60: How to become a scientific researcher

The news seems to be full of scientists lately. Scientists developing vaccines and trying to understand how COVID 19 is spread, scientists commenting on the extent and issues related to climate change, scientists finding gases on mars and discovering new species in the Amazon. What really is a scientific researcher though, and how do you become one? Well, becoming a scientist is a trickier process than you might expect.

This week we will explore the many years involved in training to be a scientist, the roles you can have once you are a professional, how science is shared with the world and how funding and supervisors can be very influential on the research that scientists do. Though scientific research is international in nature, many of the finer details of all this do vary between countries. I’m writing from a mostly from a UK perspective but have tried to mention some of the differences, and though job titles and exact specification can vary slightly, all scientific researchers generally will follow these broad pathways. With that said, let’s begin!

Here is a stock photo of some scientists doing some sciencing

Undergraduate Student

After high school, the first step to becoming a researcher, other than a curious nature and an interest in learning, is university. For some there may be a quick detour to college to boost grades or for mature students to refresh some knowledge. Note that what college is varies between countries, from being the end of high school to a separate institution for vocational training.

The first step once in university is the Undergraduate or Bachelor’s degree. This is usually a broad degree, for example in biology, chemistry, environmental science etc…. It teaches you the basics, so for a biologist you’ll learn about cells, physiology, animal behaviour, ecology as well as basic lab and perhaps fieldwork skills, and probably some form of statistics so you know how to process data to see if it is meaningful.

You can stop a degree here with a BSc (Bachelors of Science, BA or Bachelors of Arts is for humanities subjects). Alternatively, you can go on to a Bachelors with Honours. This is pretty useful if you want to do research, as to get the Honours you need to write a dissertation. This is a piece of research, sometimes called a thesis depending on where you are, which is done and written about by you. You have a supervisor who guides you and often gives the original idea for the project, but you do all the practical work. To do this you:

  • Develop your question e.g. how do muscles respond to sugar, or how does an orchid respond to an increase in temperature?
  • Test your question with an experiment in a lab or fieldwork e.g. putting orchids in a range of temperatures
  • Collect data, so note down your methods and the impacts of your experiment on the orchid
  • Analyse this data with your recently learned statistical skills (some orchids wilted whilst others didn’t, did enough wilt for it to be significant?)
  • Collect your results and put them in pretty graphs
  • Write the whole process up in what is somewhere between a massive essay and a tiny book.

This dissertation gets submitted and checked to see if it is robust, accurate science. If so congrats, you now have a BSc(Hons). At this point it’s not really about whether you’ve done ground-breaking science, rather have you learned the process of doing a scientific project. An undergraduate degree can range from 3 years to infinity. In some countries the length is set at 3 or 4 years, but in others it’s up to you to take the classes at your own pace.

An undergraduate degree is mostly spent listening to lectures, getting a basic theoretical understanding of your subject, as well as learning some practical skills. (Picture: University of Canterbury, New Zealand)

Postgraduate Student

Next up comes the Masters degree (MSc, or MA). This can be a taught or a research masters. A taught masters has some teaching and then a research project, whilst a research masters is just research, perhaps with one or even 2 projects. These research projects are often a bit bigger and longer than undergraduate ones, and often are a small section of a wider piece of research being done by professional scientists at the university who are supervising you. This often takes one or two years. You can get more involved in this research, and might have more resources to do bigger cooler projects than at undergraduate level, for example you might have access to more specialised equipment or get to go abroad for fieldwork.

The final part of being a student is the Doctorate in Philosophy, more commonly known as a PhD. This varies a lot depending on country in terms of length and expectations. In the UK you have 3 or 4 years to do one very large research project, at the end writing a thesis (like a dissertation but in the UK called a thesis at this stage). Either you come up with your project totally yourself, or together with your supervisors. Though you will have 2+ supervisors who will know a lot about your field, throughout your PhD you will become the world expert in your particular area, whether this penguin feathers, skin grafting or digital mapping of underwater caves.

