If you are analytical and keen to develop new technologies in telephony, television and the internet, a career in telecommunications research would suit you

As a telecommunications researcher, you will develop knowledge and new technologies across the telecommunications sector. This covers a range of areas including satellite technology, broadband, smart phones and the peripherals relevant to these products.

Your role is about expanding the capabilities of existing and new telecommunications products in what is a fast-growing and advancing industry.

You may carry out research in many areas, including the use of wireless technologies, computer chips, semiconductors, satellite equipment, fibre optics and radio frequencies. You could be working in telephony, television and the internet.

Employers include commercial companies such as the main mobile network and smart phone providers, as well as academic employers. As a researcher, you will be expected to publish and communicate your findings so they can be used within the industry.

Responsibilities

Specific tasks will vary depending on whether you work within an academic or commercial environment, but in general they include:

  • analysing a problem as part of academic research or as part of solution designing for a company's portfolio of services
  • identifying solutions and interpreting results by applying established research methods, by learning and adapting new methods, and by using analytical tools and mathematical and statistical models
  • conducting field work, interviews, laboratory experimentation, critical evaluation and interpretation
  • carrying out computer-based data analysis and evaluation using software such as MATLAB or OPNET
  • conducting numerical simulations or library research
  • working collaboratively with company/university colleagues, across teams and also with other partners worldwide and across industry
  • analysing results and data and drawing conclusions from them
  • writing up original research for publication or for presentation at conferences
  • presenting findings at group and departmental meetings, to design and development teams, collaborative partners, or senior management
  • drawing up research proposals and funding applications
  • reading articles and papers about specific areas of interest in order to keep up to date with technical, scientific and theoretical advancements in your field
  • attending conferences, training seminars and specialised courses
  • in academic posts, lecturing and supervising student projects.

Salary

Salaries vary according to whether you work in the private sector or within academia. Salaries tend to be higher with commercial companies in the private sector.

  • Typical starting salaries for researchers in academia range from £16,000 to £20,000. With substantial experience and working at a senior level, salaries could rise to £55,000. There is a national pay spine for jobs in universities. For details, see University and College Union (UCU). How this is implemented varies locally but it should ensure annual increments.
  • Starting salaries for researchers in industry are in the region of £20,000 to £30,000. This will increase with experience and salaries could reach £60,000 or more.

Securing a higher salary usually involves taking on additional responsibilities including management, teaching and supervisory activities. Where salary is dependent upon securing project funding there may be conditions attached, which may include nationality restrictions and meeting deadlines.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are usually within traditional office hours. Evening or weekend work is rare, although you may have to work longer hours to meet deadlines or when attending a conference. Flexi-time may be available, particularly for roles in academia.

What to expect

  • The majority of telecommunications researchers work in offices or laboratories. Exact work locations will depend on the nature of research and facilities available.
  • Due to the way in which research is funded, there are very few permanent research posts and most are offered as fixed-term contracts. Competition for the permanent roles that do exist is therefore fierce.
  • Jobs are based throughout the UK, although there may be more around university towns or industrial areas.
  • Overseas travel is possible, especially if you work in the commercial sector. Many of the companies involved have their headquarters in other countries but maintain their research facilities in the UK.
  • Many universities work in partnership with overseas businesses or universities, but this varies depending on the organisation and the projects undertaken. There are also opportunities to travel overseas to attend conferences, either as a delegate or to present a paper.

Qualifications

As telecommunication researchers are required to work with certain technologies, you'll need at least an undergraduate degree in this area. The following subjects are particularly relevant:

  • computer science
  • electrical/electronic engineering
  • information technology
  • mathematics/statistics
  • physical sciences
  • telecommunications.

Entry without a degree or HND is unlikely. There may be opportunities for undergraduate researchers who are completing a degree in one of the above fields, but a good degree would then be needed for career progression.

Within industry it may be possible to enter a research role with significant technical work experience rather than higher qualifications, although this is not common.

