- Types of scientist
- What do scientists do?
- Scientist career path
- Scientist salaries
- Qualifications and training
- Scientist skills
- Pros and cons of being a scientist
- Work-life balance of a scientist
- Typical scientist employers
- Related jobs
Do you have an inquisitive mind? Do you enjoy using methodology and conducting experiments to uncover the secrets behind the world as we know it? If you have a passion for investigation then a career as a scientist could be for you.
Does a career as a scientist intrigue you? Explore science and research graduate opportunities.
Types of scientist
Scientists are often put into two categories: those who work in research on developing projects in the lab, and scientists who have specialised in a particular area. Here are some careers you could explore in each area:
- Maths. Research mathematicians undertake research into a variety of pure and applied maths theorems, such as proving theories, developing models to explore various phenomena and using mathematical principles to look for trends in various sets of data.
- Medical. Research scientists in this area are focused on exploring ways to prevent, or diagnose and manage all sorts of diseases and human conditions, often on a molecular level, as well as developing drugs and clinical products.
- Life sciences. Scientists in this area are more focussed on a much wider range of study - developing products or commercial applications for areas such as biotechnology, oncology and physiology.
- Climate. These scientists analyse how the Earth’s climate is evolving and the knock on effects for our future.
- Consumer. Consumer scientists investigate the behaviours and motivations behind people's spending habits and then provide targeted feedback for companies on how to navigate the consumer industry.
- Forensic. Working in courts of law, forensic scientists investigate and prepare physical evidence to determine facts at criminal hearings.
What does a scientist do?
Scientists are engaged in the pursuit and discovery of knowledge through coming up with theories and then investigating them with testing. Regardless of what area you may specialise in, there are certain tasks and responsibilities that all scientists are required to undertake. Here are some examples of what working as a scientist day-to-day may look like:
- Researching, developing and testing a theory - this may look like conducting interviews, writing applications to funding bodies, working with technicians in the lab and recruiting and briefing test subjects.
- Designing and constructing instruments to help test your theories.
- Collecting and analysing data to see what conclusions can be drawn.
- Keeping up-to-date records of your process and your results.
- Creating models to help demonstrate the effects of your findings.
- Presenting results to companies and organisations who want to use your data, or giving evidence in court.
- Writing original papers for publication in scientific journals.
Scientist career path
Your career path as a scientist will be shaped by the type of scientific research or specialism you’re working in. Most of the work undertaken by scientists at entry-level will be laboratory-based - often working as a lab technician under a senior scientist to learn the ropes of conducting scientific research. Many scientists start their careers while they are in the process of studying for a PhD and, in this case, you will have a supervisor who can support you through your studies. As well as support from your higher education institution, research scientists can receive additional training and guidance from organisations like Vitae which are there to support the professional development of scientists in the early stages of their careers.
As you progress in your career you’re likely to take on added responsibility in managing and supervising trials and projects yourself, with a small team of lab technicians who answer to you. If you are a research scientist, career progression can depend on the number of original research papers you publish and how skilled you are at securing funding for your department.
At the peak of their careers, scientists often go on to specialise as consultants, move into management or senior researcher positions, or go into education such as placements as professors at higher education institutes.
Throughout your career, it can be useful to seek support from different professional bodies which provide support for scientists looking to progress. Depending on your specialism, bodies such as ICMS, IMA, the Isaac Newton Institute, the Institute of Physics and RSC can provide additional qualifications and help contribute towards chartered status for scientists looking to progress their careers.
- For research scientists who have completed their PhD, salaries can start at £25,000 rising to between £50,000 to £75,000 for senior researchers and university professors.
- Climate and consumer scientists can expect to start on a salary of approximately £20,000 and rise to £55,000 as their career progresses.
- Forensic scientists, on average, enter the career on £18,000 and may earn as much as £45,000 later down the line.
Qualifications and training
Reaching the right qualification level and having great experience helps you secure a job in the scientist career path you want. Here is an idea of the education and training that you need to succeed:
In general, scientists are expected to have a degree in a science-based subject like chemistry, biology, or physics. However, depending on the area of science you hope to go into - there is a wide range of university subjects that are also accepted. Here is a breakdown of some of the different areas of science and the other degree subjects employers look for:
- Maths research scientist: Mathematics, physics, statistics
- Medical research scientist: Biomedical sciences, biochemistry, pharmacology, genetics
- Life sciences research scientist: Ecology, environmental biology, natural sciences
- Climate scientist: Geography, environmental science, oceanography
- Consumer scientist: Consumer studies, food and consumer product management, food science or technology, psychology, marketing
- Forensic scientist: Medical sciences, criminology
For all of these areas, a good quality degree of 2:1 or above is sufficient, however, for some research roles, employers will also be looking for a PhD or research-based MSc either underway or completed.
