Ask a Scientist: How do you become a researcher?

By: Kylia Goodner

This week’s question is for the dreamers who want to be on the forefront of knowledge creation.  If you like topics that other people think are gross or boring (like bugs, or physics), are full of skepticism, and like proving ideas wrong, then scientific research might be for you! Although a science career might seem completely out of reach for most people, it isn’t! There are multiple levels within scientific research – and people from every educational level can be a part of the scientific process!

If you are more organizationally minded you might want to consider becoming a research or laboratory technician. Typically, these positions require a bachelors or masters degree in a related field (biology, chemistry, environmental studies, physics, etc…) and at least one semester of laboratory experience. You can get these types of experiences in college by seeking out specific undergraduate research programs or by just asking around your school to see if anyone is taking students. A position as a laboratory technician is extremely important, as they are in charge of managing the every-day laboratory tasks (like purchasing supplies, making solutions, etc…) but also keep a few side research projects going. Most of the time they still publish papers and advance scientific knowledge, but at a slower rate than other laboratory members because they have other, extremely important laboratory responsibilities.

If you’re not financially minded, and the thought of being in charge of laboratory supplies makes you cringe, you might be more inclined to perform bench or field work. This work typically requires at least a Ph.D. in a relevant field. Luckily, many scientific Ph.D. programs cover your tuition and provide you with a (modest) living stipend.  So, although you will take the extra educational time to complete a 4-6 year Ph.D. program, at least you have some income rather than student loans! After the completion of a Ph.D., you will likely need to complete a postdoctoral position as well. These positions can take between 2-5 years to complete, but again, you’re being (moderately) paid.  During the 5-10 years of your Ph.D. and postdoc you’ll be doing hands on research. Day to day activities during this time can vary greatly, but typically you focus on one or two main research projects and publish multiple scientific papers. If you want to continue to do the hands-on work after the completion of your training you can get a job as a research scientist. These are typically hired on in larger labs to help advance the research at a fast pace (as they’re already heavily trained and aren’t as slow as the trainees). However, these positions are disappearing quickly as scientific funding is decreased.

When people think of a scientist, they are mainly picturing a professor or principle investigator (PI), who runs his/her own laboratory and is typically associated with a research university. These positions require the same training as the research scientist, but may require multiple postdoc experiences in order to obtain more diverse training. The day-to-day life of a PI is very different to that of a research scientist. PIs spend much of their time writing and presenting their research in order to obtain funding for their laboratory. They also are heavily involved in teaching and mentoring students and postdocs of many levels. But, PIs are the main force behind the current research being done in the United States and are responsible for training the new generation of scientists.

Scientific research is an ever growing and exciting field! And although the amount of training can be daunting to some, the ability to discover a piece of knowledge that no one has ever known before is incredibly thrilling. If discovery is what awakens your mind and ignites your passion then becoming a researcher is an extremely fulfilling career path!