Science R&D

Scientific research and development (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 sector guides to Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology, Sustainability and the Environment, Energy, Technology, Data, Machine Learning & AI, 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.

For insights into inspiring scientific R&D look no further than the Oxford Vaccine. Oxford University's academics and research staff at both the Jenner Institute and the Oxford Vaccine Group (OVG) who collaborated to pool their complementary expertise and made a real world impact in the face of a global pandemic.

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There are R&D jobs in both the private and public sectors. Employers 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. 

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.

Public Sector and Not-for-profit 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.

Although the Civil Service Faststream has been paused for 2023 entry there are many roles within government and related agencies that use science directly. Use the keyword "science" in the Civil Service Job Search to see examples.

Public sector and not for profit research institutes include:

  • Government departments may recruit scientist into hands-on technical roles (for example in the Ministry of Defence group Defence Equipment and Support) or in an advisory role (for example in the Government Office for Science, part of the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy). Other Government groups that recruit scientists into technical roles include the Government Operational Research Service (GORS) and the Government Statistical Service (GSS).
  • Government agencies
    eg. Dstl (Defence Science & Technology Laboratory), Environment Agency, Public Health England, Government Operational Research, MetOffice and many more. Full list of government organisations.
  • Institutions associated with charities, most commonly relating to healthcare
    The Association of Medical Research Charities directory lists many healthcare charities. Examples include Cancer Research UK, Wellcome Trust, British Heart Foundation, Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
  • Institutions funded by research councils
    eg. Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, British Antarctic Survey, John Innes Centre.

Large corporates

Many large companies have their own in-house research and development departments. These are common in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, technology, FMCG and defence/aerospace which are dominated by large multinational corporations. 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 as part of established graduate training programmes. Have a look at the employers advertising on Gradcracker to get a sense of the opportunties for STEM students with large corporates.

Start-ups, spin-outs and SMEs

There are also opportunities in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in areas such as biotechnology, energy technology and AI. PhDs are viewed favourably by most, and may be a necessity for more specialist companies and roles. Most don't recruit in sufficient number to justify a formal graduate programme, and instead recruit as the need arises into specific roles. See our information on Energy, Sustainability and the Environment, Engineering, Technology, data, machine learning & AI, and Pharmaceutical & Biotechnology for sector guides, and meet a wide range of employers at the Science, Engineering & Technology Fair held each Michaelmas Term.


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.

Contract Research Organisations

Many corporates and other organisations outsource some or all of their research and development function to specialist companies who undertake research on behalf of the client. CROs are particularly common in life, medical and clinical sciences and offer an alternative to working in research in a large pharmaceutical company. Work is usually project-based on behalf of a variety of clients. Examples include IQVIA, Quintiles, XenGesis and IxiaClinical.

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.

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, and sometimes longer placements. 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 and 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 UK Research & Innovation). Several university departments also offer summer placement programmes - check with your departmental administrator.

International summer placements for scientists

  • The Summer 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.
  • The Micro-Internship Programme offers short-term work experience placements, which take place in 9th or 10th week. Each internship gives you the opportunity to observe and assist with a notable project and research-based projects are often available.
  • 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) gives graduate students and PhD candidates from North America, the UK and Ireland the opportunity to work with research groups at universities and top research institutions across Germany through their RISE Professionals programme.
  • 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 for EU nationals 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 University groups on LinkedIn or networks hosted by your department to get in touch with alumni already working in the sector for advice.

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.

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 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.


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.

Online resources


  • New Scientist, published weekly

General websites

Sector vacancies

Professional bodies and other resources

Government agencies and research institutes

Recruiters are keen to employ a diverse workforce and many have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. An increasing number of recruiters offer traineeships, internships and insight events that are aimed at specific groups.

Try the following to discover more about the policies and attitudes of the recruiters that you are interested in:

  • Read their equality, diversity and inclusion policy
  • Search their website to see if they have any specific staff networks
  • look for external accreditation, for example are they a Disability Confident employer, a Stonewall Diversity Champion, or part of the Mindful Employer charter?
  • Check to see if they are partnering with organisations such as Rare Recruitment, SEO London, MyPlus Students Club (disability), EmployAbility (disability and neurodifference)
  • Explore what they do to celebrate diversity on their Facebook and Twitter pages

Specifically for the science sector:

  • ScienceCareers Career Trends: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion report: A collection of articles from and about scientists who are balancing lives in science while addressing other aspects of their identities, some of which have disadvantaged their progress
  • The Royal Society overview of diversity in science provides a useful summary with links to awards and fellowships, mentoring programmes and case studies
  • 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.
  • In Oxford, OxWEST is a student-run organisation that promotes gender equality in STEM subjects.

The UK Equality Act 2010 has a number of protected characteristics to prevent discrimination due to your age, disability,  gender reassignment,  race, religion or beliefs, sex or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act 2010 and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

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