When your thesis is finally written, an established scientist in your field of research will read your thesis, and then you will have to defend it. Your thesis is basically a scientific argument as to why the answer to your question is right, and can run into 100,000 words. Your ‘opponent’ will ask you questions on your science- why did you study it this way and not that? What about this potential influence that you didn’t mention in your work? Could there be another cause? Etc… If your thesis is sound and you pass your thesis defence, congrats! You’ve got your PhD, can call yourself Doctor and have now graduated from being a science student.

In other countries like the US you’re expected to get some of your own funding (more on that in a bit) and do some teaching during your PhD. In parts of Europe e.g. Sweden you’re expected to publish some scientific papers during your PhD (more on papers later too). The expectations and time periods vary from place to place as well as depending on your supervisors. Even the thesis defence can vary, with it being private in some countries and public in others. In countries where teaching, getting funding and publishing work aren’t mandatory however, it’s often done anyways. Despite all these differences, if successful, all students come out with a PhD at the end.

Graduation traditions vary by country too. For example in Finland on graduation day you get a top hat and a sword!

Being a professional researcher

Most people leave academia after getting a PhD, going into a variety of jobs. Some invented a new drug during their PhD so will start up a company to sell it, others will work as scientists for various companies e.g. testing water quality, or will get involved in scientific policy and writing. All this may also happen after an undergraduate or masters degree too. Some will leave science altogether. This is partly because not everyone wants to go into research, and partly because it start to get pretty competitive with lots of people wanting very few jobs.

The first official job after a PhD in the research route is doing a Post Doctorate, usually called a Post Doc. You’re hired on a temporary contract between 1-3 years to help do a project. You’ll work at a university or research institute under a supervisor, often as part of a larger project doing your section of it, though sometimes your work is stand-alone. You don’t have to write any kind of dissertation, but are expected to publish papers on your work.

Normally people will do a few post docs before they can land a permanent position. This has a lot of benefits, getting to be involved in a range of projects in a variety of research institutions, sometimes in many different parts of the world. It gives you the chance to develop a range of skills and to feel out where the gaps in science are and where your particular area of interest lies. It also has downsides- instability, having to move where the jobs are, and often being tied to what your supervisor wants to research rather than what exactly sparks your interest, though all this depends on your supervisor. Word of advice, whether as a student or postdoc, your supervisor can make or break your research experience with personality-compatibility and work style, so make sure you choose wisely. You are after all working very closely with this person/people for many years.

After a post doc, things gets a little confusing again. In the UK the research and teaching pathway goes Assistant Lecturer, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor. All these roles do some amount of teaching and some amount of their own original research, as well as supervising undergraduate and postgraduate (Masters and PhD) research projects. The rank is based on experience, and volume and quality of work produced. You can also follow just a research pathway, this being Research Assistant, Research Fellow, Senior Research Fellow, Reader, Professor, or just a teaching pathway from Teaching Associate, Teaching Fellow, Senior Teaching Fellow, Principle Teaching Fellow to Professor. You don’t necessarily get stuck on a pathway and can starting on one pathway later swapping to another. In other countries the exact requirements and titles vary a little, but it all follows this general route.

With each increase in rank your potential research opportunities and paycheck grows but so do your responsibilities, tightening your time and therefore leading you to rely more on the students and staff you supervise carrying out your ideas. They often carry out the practical side of the research you’re interested in, giving them learning experience and degrees, and you get the broader data and results publishing papers together with them.

By the end of it all this you may reach the position of professor, or may stop happily at one of the other ranks. It really depends on what you want out of the job, which aspects you enjoy, and what kind of responsibility you want to have.

Getting a permanent position can take time…

Publishing

There are two very important aspects of this whole process that should also be mentioned, these being publishing and funding. When doing research, the ideal is to be able to write scientific papers from it. A paper is basically a very condensed thesis of a part of your work, showing the question you asked, the way you went about testing it, and the result you got. You submit your scientific paper to a scientific journal, and if it is accepted and published, it is out in the world for people to see. This means other scientists can see and learn from it, and it has the potential to influence policy, healthcare, environmental rules etc… as well as furthering our understanding of the world. Before publishing it is usually carefully checked by other researchers in your field to make sure it is good quality and accurate science. Once published people can use this knowledge to inform their own research too. Publishing is taking your work from being your own interested questioning to allowing it to impact the wider world.

