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Science R&D | The Careers Service Science R&D – Oxford University Careers Service
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About this sector

Many scientists are drawn towards using their subject directly in a hands-on scientific role. Scientific R&D takes place in a wide range of settings – university departments and industry, government departments and agencies, research institutes funded by charitable trusts or research councils, and in hospitals. As a scientist you might be undertaking fundamental research, developing the technologies of the future, making scientific ideas a commercially viable reality, developing and refining manufacturing processes, or innovating medical solutions. The possibilities are endless.

Many, but not all, scientific R&D roles require a PhD. For information about applying for a PhD, or a research-based masters course please see the information on postgraduate study.

Our information on Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology, Environmental work, Energy, and Engineering covers careers for scientists in those sectors.

Research roles in universities are covered in Academia and Higher Education.

For roles in science outside R&D see Science Alternatives.

Types of job

There are R&D jobs in both the private and public sectors, in the UK and overseas. Employers are likely to include the research arms of large industrial and multi-national firms, universities, and small to medium-sized ‘hi-tech’ and ‘biotech’ enterprises (SMEs). There are also opportunities to work for government departments, e.g. the Ministry of Defence or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or agencies, e.g. the Environment Agency or Food Standards Agency or for healthcare providers such as the NHS.

For career ideas using your particular subject the relevant professional body (for example Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry, Institute of Biology) can be a useful source of information and inspiration. The main ones are under external resources below. Think also about where your interests and strengths as a scientist lie. The article 10 Types of Scientist by Diana Graham provides a thought-provoking overview of the types of role that scientists take.

University research

A research career in a university could offer the opportunity to pursue your own research, to work collaboratively and to teach. Progression is unlikely without a PhD, and the academic job market is characterised by short-term contracts for those early in their career, and intense competition for permanent positions. See our information on Academia and Higher Education for more details.

Research Institutes and Government agencies

A career in a research institute or government agency might give you the opportunity to pursue your research interests without the teaching and administrative load associated with academic posts. The availability of opportunities varies according to subject. They include:

  • Government departments either via the Science & Engineering Civil Service Faststream (see below) or with the Defence Science & Engineering Group (DESG) in the Ministry of Defence
  • Government agencies
    eg. Dstl (Defence Science & Technology Laboratory), Environment Agency, Public Health England, Government Operational Research, MetOffice and many more. Full list here.
  • Institutions associated with charities, most commonly relating to healthcare
    The Association of Medical Research Charities as a useful directory. Examples include Cancer Research UK, Wellcome Trust and the British Heart Foundation.
  • Institutions funded by research councils
    eg. Culham Centre for Fusion Energy

Civil Service Faststream – Science & Engineering

This option is open to people with degrees in science, engineering, mathematics, computing or other numerate disciplines. Science and Engineering Fast Streamers play an essential part in the government’s action on issues as diverse as climate change and nuclear non-proliferation. Note that this programme is not about operating as a bench scientist or a technical engineer: it is about applying systematic analysis and your confidence handling technical issues and knowledge to the development and operational application of policies. See our information on the Government and Public Administration, and visit the main Science & Engineering Faststream website for the latest information.

Industrial research and development

An industrial research career could allow your scientific work to lead to commercial applications. Timescales can be much shorter than in academic institutions, and you may see a more immediate impact or use of your work. However, commercial considerations may lead to scientifically interesting projects being abandoned. Many large industrial companies recruit new graduates into science roles. There may also be opportunities in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in areas such as biotechnology. PhDs are viewed favourably by most, and may be a necessity for more specialist companies and roles. See our information on Energy, Environmental Work, Engineering, Computing and IT, and Pharmaceutical & Biotechnology for more on those sectors, and meet a wide range of employers at the Science, Engineering & Technology Fair held each Michaelmas Term.

Hospitals

For those interested in medical science, a hospital setting can also offer a rewarding career in scientific areas such as microbiology, clinical biochemistry, neuroscience, clinical engineering or medical physics. The NHS Scientist Training Programme  provides three years of workplace-based training with an NHS Trust in England alongside a Masters degree in your chosen specialism. There are nine themed pathways: microbiology; blood sciences; cellular sciences; genetics; neurosensory sciences; cardiovascular, respiratory & sleep sciences; gastrointestinal physiology & urology; clinical engineering; and medical physics. Information is also available on the training opportunities for clinical scientists in Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Science R&D around Oxford

Oxfordshire is a hub for companies specialising in biotechnology and in space science in particular. Many science firms cluster around the Oxford Science Park on the southern edge of the city, at Begbroke Science Park to the north and on the Harwell Campus in south Oxfordshire. As well as a number of large companies, the county attracts many small and medium-sized science and technology firms, many of which are spin-outs from university research.

Entry points

As a recent graduate there are a range of dedicated graduate programmes at large firms or entry level positions with smaller organisations.

Is a PhD required?

