Medical research scientists devise and conduct experiments in order to increase the body of scientific knowledge on topics related to medicine. They also develop new, or improve existing, drugs, treatments or other medically related products.
Medical research takes place in higher education institutions, research institutes, hospitals and industry. The level of research is wide ranging from investigating the underlying basis of health or disease, to conducting clinical research and investigating methods of prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disorders.
Molecular level research may be carried out using appropriate cell and animal models, or human volunteers may be used to study the clinical effects of various factors.
The specifics of the role vary according to the setting, but much of the work is laboratory-based. Tasks typically include:
- planning and conducting experiments and analysing or interpreting the results;
- keeping accurate records of work undertaken;
- using specialist computer software to analyse data and to produce diagrammatic representation of results;
- teaching and supervising students (in higher education);
- writing and submitting applications and progress reports to funding bodies that support medical research (outside industry);
- discussing research progress with other departments, e.g. production and marketing (in industry);
- constantly considering the profit/loss potential of research products (in industry);
- collaborating with industry, research institutes, hospitals and academia.
Results of work are often disseminated to others, which includes:
- carrying out presentations or discussions at team meetings with colleagues;
- preparing presentations and delivering these at national and international scientific conferences;
- writing original papers for publication in peer-reviewed medical or scientific journals. In industry, there is usually less pressure to publish.
It is also important to stay in touch with developments and advances in your field and activities that help with this include:
- reading relevant scientific literature and journals;
- attending scientific meetings and conferences in order to hear presentations from other researchers and participate in informal discussions with scientists from other parts of the world.
- As an entry point PhD studentships, which allow you to study for a PhD while also carrying out research work, usually pay a stipend. Research Councils UK (RCUK) suggest a minimum rate of £14,057 for the stipend but some employers may pay more.
- Medical research scientists with a PhD may start on around £25,000 to £35,000 a year.
- Salaries increase following this with senior researchers and university professors earning £50,000 to £70,000 a year or more.
Pay is usually higher in industry and the private sector.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are normally 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. However, due to the nature of experimental work, some evening and weekend work may be required. There may be some flexibility in start and finish times, especially in academic settings.
Longer hours may be necessary when, for example, grant application deadlines are looming or an important experiment is underway. Overtime may be paid in industry but it is unusual in academia.
What to expect
- Work is mainly laboratory-based with some time spent in the office planning and writing up experiments. Some positions may require field work.
- With career progression, the work becomes more office-based with a focus on writing grant applications, collaborating with other scientists, supervising staff, planning experiments, writing papers for publication and reviewing papers.
- Care and attention to detail is required as work may involve contact with potentially toxic or radioactive materials. Working with animals or animal-derived products, such as embryonic stem cells, may form part of the research, which may result in ethical dilemmas for some. See the arguments on the Understanding Animal Research website.
- Travel may occasionally be required, as scientists often collaborate with other institutions. Some national and international travel is needed for attendance at conferences to present the results of research. Travel usually becomes more frequent with career progression.
A good honours degree in a medical or life science subject is usually required. The following subjects are particularly relevant:
- biomedical sciences;
- medical microbiology;
- molecular biology;
Although graduates entering this area of work traditionally have a degree in a medical or life science discipline, many areas of medical research now look for graduates in chemistry, physics or statistics/bioinformatics.
Direct entry to a research scientist role with an HND or foundation degree only is not possible. Opportunities for HND or foundation degree holders may exist at technician level, but progression to medical research scientist will require further qualifications. Some employers may allow you to study while working part time.
You will usually need to have an MSc or PhD, or be working towards one, to secure a position in this field. However opportunities at entry level without a postgraduate qualification do exist, particularly in industry. Career progression does usually require further qualifications though, particularly a PhD.
Funding is made available to research institutions via the Medical Research Council (MRC). This is then passed on to students in the form of scholarships, bursaries and studentships. You should contact the individual institution to find out more about the funding options.
You need to show evidence of:
- technical, scientific and numerical skills;
- good written and oral communication skills;
- genuine enjoyment of the research subject;
- a methodical approach to work;
- tenacity and patience;
- ability to work well in teams and to network and forge links with collaborators;
- problem-solving skills and analytical thinking;
- attention to detail.
Laboratory experience and knowledge of the range of techniques used will improve your chances of finding a research appointment. Experience can be achieved through either a sandwich-year placement in industry or vacation work experience in academia or industry. Summer placements in academia can be funded through the:
There are various employers in medical research including:
- industry (especially pharmaceutical companies);
- research councils, especially the Medical Research Council (MRC);
- National Health Service (NHS);
- non-governmental and voluntary bodies.
Work outside industry is usually funded by the government through the allocation of research funding to universities, research councils and hospitals.
Medical research also receives extensive financial support from charitable bodies that fund specific research into their areas of interest.
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:
- Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP)
- Medical Research Council (MRC)
- Nature Jobs
- New Scientist Jobs
- Pharma Job Vacancies
- Times Higher Education Jobs
Also try university websites and the national press for vacancies.
Specialist recruitment agencies are widely used within the scientific community. These include:
Most employers will assume that you already have sufficient research skills, either from your degree or a PhD, to make an immediate contribution to the work of the team.
In academia, there is often very little formal training after you complete a research degree. Continuous on-the-job technical training, either self-taught or from more experienced scientists, allows you to learn new laboratory techniques.
It is also quite common to visit other laboratories to be taught techniques that are already established elsewhere. The personal development of researchers is supported by the MRC.
Outside academia, training is usually more structured and there is a trend for scientists to develop their own training programmes with guidance from a mentor.
Scientists in all settings must keep abreast of research techniques and scientific advances, so attending conferences or meetings is common. Attendance at a conference may sometimes involve presenting your own work.
Membership of a professional organisation, such as the Royal Society of Biology, is another option. Professional bodies such as this encourage continuous professional development (CPD) and usually have their own schemes. They will sometimes offer professional qualifications and chartered status.
Career structures vary between sectors. In academia, after a PhD, most medical research scientists enter employment in postdoctoral positions. These are normally short-term contracts of up to three years.
It is also possible for you to work abroad for a time, typically in the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia or Europe to experience different laboratory set-ups and widen your network of international contacts.
In academia, career progression is usually related to the success of your research project(s) and the quality and quantity of original papers you publish. With experience, you may progress to senior research fellow or professor and could manage your own team.
You will usually have to undertake three or more short-term contracts before you have a chance of securing a highly sought-after permanent position in academic science. There are often teaching duties attached to these positions and the amount of opportunities is limited with high levels of competition.
Career development tends to be more structured in industry, hospitals or research institutes and usually involves taking on increased responsibilities, such as supervising and managing projects.
With experience and a successful track record, you could move into senior research and management roles. It may also be possible in some industrial companies to move into other functions, such as production, quality assurance, HR or marketing.