flexible working arrangements to accommodate this. Researchers in industry, however, may have to work to fit in with shift patterns and commercial deadlines.
What to expect
- The majority of work is laboratory based, with field work required for some roles. Travel to and from clients' and colleagues' offices may also be required, particularly if projects are collaborations between industry and academia, or cross-university projects.
- Historically, there has been a gender imbalance within scientific areas. Organisations which promote female talent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics such as WISE, are helping to redress the balance.
- Opportunities within life science organisations are available across the UK but some regions are particularly strong in certain fields. The largest regional concentrations of science industry employment are in the South East and East of England.
- Many life science companies have global offices and universities across the world collaborate on research projects, so there are many opportunities for overseas employment.
- Experimental work may involve working with hazardous and toxic materials. Experiments with animals or animal-based products may also be part of the research.
- Travel overseas, as well as in the UK, is sometimes necessary for attending conferences and seminars. Certain research areas, such as environmental science and ecology, may involve international field work.
A good honours degree, usually a 2:1 or above, in a related science subject is required for entry into research in life sciences.
Any subject based in the areas of health, medicine, agriculture, horticulture or biology should be appropriate but specifically, the following subjects are useful:
- biomedical science;
- natural sciences;
- environmental biology;
- crop and plant science.
Many employers also require candidates to have obtained either a research-based MSc or a PhD, or to be currently working towards one, particularly for the higher level roles.
It may be possible to enter with just an undergraduate honours degree and to study part time for a postgraduate qualification and then progress on to a more senior role.
Entry to a technician-level job may be possible with a foundation degree or HND but further study would be required in order to progress beyond this level.
Some research councils, such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) award studentships to PhD students each year in universities, research institutes or industrial partners.
The BBSRC has a funding total of around £43.5million for 2,000 students per year and it can be a good way to get into work in academia, industry and government research. Funding is given directly to institutions so contact your preferred ones for further information or see BBSRC Studentships.
You will need to have:
- a methodical approach, and the ability to analyse and process data;
- problem-solving skills, and the ability to find and employ creative solutions;
- good time management and organisational skills, and the ability to work with minimum supervision;
- strong communication skills for writing papers, reports and bids and for giving presentations;
- the ability and desire to work collaboratively in multidisciplinary teams;
- tenacity and patience, to see experiments through from design to completion;
- networking skills, and the ability to build effective links with external organisations.
Practical laboratory experience and knowledge of the range of techniques used will improve your chances when applying for research jobs. This experience can be achieved through a sandwich year placement in industry or vacation work.
Try to gain experience in both academia and industry as it will help to illustrate how the two environments differ and will inform your future career choice.
There are many different employers across a variety of sectors within life sciences, including:
- universities in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world;
- large pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies;
- private hospitals and NHS trusts;
- clinical research organisations;
- research councils and their associated institutes;
- national and global health-related charities;
- scientific and technical consultancies.
Job opportunities may also be available through Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP).
This is a three-way project between a graduate, an organisation and a 'knowledge base', such as a university or a research organisation, which allows PhD graduates to apply research in a commercial environment.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Jobs.ac.uk - for jobs across all universities in the UK and overseas.
- Nature Jobs
- New Scientist Jobs
- NHS Jobs
- Times Higher Education Jobs
Specialist recruitment agencies are also widely used within the scientific community. These include:
In terms of developing skills and experience, further study is considered to be most beneficial.
The scientific and research skills acquired while studying for a PhD are viewed as appropriate basic training for more senior research positions. However, increasingly PhD researchers are also expected to possess a range of additional non-technical skills.
Vitae runs courses and events for research staff on various areas including:
- career management;
- how to be an effective researcher;
- leadership development.
It also provides the Researcher Development Framework (RDF), which helps you to identify your strengths, plan your professional development and set targets. Find out more at Vitae Professional Development.
Advice on issues such as supervisor management, academic careers, writing up and CVs can also be found on the Vitae website.
It is important to keep up to date with new techniques, skills and innovations. Relevant institutions, such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), offer support for continuing professional development (CPD) by running events and providing industry news.
It is also possible to acquire professional membership with a relevant institution such as the Royal Society of Biology and to work towards chartered biologist status.
Jobs in industry tend to be accompanied by structured training programmes that may include completing placements in different functions of the organisation, working with a mentor and drawing up personal development plans with line managers.
All researchers involved in laboratory work are required to participate in training on health and safety and Good Laboratory Practice (GLP). This training may include risk assessment workshops and control of substances hazardous to health regulations (COSHH) training.
In academia, progression is reasonably well defined, with most researchers aiming towards the level of senior research fellow or professor, leading research teams. This progression is achieved through experience, successful research projects and publishing original, high-quality research.
Senior roles are accompanied by increased responsibility (i.e. securing funding) and additional teaching, supervisory and administrative duties.
Progression in research councils and institutes also relates to achieving senior scientist roles based on scientific merit, individual contributions and increased responsibility.
Researchers in industry may progress towards senior scientific research or management roles, which are also accompanied by additional responsibilities, such as supervising and managing projects.
Alternatively it is possible to move into another area of the organisation, such as business development, production or a regulatory role.
Some researchers combine academic and industrial research posts by setting up spin-out companies. These usually start off as a research project within an academic institution until the results become significant enough for it to develop into a commercially-viable company. These companies tend to be supported initially by the university from which they originated, but may obtain financial support from external investors.
Life science researchers are also able to move into a media or communications role. Public understanding of science is a topical growth area with many new opportunities, and jobs for journalists with a scientific background are becoming more prevalent.
Many degree courses now include 'communicating science' modules. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) helps to promote science in society activities. For more information, see BBSRC Public Engagement.
Another career path open to experienced researchers is consultancy, for example, becoming involved in the technical and commercial evaluation of new ideas, products and technologies and providing scientific expertise to projects.