You'll need a genuine love for your research subject as well as patience and good lab skills to become a medical research scientist

As a medical research scientist, you'll plan and conduct experiments to increase the body of scientific knowledge on topics related to medicine. You will 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.

Responsibilities

Your role will vary depending on the setting but much of the work is laboratory-based. In general, as a medical research scientist you'll need to:

  • plan and conduct experiments and analyse or interpret the results
  • keep accurate records of work undertaken
  • use specialist computer software to analyse data and to produce diagrammatic representation of results
  • teach and supervise students (in higher education)
  • write and submit applications and progress reports to funding bodies that support medical research (outside industry)
  • discuss research progress with other departments, e.g. production and marketing (in industry)
  • constantly consider the profit/loss potential of research products (in industry)
  • collaborate with industry, research institutes, hospitals and academia.

You will often need to disseminate the results of your work to others, which means you'll need to:

  • carry out presentations or discussions at team meetings with colleagues
  • prepare presentations and deliver these at national and international scientific conferences
  • write original papers for publication in peer-reviewed medical or scientific journals. In industry, there is usually less pressure to publish.

It's also important to stay in touch with developments and advances in your field and so you should:

  • read relevant scientific literature and journals
  • attend 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.

Salary

  • PhD studentships, which allow you to study for a PhD while also carrying out research work, usually pay a stipend. Research Councils UK (RCUK) suggests a minimum rate of £14,553 for the stipend, but some employers may pay more.
  • With a PhD, you may start on around £25,000 to £40,000 a year, depending on your specialist subject and experience.
  • Salaries increase following this with senior researchers and university professors earning £50,000 to £75,000 a year or more.

Pay is usually higher in industry and the private sector.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are normally 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. However, due to the nature of experimental work, you may need to carry out some evening and weekend work. 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's 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 will be an ethical dilemma for some. See the arguments on the Understanding Animal Research website.
  • Travel may occasionally be required, as you'll often collaborate with other institutions. Some national and international travel is needed for attendance at conferences to present the results of your research. Travel usually becomes more frequent with career progression.

Qualifications

A good honours degree in a medical or life science subject is usually required. Particularly relevant subjects include:

  • biochemistry
  • biomedical sciences
  • genetics
  • immunology
  • medical microbiology
  • molecular biology
  • pharmacology
  • physiology.

Many areas of medical research now also look for graduates in chemistry, physics or statistics/bioinformatics, so you can be successful if you have a degree in one of these subjects.

You'll usually need to have an MSc or PhD, or be working towards one, to secure a position in this field. Career progression without a PhD (particularly in academia) is likely to be limited.

Direct entry to a research scientist role with an HND or foundation degree only is not possible. With either of these qualifications, you may be able to enter at technician level, but you'll need to take further qualifications to become a medical researcher. Some employers may allow you to study while working part time.

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.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • technical, scientific and numerical skills
  • good written and oral communication skills for report writing and presenting findings
  • genuine enjoyment of the research subject
  • a methodical approach to work
  • tenacity and patience when carrying out experiments
  • the ability to work well in teams and to network and forge links with collaborators
  • problem-solving skills and analytical thinking
  • attention to detail.

Work experience

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. Funding for placements and projects may be available through:

Employers

There are various employers in medical research, including:

  • universities
  • 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:

Also try university websites for vacancies.

Specialist recruitment agencies are widely used within the scientific community. These include:

Professional development

You'll need to keep up to date with developments in your field throughout your career and continuing professional development (CPD) is very important for this.

Technical training, either self-taught or from more experienced scientists, will allow you to learn new laboratory techniques. It's also common to visit other labs to be taught techniques that are already established elsewhere.

You will be expected to attend conferences on a regular basis to hear about scientific advances and new research techniques. On occasion, you may be required to present your own work.

Training may be more structured in industry and it may be possible for you to develop your own training programme with guidance from a mentor.

Membership of a professional organisation is useful for support throughout your career and to help with CPD. Many professional bodies have their own learning and training schemes and can help with how your record your CPD activities. You could also work towards professional qualifications or chartered status as you gain experience.

Relevant bodies include:

Career prospects

Career structures vary between sectors. In academia, once you've complete your PhD, it's likely you'll enter a postdoctoral position. These are normally short-term contracts of up to three years.

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'll usually have to undertake a few 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.