How Do I Become a Research Scientist?

Research scientists work in many different fields, developing products and making new discoveries that enhance the lives of people all around the planet. Find out how to become a researcher, the fields you might work in, common research scientist degrees, and more. Schools offering Engineering & Technology Management degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Are Research Scientists?

Research scientists are professionals, highly educated in a particular area of science, who perform research with the intent of learning more about the world, developing products or strategies, or providing useful data to large organizations. Researchers can work in almost any branch of science, from biology and medicine to computers, astronomy and physics. The work that research scientists produce undergoes a process known as peer review, where other experts in the field examine their research and attempt to determine its validity. Research is often published in research journals, which are mostly read by other scientists in the field, who may attempt to improve upon or even disprove the hypotheses and conclusions contained therein.

Research Scientist Education Requirements

Research scientists need at least a bachelor's degree to begin their careers, although most fields strongly prefer, or even require, graduate-level degrees to perform research. Bachelor's degrees typically take four years to complete and are generally required before entering into a graduate program. Master's degrees are usually able to be completed in two to three years, while doctoral degrees (Ph.Ds) take four to five years on average. Ph.D.s in science almost exclusively lead to research careers. Because research scientists can study in any number of scientific disciplines, it's difficult to generalize what is covered in an academic program, but topics common to most fields of study include:

  • Advanced mathematics courses
  • Teaching skills (graduate students often teach undergraduate courses)
  • Writing for grants and research papers
  • Presentation of research (public speaking, etc.)

Earning a master's or Ph.D. is a lengthy process, which often culminates in a dissertation or thesis paper; graduation from the program rests heavily upon these. Ph.D. students, in particular, are tasked with performing original research during their time as a student, and their progress towards this goal is monitored by advisors and faculty. A Ph.D. program typically includes a defense of the student's research before a board of expert faculty and advisors; successfully defending this research is critical to earning the degree.

Research Scientist Career Options

What career options are available to you as a research scientist will be strongly affected by your chosen field, but careers in science can be broken down into two basic categories: industry and academia.

Industry

Industrial research scientists work for large corporations, attempting to develop new and better products. They might conduct research testing new medical drugs, or try to develop improved pesticides that are less harmful to the environment. Career progression in industrial positions usually follows the same track as other corporate jobs, with promotions resulting in greater responsibilities and management of groups.

Academic

Academic research scientists typically work for universities or government agencies. Their research may or may not have direct usefulness when it comes to the creation of new products, but often provides highly valuable data for humankind. Most (though not all) research scientists at universities also work as professors, teaching classes a few days a week while attending to their research the rest of the time.

The required education for professors to teach at a university is usually a Ph.D. Research scientists in academia may need to seek funding for their research by writing grant proposals to organizations, attempting to convince them of the value of their research. As professors, they often advance by becoming more senior, until finally obtaining tenure.

Research Scientist Salary Information

While research scientist salaries can vary substantially depending on experience, field, and whether they are in academia or industry, the website Payscale.com lists the average salary for research scientists at $78,884. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles median annual salary data for scientists based on field, with computer and information research scientists having the highest; median pay in 2018 reported was at $118,370. Agricultural and food scientists had the lowest, coming in at $64,020 as of 2018; this may be due in part to the fact that food scientists require only a bachelor's degree. The category of post-secondary teachers, which includes professors, had a median salary of $78,470, although again the pay can vary based on the field.

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