1. What time do you start and finish work, and what’s your work environment like?
As a research scientist, your hours are flexible. Sometimes you will need to work late or come in on weekends because of experiments, but because you plan your own experiments in your own time you have the flexibility to choose your own hours. Most of us in London tend to come in later to avoid rush hour, and make up the time by leaving later. You can pop out during the day and make up the ours later. You will decide with your Principle Investigator what experiments will need to be done by when, then it’s up to you to plan your time accordingly.
Working in a lab is very casual, you are all in casual clothes and on first name basis with your boss. Don’t let that fool you, though- the workload can get very intense! You will have your own project that you independently work on within a lab group of similar interests (e.g., I’m in a critical care/trauma group) so that you can collaborate and share knowledge.
2. What might you do in a typical day at work?
I’m a critical care research scientist investigating sepsis and bloodstream infections, and so I collect human blood samples from patients at the hospital. I perform a variety of experiments; I usually separate out the white blood cells, serum and plasma, and do different things to them, for example extract the DNA and look at the changes in the genes, or I can grow the cells and see if they react to different things like normal healthy cells would. Then I write up my results, and I present compelling data at scientific conferences and publish papers on the results. There’s lots of opportunity to travel around the world to present your results at conferences. A lot of us teach Bachelors and Masters students too. There is a lot of non-practical work to do, like reading other published papers to keep up to date with advancements in the field and planning future experiments.
3. What Do You Most Enjoy About Your Job
I love that my research is novel; when you make a new discovery you become the first, and for a while the only, person in the whole world to know what you just found out. Not only that, but what you just found out will help advance the knowledge of your field, and so that small piece of knowledge will ultimately help towards eradicating a horrible and deadly illness. There’s no feeling quite like that.
4. What do you find most challenging about your job?
Funnily enough, the most enjoyable part is also the most challenging. When your work is novel you don’t know what you’re going to find – you have to venture into the unknown armed with what little you know, and there’s no cheat sheet to help you! Experiments will fail and have to be revised, and other people will publish findings that would mean changing the course of your investigation- this is almost guaranteed. You work independently, so you have to rely on yourself to push through in spite of numerous failed experiments under a time pressure, and this takes a lot of personal resilience and strength. You realise just how little you actually know, feeling stupid and ‘imposter syndrome’ are common in new researchers. It’s not for the faint-hearted; only attempt this if you thrive on challenges!
5. What experience and qualifications do you need to do your job, and do you have any advice for current students looking to go into your sector?
First, you will need to get good GCSEs and A Levels in your chosen science subject(s), and you will usually need As and Bs. You will need to go to university to study a bachelors degree in your chosen science subject, here you can either do something broad (BSc Biological/ Biomedical Sciences) or specialise in your field of interest (e.g., BSc Immunology, Neuroscience, Physiology). You should graduate with a 1st or 2:1 honours degree. I then went straight into a PhD, but this is rare and requires a lot of good quality lab research during your undergraduate, so usually people then do a research masters degree, called an ‘MRes’. The MRes is like a mini PhD so you can learn the skills you will require for the PhD, and here you are often paid by stipend and they’re often intercolated with a PhD following afterwards. This is where you join a lab and become a fully fledged research scientist!
After your research masters you do your PhD, this will usually take 3-4 years (but you are paid by stipend) and at the end you submit and defend your thesis. I’m about halfway through mine. After your PhD if you want to stay in academic research you do ‘postdoc’ positions, which are on contracts for a few years at a time, and are similar to the PhD but without the thesis submission. It all takes several years, but although you are technically a student during MRes/PhD you are thought of as an employed researcher (similar to medical ‘junior doctors’).
My best advice is to get as much laboratory research experience as you can during undergrad, because MRes/PhDs are highly competitive. The best ways to do this is to do your BSc in a university that offers a year long industry placement, or over your summer holidays do placements in labs for some experience.