If you're fascinated by natural phenomena and enjoy designing and conducting experiments, a career as a research scientist may suit you

As a research scientist in the physical sciences, you'll study non-living systems to increase the understanding of how the physical world works. Disciplines include:

  • astronomy
  • chemistry
  • geosciences
  • materials science
  • mathematics
  • meteorology
  • physics.

Scientific research involves designing and conducting experiments to collect physical evidence of natural phenomena. This information is analysed to develop practical applications in the creation of new materials and devices. Theoretical researchers use thought experiments to increase knowledge of their subject.

Academic research is increasingly collaborative across all scientific fields and the nature of scientific research means that much of the work involves spending a significant amount of time on joint projects.

Responsibilities

The exact nature of the work depends on whether you are employed in industry or in an academic research setting, but in either case, the work is usually laboratory based.

You'll need to:

  • plan and conduct experiments to investigate and analyse scientific phenomena
  • operate complex instrumentation
  • extrapolate data to develop theories to explain phenomena
  • arrange the testing of products or materials to ensure that they meet quality standards
  • develop new products and ways of applying new methodology
  • develop innovative methods to improve existing products
  • write up results in reports and/or scientific papers or books
  • maintain accurate records of results
  • in industry, ensure that the manufacture of new products and materials can be carried out without problems regardless of scale
  • write applications for funding
  • manage a research team (which may include technicians and support staff), or a group of research students in an academic department
  • collaborate with other scientists, sometimes including scientists from other disciplines
  • carry out fieldwork (collecting samples and monitoring environment)
  • develop specialist skills and expertise
  • work within health and safety regulations
  • teach or lecture students.

All physical scientists must be aware of relevant developments made by other researchers. This may involve keeping up to date through web-based research, reading specialist literature and attending scientific presentations and discussions.

You'll also need to disseminate any new findings at departmental meetings, as well as national and international conferences and by writing papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals.

If you work in industrial research and development, you'll probably be allocated specific projects. In smaller organisations, you may be involved in all stages of production, from concept to delivery to the customer.

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 (UKRI) 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 can achieve salaries ranging from £50,000 to in excess of £75,000.

The majority of academic institutions in the UK follow a single pay spine for all grades of staff. Pay varies according to whether you're the leader of your own research group, part of a team of researchers or whether you've secured a lectureship while continuing your research.

Pay is generally higher in the private sector. Larger companies may pay more than smaller, specialist employers, although these smaller employers may offer earlier responsibility and a broader range of activities.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Research scientists typically work a 37-hour week, although extra hours may be required to meet deadlines and when carrying out experiments. You may work longer hours in academia because of the responsibility for postgraduate students.

Researchers in industry may have to work to fit in with shift patterns and commercial deadlines.

What to expect

  • The work is mostly laboratory based, but may include field work or work in other settings, depending on the nature of the project. Some research can involve working with dangerous or toxic materials, or working outdoors in all weathers.
  • Self-employment and freelance work are possible once you've developed an area of technical expertise. Consultancy is possible once you've established a reputation.
  • Jobs are widely available across the UK, but posts related to specialist research tend to be restricted to fewer institutions. Early academic posts are likely to be on short-term contracts.
  • Due to the collaborative nature of the work, you may need to visit other departments or institutions and need to be willing to spend some time abroad for conferences or to work on a project with other research scientists in your specialism.

Qualifications

To enter into research in the physical sciences you'll need a good honours degree, usually a 2:1 or above, in a related subject.

Relevant subject areas include physical, mathematical and applied sciences, urban and land studies, and engineering. In particular, the following subjects are helpful:

  • astrophysics/physics
  • chemistry
  • computer science/software engineering
  • earth science/geography/geology
  • electronics/engineering
  • materials science/metallurgy
  • mathematics.

Entry is not possible without a degree or with an HND only. Research technician posts are available if you don't have a degree, but progression to a full research scientist position will require further higher academic qualifications.

