african american research scientist looking into microscope

What does a research scientist do and how do I become one?

As a research scientist, you’ll plan and conduct experiments to help expand the canon of scientific knowledge. With limitless opportunities for discovery across a range of high-growth sectors and industries, being a research scientist is one of the most exciting career paths in STEM. 

What does a research scientist do, exactly?

The purpose of a research scientist role is to conduct lab-based trials and experiments.


Work is often divided between pure research, which advances our understanding of basic processes, and applied research, which uses the information gathered to meet targets such as creating new products, processes, or commercial applications.


Of course, your targets will depend on the specialism of your employer. Research scientists work across a variety of different fields, including biology, chemistry, medicine, computer science, environmental science, and even political science.


Responsibilities

Typical day-to-day responsibilities of a research scientist include:

 

  • Creating research proposals
  • Planning and conducting experiments
  • Collecting samples
  • Monitoring experiments
  • Recording and analysing data
  • Collaborating with other researchers and academia to develop new techniques and products
  • Supervising junior staff
  • Carrying out fieldwork and monitoring environmental factors
  • Researching and writing published papers
  • Staying up-to-date with the latest scientific developments

Work environment

As a research scientist, you’ll spend most of your week in a laboratory. These environments can vary depending on your specialism. For example, biology labs are designed to safely house and contain living specimens, while psychology labs may simply consist of a bank of computers.


Aside from lab work, certain aspects of your role (including writing up results or research papers) will be undertaken in an office environment. You may also be required to visit the labs or offices of other researchers or companies, especially if you are collaborating on the same project.


Working hours

Research scientists typically work 35 to 40 hours a week on a 9-to-5, full-time basis. On occasion, you may be required to work overtime or visit the laboratory on weekends to complete certain tasks. That said, most organisations offer flexible working arrangements. 


What skills are needed to be a research scientist?

Though research scientists come in all personality types, you’ll need to have an academic mindset and be naturally inquisitive. Research scientist skills include:

 

  • A methodical approach to gathering and analysing data
  • Meticulous attention to detail
  • Critical thinking
  • Advanced research skills
  • Time management
  • Strong communication and interpersonal skills
  • The ability to work independently
  • A collaborative mindset
  • Stakeholder management
  • Patience and tenacity

How to become a research scientist

As a minimum requirement, you’ll need to obtain a 2:1 bachelor’s degree or higher in a relevant field of science. Most research scientists also have a postgraduate qualification, such as an MSc, an MSci or MBiol. Relevant qualifications include:

 

  • Biochemistry
  • Biomedical science
  • Ecology
  • Environmental science
  • Microbiology
  • Natural science
  • Pharmacology

While a PhD isn’t necessarily required, some employers prefer candidates that either have or are working towards a doctorate. Demonstrable experience of working in a laboratory environment will also improve your employment chances.


Tip: If you’re currently studying or have already attained a relevant degree, try to gain research experience in a lab environment. The best place to start is by expressing your interest to your university department, who may have some voluntary positions available. Alternatively, sending your CV/resume to hospitals and STEM companies will also increase your chances of gaining that vital experience.

 

How much do research scientists earn?

Like many roles in science, salaries for research scientists depend on your level of experience, your specialism, the employer, and, to a lesser extent, the location. It’s also worth bearing in mind that private-sector salaries tend to be higher than those in the public sector or academia.


In the UK, research scientist salaries range from £20,000 at the entry-level to over £70,000 for university professor senior research fellow roles. The average research scientist salary is £32,330. Most research assistants earn between £26,000 and £35,000.


According to Indeed, the average salary for a research scientist in the US is $111,444.


Please note that income figures are subject to economic conditions and are only intended as a guide.


Is research scientist a good career?

With science constantly opening up exciting new avenues of research, working as a research scientist provides secure employment and gives you the chance to make a real difference within STEM.


Indeed, the outlook for the role is positive: in the US alone, the vocation is expected to grow by 8% and produce over 10,000 job opportunities across the country by 2028 (Zippia). As one of the least likely jobs to be automated in the coming years, the role also offers stability in these turbulent times. 


Offering a strong earning potential and the opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research in a range of industries and locations, research scientist represents one of the most fulfilling career paths around.

 


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