However, a degree is not always required for entry-level roles in this sector, as you can complete a research scientist or laboratory scientist degree apprenticeship. Similarly, for careers in forensic science, it is also possible to gain employment through an apprenticeship. Information on getting into a career in forensic science can be found at The Chartered Society of Forensic Scientists.
For scientific careers, work experience can help provide essential technical and laboratory training to help you secure a full-time position. It’s also worth noting that some employers actually favour recruiting applicants from their own work placement schemes. Some of the relevant degree courses needed to become a scientist already include time in industry, which could be a few months or even a year during the third year of your course where you might work for an organisation. But having some work experience in addition to this is a good idea and that’s where internships can be really useful. Many top firms offer internships during the summer aimed at university students. Take a look at currently available science and research internships.
In addition to searching for advertised internships, networking with existing employees in the company you want to work with can be a fantastic route in. Here is our bright advice for networking successfully.
Education is an important building block on the road to securing your career as a scientist, but it is also important to consider the skill set required for the job. Here are some of the hard and soft skills that you need to flourish in your career as a scientist:
- Lab skills. Regardless of the area you specialise in as a scientist, you will likely need technical skills for the safe and efficient running of a lab. This is because testing and analysis underpin all careers as a scientist - so it is essential you have at least some experience working in a lab and conducting scientific experiments.
- Specialist skills. Some roles will require specialised skills in the area you’re working in. For example, a forensic scientist will need a degree of legal knowledge and understanding whereas a maths research scientist will be expected to be comfortable solving complex mathematical equations.
- Research. To become a scientist, you will need the ability to carefully analyse and process large amounts of data.
- Problem-solving. A proactive approach to thinking through challenging problems is important for a career as a scientist. Take this Bright Network Academy creative problem-solving module to improve your skills.
- Verbal and written communication. These skills are essential for working within a team on a project or for publishing scientific research.
- Attention to detail. Scientific discovery often relies on the smallest of details to prove a hypothesis to be true, and results are only valid if every precaution and measure has been taken into account.
- Patience. Often, there is a long period of time between designing a study, conducting it and writing up the results. Scientists have to accept their endeavours are often a drawn-out process.
Pros and cons of being a scientist
A career as a scientist can be hugely rewarding, however, it’s hard work and not suited to everyone. Here are some pros and cons to help you consider whether the scientific path is the right one for you:
- Working as a scientist can be rewarding as you’re part of something bigger - pushing the frontiers of knowledge, and often working to make positive change in the world.
- Designing experiments and discovering new theories is exciting and creative.
- As you progress through your career, the hours are likely to become more flexible as you determine when and how you choose to carry out your research.
- There is huge room for specialisation and becoming a world-leading expert in your area of expertise. This can lead to publishing your own work, giving speeches and teaching others, and travelling to other parts of the world for conferences.
- Specialising can offer very high rates of pay as you excel in your career.
- Becoming a scientist means being part of a worldwide community of like-minded people - you can connect with people all over the world who share your passions.
- Working hours can be very long - sometimes long days and working on weekends are required to meet deadlines and carry out complicated testing.
- Although there is potential to earn a lot later on in your career, entry-level jobs are sometimes underfunded by research departments, and you are often not paid for overtime work.
- The nature of scientific testing means that it can be competitive between different departments and projects when trying to secure funding. It can also be very frustrating when a lengthy project comes to an end and you discover the results are not what you expected or are unusable.
Scientist work-life balance
If you’re working in a particular area of science for an organisation, say as a climate scientist or consumer scientist, your hours are more likely to be the standard 9 to 5. However, as mentioned above, research scientists often work overtime hours when conducting tests and that can have an impact on your work-life balance. If you are a scientist working in industry, your hours may be affected by important deadlines or the shift patterns of your team.
As there is a wide variety of scientist careers available, there are many different types of employers looking to take you on. Below is an idea of the types of companies that have positions for entry-level scientists: