How to become a scientist (plus nine types of scientist)
Updated 7 July 2023
As everyday life continues to modernise with new technologies and processes, scientists are becoming even more important for the future. Governments are actively promoting scientist careers and enabling people from all backgrounds to get into science at earlier stages than ever. As a result, if you want to become a scientist, now is an excellent time to prepare for your career and get the qualifications to stand out in a very competitive industry. In this article, we discuss what scientists do, tips for careers in science, different types of scientist and how to become a scientist step-by-step.
What is a scientist?
A scientist uses scientific methods and approaches to conduct experiments and develop solutions and materials for particular industries. The term 'scientist' embodies a broad range of specific job titles, such as research scientist, laboratory technician and research associate. It also incorporates a wide range of specialisms, such as biomedical, materials and chemical scientists. Many scientists find they work with a wide range of employers in different industries throughout their careers.
How to become a scientist
Careers in science can require a lot of preparation, split between acquiring work experience and obtaining degree qualifications. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to become a scientist:
1. Get a bachelor's degree in science
Becoming a scientist usually begins with getting an undergraduate bachelor's degree in science. Often, institutions divide their science degrees into multiple disciplines, like biology, chemistry, physics, chemical engineering or biomedicine. In other cases, institutions may offer a degree in natural sciences or earth sciences. Decide early on what discipline you would like to specialise in since this may influence the rest of your career. Many scientists find that their degree helps them build the fundamental skills to enter many different industries.
2. Consider taking graduate qualifications for later career development
Higher-level positions such as project manager, research associate and senior research lead are usually restricted to graduates with master's degrees or PhD qualifications. Many scientists find it helpful to take these qualifications earlier in their careers since funding and support are widely available for young students. Alternatively, some scientists can find sponsorship from their companies to complete these qualifications alongside their work, so investigate your options thoroughly.
3. Acquire relevant experience in scientific environments
While degrees take care of your educational background and your theory of knowledge, experiencing science in a professional context is essential to your career. Many universities offer sandwich-years for STEM degrees where you complete a yearlong industry placement, which can be a great way of getting experience early. Internships and placement schemes are also a competitive but advantageous way of getting experience and networking for recruitment opportunities. Companies often recruit directly from internships and sandwich year schemes, so getting involved in these opportunities can often land you a job.
4. Apply to graduate schemes and postdoctoral fellowships
The gateway to jobs with many companies in science is often through graduate schemes, which are exclusive and may only accept as few as two candidates a year. Graduate schemes are a great pathway to becoming a scientist at the end of your bachelor's or master's degree since it offers on-the-job training and professional support. Alternatively, at the end of a doctoral degree in science, you can begin applying for postdoctoral positions, such as junior research fellowships. These posts work similarly to graduate programmes by involving doctoral graduates with research groups and supporting their development for senior roles.
5. Apply to jobs as a scientist
With all these qualifications in place, you can begin to apply for jobs as a scientist on job search boards, company websites and organisations. If your experience with internships and graduate schemes left you dissatisfied with the companies you worked with, consider applying to different types of organisations. Even if you specialised in a certain discipline, applications to other specialisms are often considered on the strength of qualifications if you display sufficient specialist knowledge. Research companies broadly to ensure that you take advantage of every opportunity open to you.
How long does it take to become a scientist?
It isn't easy to define the point when a professional becomes a scientist since you use the scientific method and fundamental theory throughout your career. Suppose you define becoming a scientist as becoming a professional in science. In that case, it can take between three and six years to finish a bachelor's degree and get into the industry as a junior. Alternatively, suppose you define a scientist by obtaining a senior research position. In that case, education to degree level can take between six and nine years, and a junior research fellowship often lasts at least a year before promotion.
Different types of scientist
Since science is applicable in so many different industries, there are many fields in which science students and professionals regularly specialise. Here are some examples of different types of scientists and what materials they handle:
Chemists research chemical structures and develop techniques for the manufacture of substances. They often work in energy, manufacturing or medicine to increase the efficiency of substances in storing energy, healing the body or producing other substances. Chemists also conduct academic work to understand substances and their structures on a fundamental level. Some chemists find themselves working in multiple industries and specialisms since it is very interdisciplinary.
2. Food scientist
The culinary industry and food manufacturing both use food scientists to enhance the flavour and nutrition of their goods. The work that food scientists conduct is also essential for health surveys and investigations. A fundamental aspect of food science is ensuring that food is safe for consumption by humans and animals. Additionally, companies often consult food scientists to establish how to make food quicker, fresher and cheaper to suit the modern market's scale.
3. Forensic scientist
Forensic scientists use science to examine evidence from crime scenes in conjunction with law enforcement for use in law courts. They handle materials such as blood, hair, fibres from clothes, flammable substances, weapons and ammunition. Forensic scientists specialise in analysis and using imaging technology to study evidence on a microscopic level. They also have experience with chemical processes and using physics to model car collisions and bullet trajectories, for example. As a result, it is a very interdisciplinary field of science.
A geoscientist studies the earth's natural processes and develops ways of studying and harnessing them. These range from surveying technology to the exploitation of natural resources such as coal, oil, gas, minerals, water and renewable energy sources. Geoscientists also work with archaeologists and civil engineers to work with excavations or surveys to better understand urban planning and ancient remains.
5. Life scientist
Life scientists study the anatomy, biochemistry and physiology of all life forms. They study the lives and bodies of organisms in relation to their environments and habitats. This often serves the purpose of academic research, but they can also use it to develop products, conduct surveys and determine the viability of projects.
6. Marine biologist
Marine biologists study all aspects of the lives and habitats of marine animals, plants and wildlife. Their research is used to protect and improve the lives of aquatic wildlife, as well as to safely care for animals in captivity and promote sustainable practices at sea. Marine biologists are often involved when other industries cause accidents at sea, such as the destruction of coral reefs or oil spills by the energy industry. Marine biologists can often also spend a lot of time at sea on rigs, in submarines and at marine research laboratories.
7. Materials scientist
Materials scientists are researchers who experiment with materials and investigate the chemical structures of both man-made and natural materials. Companies often employ these researchers to find stronger and more efficient solutions for energy storage, construction and mechanical performance.
Meteorologists are weather scientists who use models and statistical evidence to determine the chances of certain weather formations in the future. Many meteorologists predict the weather both for the general public and for logistical companies such as shipping. Some other meteorologists can be involved more with the study of weather or the development of defences against floods, hurricanes and earthquakes.
Related: How to become a meteorologist
9. Nuclear physicist
Nuclear physicists research radioactive substances and processes and ways of harnessing these processes either for academic purposes, for the energy industry or for defence. Traditionally, nuclear physicists are involved mainly with radioactive isotopes of heavy metal elements that create large amounts of energy in nuclear fission. Increasing research is also being done in nuclear fusion theory and making it sustainable, so nuclear physicists also help to develop technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells.
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