If you have an inquisitive mind and enjoy planning and working on experiments, you could be suited to a career as a research scientist

As a researcher within life sciences, you'll be primarily involved in planning and conducting experiments and analysing results - either with a definite end use, such as to develop new products, processes or commercial applications, or to broaden scientific understanding in general.

You'll 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.

Types of work

There are a range of disciplines within life sciences in which you could choose to specialise, including:

  • bioinformatics
  • biotechnology
  • cancer studies
  • genomics
  • microbiology
  • neurosciences
  • pharmacology
  • physiology
  • plant sciences
  • stem cell research.

The work is close to the medical sciences but also crosses over into other areas such as biochemistry.

Responsibilities

The exact nature of the work depends on your level of seniority, the specific area of life sciences you work in and whether you're in an industrial or academic setting. However, it's likely that you'll need to:

  • create and conduct experiments
  • process and analyse results and data
  • communicate results to the scientific community via published papers
  • collaborate with industry/academia to apply the results of research and develop new techniques, products or practices
  • present ongoing work and findings to colleagues at academic conferences, and summarise the nature of the research, methodology and results
  • carry out field work to inform research
  • teach, demonstrate to or supervise students (in academia) and train and supervise other members of staff
  • devise or help to draw up new research proposals and apply for funding
  • work in multidisciplinary teams, in different faculties or schools in academia, and in different functions of the business in industry
  • carry out peer reviews of written publications and presentations to validate theories and inform research
  • keep up to date with the work of other scientists
  • attend academic conferences across the world and regularly read industry journals.

Salary

  • PhD studentships, which allow you to study for a PhD while also carrying out research work, usually come with a stipend. This is typically set at the minimum UK Research and Innovation rate of £14,777, 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 £40,000.
  • 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.

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.

Working hours

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.

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.
  • 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 and are more common within industry than academia.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Many life science companies have global offices and universities across the world collaborate on research projects, so there are good opportunities for overseas employment.

Qualifications

You'll 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 the following subjects are particularly useful:

  • biochemistry
  • biomedical science
  • crop and plant science
  • ecology
  • environmental biology
  • microbiology
  • natural sciences
  • pharmacology.

Many employers will also require you to have either a research-based MSc or a PhD, or to be working towards one, particularly for 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.

Funding is given to research institutions via the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). This is then passed on to students in the form of scholarships, bursaries and studentships. You should contact your preferred university, research institute or industrial partner to find out more about the funding options. More information is also available at BBSRC - Investing in doctoral training.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • a methodical approach to analysing and processing data
  • problem-solving skills when carrying out experiments
  • good time management and organisational skills
  • the ability to work independently
  • 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.

Work experience

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.

Employers

There are many different employers across a variety of sectors within life sciences, including:

  • clinical research organisations
  • large pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies
  • national and global health-related charities
  • private hospitals and NHS trusts
  • research councils and their associated institutes
  • scientific and technical consultancies
  • universities, national and international.

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:

Professional development

The scientific and research skills you'll have acquired while studying for your 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 such as leadership management.

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.

Career prospects

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 media or communications roles. Public understanding of science is a topical growth area with many new opportunities, and jobs for journalists with a scientific background are becoming more widespread.

Another career path open to you once you have experience is consultancy. You could become involved in the technical and commercial evaluation of new ideas, products and technologies, providing scientific expertise to projects.