Many employers require candidates to have either a research-based MSc or a PhD, or to be currently working towards one, particularly for the higher level roles. It's possible to work as a scientific researcher with only an undergraduate degree, but your career progression may be limited. Search postgraduate courses.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the main funding body for engineering and physical sciences research in the UK. For more information on available funding see EPSRC - Funding. To enquire about studentships and other sources of funding, contact universities directly.

If you're planning to do postdoctoral study or to undertake postdoctoral research contracts, you should identify researchers in your fields of interest using directories, scientific journals and your own network of contacts. You can also discuss your research interests with your academic supervisor. Make applications for research degrees early on so that departments have time to apply for funding on your behalf.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • technical and scientific skills
  • research and analytical skills
  • a logical approach to problem solving
  • communication and presentation skills, in order to write reports and papers for publication and to present your research at conferences
  • the capacity to deal with complex issues both systematically and creatively
  • the ability to collaborate with others and work well in a team
  • project management skills
  • the ability to use your initiative and to work alone
  • numerical skills
  • IT skills and the ability to use computer-controlled equipment
  • self-motivation and patience.

Work experience

Pre-entry work experience can be useful to assess your suitability for research work. Some scientific organisations offer summer placements for undergraduate students. Be prepared to make speculative applications as well as applying for advertised positions.

Employers

Physical sciences researchers are employed in universities, government laboratories and industry.

The physical sciences cover a range of disciplines, and there are employers across many sectors of industry including:

  • aerospace
  • chemicals
  • defence
  • electronics
  • energy
  • environment
  • food and consumer products
  • materials
  • pharmaceuticals.

There are research and development opportunities available with national and multinational companies, as well as with small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which can also offer excellent careers to scientists.

Job opportunities may be available through Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs). 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:

Individual companies and academic institutions also advertise vacancies on their websites. Specialist recruitment agencies can be a useful source of scientific vacancies.

Professional development

If you're studying for a PhD while being employed in a research post, you will be supported by a supervisor. You're likely to get additional training, which may be offered by the institution or by Vitae, which supports the professional development of researchers.

If you work at a university you'll typically have access to postdoctoral training during the early stages of your career. In industry, most employers will offer you training and support to make sure you keep up to date with research techniques and new technologies in the field. Some larger industrial employers offer graduate training programmes.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is important throughout your career and support in this area is provided by UKRI. Consider becoming a member of a relevant professional body, such as the Institute of Physics (IOP) or Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) to gain access to training, courses and events.

With experience you may become eligible for Chartered Scientist (CSci) status, which provides formal recognition of your knowledge, experience and professionalism. A number of professional bodies have been licensed by the Science Council to award CSci status to scientists who meet the required standard.

Career prospects

Career structures vary between employers, but career paths tend to be well defined in all sectors and are dependent on achieving research goals.

Initially, scientists in industry work in hands-on functions to increase their knowledge and practical skills. As you gain experience, you take on greater responsibility for projects and begin to manage the work of other scientists, before eventually becoming a project manager or technical director (job titles vary between employers).

You may undertake a senior research role as a specialist, or move into other scientific and commercial functions, including sales, production and marketing. As an experienced researcher, you may progress into consultancy work. Career development in international companies may depend on being prepared to take on projects or secondments overseas.

In academic research, a PhD is usually followed by short-term postdoctoral research contracts of up to three years in length. You may take up advertised positions or apply speculatively to an established scientist with whom you would like to work. These may be based in laboratories worldwide, so willingness to relocate can be helpful for progression.

Academic promotion depends on research achievement, which is measured by the quality and quantity of original papers published. Success in attracting funding will be dependent on the time-consuming process of making funding applications. Progress is then to a lectureship and ultimately to a professor post with management responsibilities. However, this is only possible if you're successful in securing funding for your own research project and group.

Permanent research posts without teaching or administrative responsibilities are rare and highly sought after. You can enhance your career prospects by developing an international network of people working in the same field.