For better or for worse, a scientific career is made on publishing. You may publish something during your masters, and hopefully do in your PhD. After that your ability as a scientist and researcher is measured on the volume and impact of the work you publish. Certain journals are harder to get into than others, accepting only the most ground breaking research, so if you get one paper into them it can be a bigger achievement than getting multiple papers into more obscure journals.

The exact format of publishing is the same internationally but expectations do vary by discipline. Anthropologists may put more weight on publishing books than papers, computer scientists care more about publishing and sharing their work at a conference, whilst biologists focus on publishing in academic journals. Being involved in getting your research out there in other ways is also praised, whether this is Professor Nick Aston’s involvement in the archaeological TV programme Time Team,  popularising science for the nation, Professor Richard Dawkins’ books on evolutionary biology and genetics used by many biology students, and Professor Alice Roberts who has popularised osteoarchaeology and early human history through books and TV programmes.

There are many different journals, in many different disciplines, some more specialised than others. The two biggest, the holy grail of the publishing world are called ‘Science’ and ‘Nature’.

Funding

The final essential thing to be aware of is funding. As a Bachelors and Masters student you are generally self-funded, though often with the help of student loans and scholarships. As a permanent member of staff, you will be under the payroll of the University or scientific institution for which you work. However, even when paid by a University, scientists and researchers have to get funding if they are to pay for post doc students to supervise, and pay for the equipment and travel required for research to be done. This isn’t just pennies; it can involve having to get grants of up to many millions of pounds. If you’re researching life in space or at the bottom of the ocean, or even lab work at home that requires extremely specialised equipment, it’s not cheap. PhDs can be either self-funded or a supervisor may have funding to pay a stipend (sort of a salary but not quite).

How do you get grants and funding? Often it involves a bit of give or take. You might apply to the government for funding, and if they think your project is better than the others applying, and is in some way beneficial to the country, they may give it to you e.g. developing an engine that is more eco-friendly so will help the UK hit environmental goals. You might apply to a company or trust with interest in your research area, e.g. researching drugs that a pharmaceutical company can patent and sell, or studying the conservation of an animal that is of interest to a specific wildlife trust. You may even have companies approach you if they want you to do a certain kind of research for them, for example pharmaceutical companies interested in producing a COVID 19 vaccine asap.

These kinds of grants can be great, it’s a way of getting money to do often essential science. However, it can be tricky too if those who are funding you have different ideas for the project than you do. After all you have to go along with the funding body if you want the money. For example, you may want to study the mountains in a landscape whilst a defence ministry wants you to map a landscape so they can find secure hiding locations. There may be a bit of push and pull on how much time you spend sampling alpine plants like you want to, and how much time you spend testing if a spot is visible from the air which is what they care about. Also, you might not be allowed to publish some bits of sensitive work. Some other funding bodies have less strings attached, general scientific grants and funds for unusual projects that want to encourage science but don’t particularly want a specific benefit from it.

Science funding sources in the US in 2017 (Source: NSF)

So how do you become a scientist? Well, all along the pathway explored above science is being done and published, so technically from masters/PhD onward you are a scientist.

Being a scientific researcher can be a wonderful career, investigating the things that interest you whether it’s finding ways to solve eczema, understanding dolphin behaviour or working out how climate change will affect various parts of our natural world. It allows you to be part of an international community of people eager to understand and learn about your area of interest. This work can go on to change lives, affect policy of companies or countries, and advance human understanding. It’s a long journey to get to a permanent position, but it can be incredibly fulfilling once reaching it. For those who find their passion elsewhere, even some training in science can help them become better at investigating the world and understanding where our current knowledge of it comes from.

Music: kongano.com

Cover Image: Scientists from the Berkley Lab

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