If you have an inquisitive mind and enjoy planning and working on experiments, being a research scientist could be for you
Researchers within life sciences are primarily involved in planning and conducting experiments and analysing results, either with a definite end use, for example 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'll 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.
Research within life sciences covers a whole range of scientific disciplines including:
The work is close to the medical sciences but also crosses over into other areas such as biochemistry.
The exact nature of the work depends on your level of seniority, the specific area of life sciences, and whether you're in an industrial or academic setting. However, it's likely that you'll need to:
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.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
In academia, hours are fairly standard at approximately 37 hours per week, usually from 9am to 5pm. You may sometimes be required to stay after hours or to go in at weekends to complete experiments, but most organisations offer flexible working arrangements to accommodate this. If you're based in industry, you may have to work to fit in with shift patterns and commercial deadlines.
You will typically need a good honours degree, usually a 2:1 or above, in a related-science subject to get into life sciences research.
Any subject based in the areas of health, medicine, agriculture, horticulture or biology should be appropriate but specifically, the following subjects are useful:
Many employers will also require you to have either a research-based MSc or a PhD, or to be 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. Funding is given directly to institutions so contact your preferred ones for further information or see BBSRC Investing in Doctoral Training.
You will need to have:
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:
Job opportunities may also be available through Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP). This is a joint 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:
Specialist recruitment agencies are also widely used within the scientific community. These include:
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 and 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.
It's important to keep up to date with new techniques, skills and innovations. Support for continuing professional development (CPD) via events and industry news is offered by institutions such as the BBSRC.
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.
It's also possible to acquire professional membership with a relevant institution such as the Royal Society of Biology and to work towards chartered biologist status.
In academia, progression is reasonably well defined, with most researchers aiming towards the level of senior research fellow or professor, leading research teams. You can achieve this 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.
In industry, you may progress towards senior scientific research or management roles, which are also accompanied by additional responsibilities, such as supervising and managing projects. Alternatively it's possible to move into another area of the organisation, such as business development, production or a regulatory role.
You're 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.
Another career path open to you once you have experience is consultancy, for example, becoming involved in the technical and commercial evaluation of new ideas, products and technologies and providing scientific expertise to projects.