If you love finding out about natural phenomena, as well as 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 will 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 will 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 set at the minimum Research Councils UK rate of £14,296 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 £35,000.
  • At a senior level, research scientists can earn £30,000 to £45,000. Salaries at this level vary widely from sector to sector.
  • University professors or researchers with high levels of responsibility, can earn £60,000 upwards.

Larger companies usually pay higher graduate salaries than smaller, specialist employers, although the latter may offer earlier responsibility and opportunities to remain in preferred technical areas.

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. In academia, irregular hours may occasionally be required because of the responsibility for postgraduate students.

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

Part-time work is uncommon, but may be possible via renegotiation of full-time hours with an employer.

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.
  • Early academic posts are likely to be on short-term contracts.
  • Self-employment and freelance work are possible once an area of technical expertise has been developed. Consultancy is possible once you have established a reputation.
  • There is a historical gender imbalance in the physical sciences, with women typically underrepresented. Organisations which promote female talent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics such as WISE, are helping to redress the balance.
  • Jobs are widely available across the UK, but posts related to specialist research tend to be restricted to fewer institutions.
  • It is not unusual to find that posts in a particular specialism arise overseas, so a willingness to work abroad, at least for limited periods, is helpful.
  • Travel within a working day is occasionally necessary, as scientists often collaborate with other departments or institutions, and this may involve some local travel.
  • You may have to travel nationally and internationally in order to attend conferences or carry out fieldwork.

Qualifications

To enter into research in the physical sciences you will 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 a HND only. Research technician posts are available for those with a lower-level qualification, but progression to a full research scientist position would require further higher academic qualifications.

Many employers require candidates to have obtained either a research-based MSc or a PhD, or to be currently working towards one, particularly for the higher level roles. Search for postgraduate courses.

It is possible to work as a scientific researcher with only an undergraduate degree, but your career progression may be limited.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) invests substantial amounts of money each year and funds Masters degrees and PhDs through training grants. For more information on available funding see EPSRC - Funding. To enquire about studentships and other sources of funding, contact universities directly.

If you are 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

Requirements vary according to the particular job role and sector, but in general, you will need to show evidence of the following:

  • technical and scientific skills;
  • analytical skills and a logical approach to problem solving;
  • numerical skills;
  • the capacity to deal with complex issues both systematically and creatively;
  • IT skills and the ability to use computer-controlled equipment;
  • the ability to write reports and papers for publication;
  • teamworking and project management skills;
  • self-motivation and patience;
  • communication and presentation skills.

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.

Some of these sectors only recruit graduates from relevant degrees.

Research and development is not restricted to major companies; small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can also offer excellent careers to scientists.

Many large companies are streamlining their research portfolios and are working with smaller organisations, which specialise in particular technical areas.

Job opportunities may 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 can be a useful source of scientific vacancies. In addition, individual universities and university careers services tend to advertise positions on their own websites.

Professional development

If you are studying for a PhD while being employed in a research post, you will be supported by a supervisor. You are likely to get additional training, which may be offered by the institution or by Vitae, which covers skills to succeed in your PhD and other transferable skills.

If you work at a university you will typically have access to postdoctoral training during the early stages of your career. Vitae provides resources and advice for researchers, including information about career development.

In industry, most employers will offer you training and support to make sure that you are kept up to date with research techniques and new technologies in the field. Some larger industrial employers offer graduate training programmes.

You may also attend external training courses on technical developments and will be expected to keep abreast of developments in your field through independent research. Attending conferences is often expected within the job role.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is important throughout your career and support in this area is provided by Research Councils UK. You can also consider becoming a member of a relevant professional body, which will demonstrate your commitment to your profession as well as indicating a level of competency in your field. Relevant organisations include the:

Career prospects

Career structures vary with each employer, 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 knowledge and practical skills. As experience grows, 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).

Managerial roles are usually reached ten to 15 years after graduation. 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 are 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 progression by developing an international network of people working in the same field.

A number of professional bodies have been licensed by the Science Council to award Chartered Scientist (CSci) status to scientists who meet the required standard. For details and a list of licensed organisations see The Science Council.