Some roles, particularly those in academia, require a relevant applied MSc or PhD. This can also help future career development. If you are thinking about undertaking postgraduate study, find out about available funding and studentships at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Search for postgraduate courses in electronic and electrical engineering.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • a strong academic background and qualifications
  • excellent technical understanding
  • an aptitude for mathematics and statistics
  • highly developed IT skills
  • strong written and spoken communication skills
  • practical technical and research skills
  • problem-solving and analytical skills
  • attention to detail
  • creativity and the ability to use initiative
  • excellent project management and organisational skills
  • presentation skills - to present ideas and findings to peers, colleagues and clients
  • the ability to work effectively both in a multidisciplinary team and independently, with minimum supervision
  • drive, patience, enthusiasm and self-motivation
  • commercial acumen and an awareness of the business value of work undertaken.

Work experience

Experience of research, either as vacation work or as an industrial placement, will give you an advantage when applying for jobs. In addition, any work experience that provides you with some of the skills listed above will be useful.

Employers

Telecommunications researchers work in the many different fields that make up the industry. Employers include:

  • cable, satellite and digital television companies
  • mobile and land line telephone manufacturers
  • mobile phone operators
  • organisations involved in deep space communications
  • power transmission firms
  • rail signal engineering companies
  • security companies
  • telephone and broadband network providers.

A large proportion of telecommunication researchers are employed by universities and their research is funded by collaborative partners, which may be commercial companies, government departments or research councils.

A number of small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) also offer opportunities. Some larger organisations work with smaller companies that specialise in particular technical areas.

It may be worthwhile making speculative applications, especially if you have expertise in a specialist or niche area. A list of relevant member companies ranging from SMEs to multinationals, including telecommunications employers is available from techUK.

Search for job vacancies at:

Recruitment agencies increasingly handle vacancies at all levels, particularly for jobs in industry and the commercial sector. Also consider contacting higher education institutions that have dedicated specialised departments working in telecommunications research.

Professional development

If you work in the private sector you will usually follow a structured training programme. This may include an induction period as well as a mentoring scheme. You will learn on the job and will usually be supervised by a more senior member of the team.

It may be possible to study for a Masters or PhD while working, if you don't already have one. Employers are typically supportive of this as it will have an advantageous impact on your daily work. Some will also help with funding.

A PhD typically takes three to four years of full-time study, while a part-time PhD can take significantly longer. One-to-one guidance and support is available throughout the PhD programme from a supervisor, who would usually be an experienced researcher in the field of study. Transferable skills training is now a recognised part of a PhD programme and research students should receive formal training.

As a telecommunications researcher, it is vital to keep up to date with advances in the field and you need to maintain a high level of continuing professional development (CPD). It is therefore likely that you will regularly attend national and international conferences and will often be called upon to present at such events.

Relevant publications, news items and events that help to keep you informed of developments in the industry are available through organisations such as the EPSRC.

If teaching and lecturing are part of the role, you will usually receive training for these responsibilities. Some researchers choose to study for a postgraduate qualification in teaching in higher education.

Career prospects

Career structure varies depending on whether you are working within an academic or industrial setting. Generally, however, advancement is dependent on achieving research goals.

In academic research, a PhD is usually followed by short-term postdoctoral research contracts of up to three years. These contracts depend on the funding available and may be in partnership with commercial organisations or government departments.

Academic promotion usually depends on research achievement, which is measured by the quality and quantity of original papers published, conferences presented to and success in attracting funding. Progress may then be to managerial or lecturing posts and eventually to professor-level posts. Permanent research posts without any administrative or teaching responsibilities are rare.

Within industry, promotion lies in gaining experience of a range of projects, developing expertise and contacts, and taking on greater responsibilities. You will need to manage larger and higher-profile projects and supervise other members of staff. There may be the chance to move into training and staff development.

There are opportunities for self-employment once you have established yourself in a technical specialism and have developed a network of contacts. This usually involves working on one idea and taking it through to development and testing before selling it. This is not usually possible without substantial experience.