Research work in the physical sciences can range from astrophysics to meteorology and a PhD will be important for your career progression
As a research scientist working in physical sciences, you'll typically specialise in one discipline and will design and conduct experiments to further knowledge in the area and possibly to develop practical applications.
Disciplines are wide ranging and include:
- materials science
If you're employed within industry your research may lead to developments in new materials or technologies. Within academia you can contribute towards emerging theories and will publish reports to share with fellow researchers.
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.
The 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 record, 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.
You'll also need to disseminate your results to others as well as keep up to date with advancements in your field, which means you'll need to:
- read web-based research and specialist literature
- attend scientific presentations and discussions
- share findings from your work at departmental meetings
- give presentations at national and international conferences
- write papers for peer-review and scientific journals (this is less common in industry).
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.
- If you’re doing a PhD and have been awarded a studentship, it will usually come with a tax-free stipend, which doesn’t need to be paid back, to help cover living costs. This is currently at least £16,062 although some may be higher particularly if industry funded or if you’re based in London.
- Research scientists who have completed an MSc, MPhil or PhD typically earn in the region of £25,000 to £40,000 depending on your specialist subject and experience.
- University professors or senior researchers with high levels of responsibility can achieve salaries ranging from £50,000 to in excess of £75,000.
For current details on PhD studentship stipends, see UKRI - Studentships and Doctoral Training.
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.
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 but there may be flexibility in start and finish times.
Researchers in industry may have to work to fit in with shift patterns and commercial deadlines and overtime pay may be offered.
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.
- Initiatives are in place in various sectors to encourage equality, inclusion and diversity within scientific research. UKRI has equality, diversity and inclusion policies and guidance with the aim to create a dynamic system of research and innovation in the UK.
To enter into research in the physical sciences you'll need a good honours degree, usually a 2:1 or above. Relevant subject areas include physical, mathematical and applied sciences, urban and land studies, and engineering. In particular, the following subjects are helpful:
- computer science/software engineering
- earth science/geography/geology
- materials science/metallurgy
Many employers also require you to have either a research-based MSc or a PhD, or to be working towards one, particularly for higher-level roles. You may be able to study for the postgraduate qualification part time while also working in your research role. Search postgraduate courses.
If you have a foundation degree or HND only, you may be able to enter at a technician level but further study would be required in order to progress beyond this point.
Funding is made available to research institutions via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) which is part of UKRI. This is then passed on to students in the form of scholarships, bursaries and studentships. Contact the individual institution to find out more about the funding options.
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.
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.
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.
Pre-entry work experience can also be useful to assess your suitability for research 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.
Some scientific organisations offer research-based summer placements for undergraduate students and you may also be able to get work experience in a university research department. Be prepared to make speculative applications as well as applying for advertised positions.
Postdoctoral research experience is useful, and usually essential, for academic posts.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
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:
- food and consumer products
There are research and development opportunities available with national and multinational companies, as well as with small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Job opportunities are also 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 graduates and postgraduates 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.
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, an organisation 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. You'll be expected to attend conferences on a regular basis to hear about scientific advances and new research techniques. On occasion, you'll be required to present your own work.
In industry, most employers will offer you training and support to make sure you keep up to date with developments 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.
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.
Find out how Jaz became a research scientist and PhD student at BBC Bitesize.