You do not necessarily need a PhD to work in R&D. However, if you want to be involved as a ‘team leader’ of chemists, biologists, physicists, etc, in a multidisciplinary project team, directing the development of a research idea, then you should seriously consider doing a PhD. Likewise, if you wish to stay in academia as a researcher, a PhD is virtually essential to demonstrate your academic credibility to your peers. In many organisations and industries it can prove very difficult to progress within R&D to junior management positions without a doctorate. This is particularly the case in the major pharmaceutical companies, but there are exceptions, so it is important to check employer expectations/requirements at an early stage. In other sectors the likelihood of progression without a doctorate may vary, even between different areas of the same company. If you do decide to do a PhD, choose a relevant research topic, e.g. synthetic organic chemistry for the chemist wishing to work in the pharmaceutical industry.

Engineers wanting to work in research, design and development will not find a PhD essential; on-the-job experience and training count for much more.

Is it possible to do an on-the-job PhD, or after a period of employment?

In some companies and government labs it is possible to submit a thesis based on your paid employment for an external PhD. However, it should be realised that you can be at the mercy of changed company objectives and modified research policies, which could prevent you concluding a promising research topic and your PhD in company time. The Knowledge Transfer Partnership, in association with some companies and universities, operates a scheme that gives recently-qualified graduates and postgraduates a chance to work in a challenging role in industry with an emphasis on developing core business skills and (where appropriate) the opportunity to undertake a relevant further degree.

It’s common to do a further degree having worked in R&D for a while: a period in R&D enables scientists to make their mark in an organisation fairly rapidly, and at the same time to look around at other functions for which their talents may be suited. Moving from university to an R&D post, whether in manufacturing industry or government labs, is much less of a step into the unknown than many other career options followed by Oxford graduates.

 

 

Skills and experience

Working in R&D involves research and problem-solving skills, painstaking analysis, technical ability and teamwork. The ability to think innovatively can also be important. Good communication skills are also key. Often progress is slow, so patience, self-motivation and resilience are also useful attributes.

Summer internships in industry

A wide range of organisations recruiting into R&D provide opportunities for work experience for undergraduates in the summer holiday, e.g. Procter & Gamble, and sometimes longer placements, e.g. Oxford Instruments. These are often aimed at students in the summer preceding their final year at university. You will find some of these advertised on CareerConnect and on graduate careers websites such as Prospects, Target Jobs and Gradcracker. Many large organisations post opportunities on Twitter and on their Facebook and LinkedIn pages so it is worth using social media to keep an eye on your chosen sector.

Smaller companies may not have a regular advertised internship programme, and will either advertise ad hoc as positions arise or they may rely on speculative applications (more on these below).

Work experience with government organisations, research institutes & universities

The following are examples of the types of summer placements available. It is not an exhaustive list. If none are listed for your area of science, try searching the websites of the relevant professional body as well as the appropriate research council (lists available via Research Council UK). Several university departments also offer summer placement programmes – check with your departmental administrator.

  • Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) offer a summer holiday scheme as well as industrial placements. Search for their vacancies on the Civil Service Jobsite from November each year.
  • The Science and Technology Facilities Council offers summer placements at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, the Daresbury Laboratory near Warrington, at their headquarters in Swindon, or at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh.
  • The Biochemical Society offers summer vacation studentships for penultimate-year undergraduate students to spend their summer working in a molecular bioscience research lab.
  • Cancer Research UK offers summer placements to penultimate-year Life Sciences undergraduates in their London Research Institutes.
  • The Pathological Society offers bursaries to undergraduate students of medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry or biomedical science to enable them to undertake vacation work in departments of pathology in universities, medical schools, NHS laboratories or research institutes in the United Kingdom or overseas.
  • Medical Research Council Clinical Sciences Centre offers summer studentships to undergraduates.
  • The MetOffice offers three-month summer placements in science and forecasting.
  • BBSRC Research Experience Placements fund 100 placements each summer in universities and research institutes across the UK. Apply direct to departments to which REPs are allocated.
  • NERC Research Experience Placements offer environmental science summer placements to undergraduates studying quantitative disciplines currently outside environmental sciences.
  • Wellcome Trust offer 8-week internships.
  • The Royal Society of Biology often offer 8-10 week internships for penultimate year undergraduates and compile a useful list of funding opportunities to support research placements.
  • Diamond Light Source offer 8-12 week summer placements working on a research project at the Diamond Synchrotron facility south of Oxford.

International summer placements for scientists

  • The Internship Programme run by The Careers Service offers placements in a wide range of organisations, all over the world. Many are technical roles in a range of scientific disciplines, but especially in energy, natural resources and environmental sectors and in university research labs.
  • Laidlaw Programme run by The Careers Service equips undergraduate students with research and leadership skills to help them pursue their academic and professional aspirations beyond their current course of study. The Programme comprises two mandatory elements: A leadership programme, completion of which is likely to lead to an Institute of Leadership Management (ILM) qualification, and a research project of between 8 and 10 weeks’ duration, designed and defined by the student, at any world-leading research institution.
  • The Doctoral Internship Programme, run by The Careers Service, offers opportunities for DPhil students of participating doctoral training centres (DTCs) at Oxford to undertake internships of up to 12 weeks during their DPhil.
  • CERN offers placements for physics, engineering and computer scientists.
  • Amgen Scholars Europe Programme provides undergraduate students with the opportunity for summer research experience at some of Europe’s leading educational institutions (Karolinska Institute, LMU-Munich, University of Cambridge, Institut Pasteur, ETH Zurich) with a concluding symposium in Cambridge, where participating students can meet peers from across Europe, network with scientists and learn about science careers in industry and academia.
  • Research Internships for Scientific Experience (RISE) give undergraduate students from the United States, Canada and the UK in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, earth sciences and engineering the opportunity to work with research groups at universities and top research institutions across Germany (working language English).
  • International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Excellence (IASTE) offer paid work experience in over 80 countries for undergraduates in science, engineering and computer science.
  • The European Space Agency offers internships (of a minimum of three months) at a range of locations.
  • European Commission Research Institutes. JRC traineeships offer the opportunity to conduct research at a European Commission research lab.

