What does a research scientist do? (With responsibilities)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Many industries rely on academics, and particularly the hard sciences, to support their innovation. Research science is a rewarding but challenging career that involves laboratory-based analysis and investigation. If you're considering a career as a research scientist, it's important to understand what it's like to work in this position and what the average salary is. In this article, we explore what a research scientist does, what it's like to work as a research scientist and what skills are beneficial in this career.

What does a research scientist do?

Research scientists design, conduct and report on laboratory experiments and trials that investigate a range of interactions between substances, forces and people. Research scientists can work for public sector organisations, including the government and the public healthcare services, or they could work for private companies, including drugs companies and food manufacturing companies. As a research scientist, you can work in almost any area of science, including:

  • chemistry

  • life sciences

  • biology

  • physics

  • meteorology

  • psychology

  • geoscience

  • pharmacology

The work that you do varies depending on which area of science you work in. Within each broad area of research, your work is likely to focus on a particular subject. For example, if you're a research scientist at a pharmacology lab, you might specialise in developing drugs to target a particular type of cancer. If you work for an environmental science company, you may spend your time working on sustainable fuels such as biomass.

Related: How to become a medical researcher

What are the responsibilities of a research scientist?

As a research scientist, your work is often completely laboratory-based. Your daily responsibilities depend on the field of science you work in and who your employer is. You can expect to have a wide variety of experiences even inside the lab. Some of the most common responsibilities of a research scientist might include:

  • planning and designing experiments

  • conducting experiments and recording data

  • analysing experiment data and interpreting the results

  • carrying out fieldwork

  • collecting samples

  • presenting results to other staff members

  • modeling how to carry out certain procedures to other staff members

  • writing research papers and reports

  • supervising junior staff members, including laboratory technicians

  • following strict health and safety guidelines

  • organising tests for product and material testing

  • preparing research proposals to bid for funding

  • collaborating with other research staff

  • teaching and lecturing students

  • reading recent scientific news and developments

  • writing peer reviews of publications and papers

Your responsibilities as a research scientist can vary. For example, some research scientists don't carry out any fieldwork or have any teaching responsibilities. Others spend most of their time in an office analysing data and writing reports. If there are certain aspects of research science that appeal to you in particular, it's important to research the roles you're applying for to make sure they offer the work you want to do.

How much does a research scientist make?

The average salary of a research scientist is £35,843. This figure is an average taken from research scientists working at all experience levels across the country. Like most jobs, your salary as a research scientist depends on your experience, the field you work in and where you work. Some of the highest paying cities for research scientists to work include London, Oxford and Norwich.

On your way to becoming a research scientist, you're likely to undertake lab-based research work during your PhD and other studies. You usually earn a salary for this work, though average salaries for PhD students are much lower than those for fully qualified research scientists. You might also choose to transition from science research to tuition and lecturing, which can offer higher salaries, especially if you gain enough experience to become a senior lecturer at a top university.

Related: 7 jobs in life sciences (examples and average salary)

What's it like to be a research scientist?

Working as a research scientist is mostly lab-based, with some time spent working in an office to write up your results and prepare reports. As a research scientist, you could work for a wide range of different employers in both the public and private sectors. Here are some examples of employers you may work for:

  • government laboratories

  • environmental agencies

  • universities

  • private food companies

  • pharmaceuticals companies

  • utility providers

  • research institutes

  • chemical companies

  • consumer product companies

Your working hours as a research scientist depend somewhat on which sector you work in and who your employer is. Usually, you work core hours of around 37 hours per week, from 9 am to 5 pm, with occasional overtime. Working as a research scientist can be physically taxing and mentally challenging. You may be on your feet for hours every day, with little time to rest. You also wear protective equipment in the lab and follow strict health and safety protocols during each working day.

Many research scientists work on a fixed-term contract, so you're not a permanent member of staff. This is because employers often hire research scientists to work for the duration of a particular project for which there is a limited amount of funding available. Your employment contracts could last for several years. You could also look for permanent posts as a research scientist, which are more common in industry than academia.

What skills do you need to be a research scientist?

To become a research scientist, you undergo formal training and gain qualifications in your chosen field of science, including at least an undergraduate degree and usually postgraduate qualifications, such as a master's degree or a PhD. It's important to possess key skills and personal qualities that help you excel in the lab-based work you're doing as a research scientist, such as:

A logical mind

As a research scientist, it's important that you remain impartial and logical when conducting experiments in the lab. Your time studying for a degree in science can prepare you for this by teaching you how to conduct experiments methodically and without bias. It's important to carry these skills over into your work and to remain detached from the subjects you're studying.

Meticulous attention to detail

This position also requires excellent attention to detail to work as a research scientist. This role involves long hours conducting experiments, recording data and interpreting the results of your experiments. It's important that you're careful to record results accurately with no mistakes when recording and analysing this data, otherwise, the results of your reports could be inaccurate and possibly unusable.

Teamwork

You work in a team with other research scientists daily. Your work might involve collaborating with other scientists on experiments, reporting to senior staff members on the results of your experiments, or even meeting with stakeholders to present the results of your work. Working effectively with others in these settings requires strong communication skills, patience and interpersonal skills.

Technical knowledge

Besides having strong scientific knowledge gained from years of study, this job requires strong technical knowledge of lab equipment and processes. As a research scientist, you know how to operate lab equipment safely. This requires some technical ability and an openness to learning technical skills and operations.

Excellent written communication

While you spend most of your time as a research scientist in a lab, it's also important to have good written skills so that you can compile clear and concise reports on your findings. Strong spelling and grammar skills are essential when writing reports that are to be shared with other science professionals. You may even write reports for a wider audience of non-scientific readers.

Confident decision-making

As a research scientist, you make many tough decisions every day. From the planning stages of an experiment to conducting an experiment and writing up your results, make key decisions by yourself that affect the course of your work. As you gain seniority and experience at work, your manager expects you to make these decisions quickly, which is why decisiveness and confidence in your own abilities are key skills for research scientists.

Networking and relationship building

Most research scientists work on temporary contracts lasting multiple years, often dictated by the amount of funding available to organisations. This means that you're often looking for new positions, and networking is an important part of this aspect of your job. It's important that you have the desire and skills to meet other professionals in your field and connect with organisations and individuals who may one day open up new career opportunities for you.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at the time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organisation‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's‌‌ experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background‌ ‌and‌ ‌location.‌

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