Research Scientist

The Job and What's Involved

Almost every aspect of our lives, from medicine to mobile phone technology, is influenced by the work of research scientists.

They work in a wide range of scientific fields. These include biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, ecology and environmental biology, forensic science, genetics, pharmacology and earth sciences (including geology, meteorology and oceanography).

As research scientists work in so many different fields, their day-to-day duties can vary enormously. Broadly, they may be responsible for:

  • Planning and conducting experiments, analysing results and making predictions based on their findings.
  • Devising and testing ways of applying new discoveries to make things faster, safer, more efficient, cheaper, more effective or more environmentally friendly.
  • Working in the natural world, collecting samples, monitoring environmental factors, such as sea levels or pollution, or studying plants and animals in their natural habitat.
  • Analysing a wide range of substances - from DNA (to help in criminal investigations) to rock samples (to determine whether oil is present).
  • Presenting their findings at conferences or in books and scientific papers.
  • Advising government departments and other organisations.
  • Lecturing, teaching or supervising and training junior staff.
  • Applying for grants and other funding.

Research scientists often work in teams with other scientists, supported by technicians and other support and administrative staff.

Most research scientists work 37 hours a week, Monday to Friday. Some evening and weekend work may be required. Some employers may operate a shift or rota system to provide 24-hour cover.

Work conditions vary from job to job. Many research scientists are based in laboratories, which are usually clean and may require sterile conditions. They may wear protective clothing including coats, gloves, masks, goggles or all-over sealed protective suits. Some jobs involve working outside in all weather conditions.

Some jobs involve working with potentially dangerous substances, such as radioactive material, so it is essential that health and safety precautions are followed at all times.

Scientists may travel within the UK and overseas to carry out fieldwork or to attend meetings and conferences.

A research scientist with a PhD may have a starting salary of around £22,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

About 50,000 research scientists work in the UK. Employers include many different organisations in a wide range of industries, including the pharmaceutical, aviation, communication, bioscience, chemical and automotive sectors. Research scientists are also employed by local and central government, the NHS, universities and environmental organisations. There are opportunities throughout the UK. Competition for some jobs, such as those in research institutes or universities, can be intense.

Vacancies are advertised in the national press and in specialist publications such as Nature, New Scientist, Science and The Times Higher Education Supplement, and on websites such as, and It is also worth checking the websites of individual universities and organisations with research departments.

Education and Training

Most research scientists have a degree, usually at least a 2.1, in a science subject relevant to the field in which they wish to specialise. Entry requirements for a degree course are usually two or three A levels or equivalent, and five GCSE's (A*-C), including science subjects, maths and English. Entry requirements vary widely, so candidates are strongly advised to check with individual colleges or universities.

Many new entrants have a relevant postgraduate qualification, although some may study for a postgraduate qualification as they progress in the job.

Some employers, especially those involved in environmental and conservation work, prefer candidates with some previous experience, such as voluntary work in a relevant field.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Research scientists continue to learn throughout their careers. New ideas and technologies are constantly introduced, and health and safety, legal and ethical requirements change regularly, so it is essential that research scientists keep up to date with developments in their field. They may do this through on-the-job training, by attending seminars and conferences, working collaboratively and reading academic papers.

They may also study for postgraduate qualifications or take exams for membership or fellowship of a relevant professional body.

Some professional bodies offer continuing professional development (CPD) programmes.

Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A research scientist should:

  • Have strong technical and scientific skills.
  • Have an enquiring mind.
  • Enjoy problem solving, generating ideas and creative thinking.
  • Have a logical and methodical approach to work.
  • Work accurately and pay great attention to detail.
  • Be good at teamwork and able to work alone.
  • Have excellent spoken and written communication skills.
  • Be able to explain complex ideas to people with varying levels of scientific and technical knowledge.
  • Have good numeracy and computing skills.

Your Long Term Prospects

Promotion prospects differ from job to job. Some scientists move into more specialist work. It may be possible to progress to supervisory and management roles or, for those working in industry, into fields such as technical writing, sales and marketing. Promotions of this type may involve moving away from hands-on scientific research.

Research scientists working for smaller organisations may need to change employer or relocate to progress in their careers.

In some areas, there may be opportunities to become self-employed or to work overseas.

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Get Further Information

Biochemical Society, 3rd Floor, Eagle House,
16 Procter Street, London WCIV 6NX
Tel: 020 7280 4100

British Pharmacological Society (BPS),
16 Angel Gate, City Road, London EC1V 2PT
Tel: 020 7239 0171

The Genetics Society, Rosline Biocentre,
Wallace Building, Roslin, Midlothian EH25 9PS
Tel: 0131 200 6392

The Geological Society,
Burlington House, Piccadilly,
London W1J 0BG
Tel: 020 7434 9944

Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS),
12 Coldbath Square, London EC1R 5HL
Tel: 020 7713 0214

Institute of Ecology
and Environmental Management (IEEM),
43 Southgate Street, Winchester,
Hampshire SO23 9EH
Tel: 01962 868626

Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST),
5 Cambridge Court, 210 Shepherds Bush Road,
London W6 7NJ
Tel: 020 7603 6316

Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3),
1 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5DB
Tel: 020 7451 7300

The Institute of Physics
and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM),
Fairmount House, 230 Tadcaster Road,
York YO24 1ES
Tel: 01904 610821

The Institute of Science Technology,
Kingfisher House, 90 Rockingham Street,
Sheffield SE1 4EB
Tel: 0114 276 3197

Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC),
Burlington House, Piccadilly,
London W1J 0BA
Tel: 020 7437 8656

Women Into Science, Engineering
and Construction (WISE),
2nd floor, Weston House,
246 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EX
Tel: 020 3206 0408

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