Organising your own work experience – speculative applications

Many students each year are successful in arranging their own work experience by directly approaching organisations. In sectors dominated by SMEs this may be your only option. Use the following resources to generate a list of organisations to approach in your location and chosen sector:

  • UK Science Parks Association.
  • ABPI Careers – includes a directory of pharmaceutical and related companies, including a regional search.
  • One Nucleus – includes lists of biotech company clusters.
  • Local business directories, often found on council websites.
  • Key-word searches on LinkedIn to find companies in your region and sector.

Talk to those employed in your particular areas of interest, as this will help you to get a real feel for the type of work. Through tutors, supervisors, those studying your subject in previous years at your college and industrial scientists met at symposia, you may already have access to a wide potential network of contacts that you could approach. Use the Oxford Careers Network, the Oxford University group on Linked In or networks hosted by your department to get in touch with alumni already working in the sector for advice.

Getting a job

Where to research employers and find vacancies

Closing dates for graduate programmes range from November to March, though some organisations recruit throughout the year, often for specific roles, and are flexible about starting dates.

Events in Oxford

Several large employers as well as some smaller firms, give presentations in Oxford in Michaelmas Term. Many also attend the Science, Engineering and Technology Fair. The Careers Service also invite alumni to attend panel talks on difference science sectors, often as part of the main Science Engineering and Technology Careers Fair. It’s also worth checking out events listing for relevant student societies, and departmental seminar series for interesting speakers.

Other resources from The Careers Service

You will also find leading companies well-represented in graduate career publications and websites such as GradcrackerTargetJobsTimes Top 100  and Prospects.

You may also find it helpful to look at the current and archived vacancies on CareerConnect to find out which employers recruit into R&D.

The scientific and technical press

The New Scientist in particular is an important source of adverts, not only for graduate vacancies but also for postgraduates with particular skills and experience.

Subject-specific professional bodies

Professional bodies, such as the Institute of Physics and the Geological Society, can also be excellent sources of information. In addition to online careers advice, some institutes also run careers fairs, networking events, host vacancies and provide directories of recruiters.

Specialist recruitment agencies

Recruitment agencies can provide a further additional option for identifying opportunities. For some sectors, particularly those dominated by SMEs they may be the main source of vacancies. They should not be relied on completely, as not all employers use them, but they may identify routes into organisations that you may not otherwise be aware of. Some examples are Reed Scientific and SRG.

Other

For those wishing to work in smaller hi-tech organisations, the websites of the Association of Independent Research and Technology Organisations (AIRTO) and the UK Science Parks Association provide the details of a wide range of research employers.

Equality & positive action

A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they offer ‘Guaranteed Interview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.

  • STEM Disability Committee provides support for disabled students and workers in science, technology, engineering and maths. Use the portal section of their website for a comprehensive set of links to relevant groups and projects.
  • WISE promotes female talent in science, engineering and technology. Their extensive website showcases case studies of female role models in technical roles, has a forum (GetSET) for women in science, engineering and technology and links to opportunities for mentoring.
  • The Daphne Jackson Trust offers fellowships giving STEM professionals wishing to return to research after a break of two or more years the opportunity to balance an individually tailored retraining programme with a challenging research project in a suitably supportive environment. Fellowships can be based in a university or research institute anywhere in the UK.
Our resources

Online resources

Books

The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • So you want to be a scientist? Philip A. Schwartzkroin
  • Career Planning for Research Bioscientists, Sarah Blackford
  • Developing a Talent for Science, Ritsert C. Jansen
  • Marketing for Scientists, J. Kuchner
  • Planning A Scientific Career In Industry, Santa Mohanty and Ranjana Ghosh
  • Careers in Pharmaceuticals, Wetfeet
  • Non-traditional careers for chemists – new formulas in chemistry, Lisa M Balbes

Journals

  • New Scientist, published weekly, reference copy available

Take-away material

Collect the following material from our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • How the Energy Industry Works
  • TargetJobs: Engineering
  • Times Top 100 graduate employers
  • Guardian UK300

Podcasts

The Careers Service has recorded a series of podcasts on various topics, including:

  • Speakers at the Careers Conference for researchers
  • Careers in patents & intellectual property
  • Careers in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology
  • Careers in science communication
External resources

General websites

Sector vacancies

Professional bodies and other resources

Government agencies and research institutes

This information was last updated on 18 October 2017.
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