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Academic Research

A photograph shows an aisle in a library. The aisle is the narrow walkway between two parallel bookshelves.
Raysonho/ Wikimedia Commons.
Academic research can be intense, stimulating, and rewarding. But it is important to know that a research career involves many activities besides research. Scientists spend their time writing applications for funding to do research, as well as writing scientific papers to report the findings of their research. In addition, they spend time presenting their research in oral or poster form to other scientists at group meetings, institutional meetings, and scientific conferences; they also spend time teaching students about their field of study. A scientist's life is often full of tasks that need to be done and most scientists work very hard, but they also love what they do.

Fields of Study

If you're interested in a general sense in academic research, the first thing to figure out is which field of research is best for you.

The fundamental task of research is asking questions. There are many areas of research in the life sciences, and they generally fall into three categories based on the types of questions that are asked and the tools that are used to answer the questions:

  • Basic Research
  • Clinical Research
  • Population-Based Research

Basic Research

Basic researchers ask questions about how fundamental life processes work. Examples of questions include the following:

  • What are the mechanisms that determine how and when cells divide?
  • How do DNA mutations associated with a disease occur?
  • How and why do cells age?
  • How and why does one type of cell work differently from another type of cell?

Basic researchers usually work in laboratories with other scientists, usually with one faculty member leading a group of postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and lab technicians who do most of the lab work. The hours can be very long and the work can be challenging, especially for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Basic researchers often ask their questions using model organisms, including yeast, worms, flies, fish, and mice.

Clinical Research

Clinical researchers ask questions about how disease occurs and how it can be cured in humans. Examples of questions include the following:

  • How can we manipulate the body's immune system to improve treatment of a disease?
  • How can we create a drug to improve disease survival?
  • What are the long-term impacts of treatment on quality of life?

Clinical researchers work in laboratories that are very similar to basic researchers, but they often work with human tissue samples to ask their questions. Many clinical researchers find it rewarding to work on a question that may have an impact that they will eventually see come to fruition. At the same time, when you're working with human tissue, you usually have a limited amount of it so the risks of making a mistake that will lose your sample could be high. Clinical researchers will often collaborate with biostatisticians to best design and analyze their studies in order to yield the maximum amount of relevant information.

Population-Based Research

Population-based research is done by epidemiologists who ask questions to determine how diet, genetics, and lifestyle may influence the risk of disease. They ask these questions in one of two ways:

  1. by following a group of people over time and correlating exposure to who gets a disease;
  2. by asking a group of people with a disease about their lifestyle and diet choices and comparing the data to a randomly chosen group without the disease in order to look for differences between the two groups.

The types of questions they ask include the following:

  • How can we best prevent teenagers from starting to smoke?
  • Do some genetic variants place a person at greater risk for cancer?
  • Do vitamins help prevent cancer?
  • Does exposure to certain chemicals increase the risk of getting a particular disease?

Epidemiologists also collaborate with biostatisticians in order to design and analyze studies so they can get the most information from them. Rather than work in a lab, epidemiologists often need no more than a desk and computer. However, the interdisciplinary field of molecular epidemiology is changing this, and many epidemiologists ask questions about how a particular gene can influence disease risk, rather than, or in addition to, a lifestyle exposure.

Roles in Research

The second thing you will need to consider is what kind of role you'd like to have in research. The opportunities include faculty member, research scientist, shared resources specialist, and technician or support person. There are also numerous administrative positions that support scientific research and make sure that institutions run well.

Faculty Member

Faculty members usually have Ph.D.'s or M.D.'s and have gone through graduate school or medical school followed by several years of being a postdoctoral fellow or medical resident. A faculty member is the leader of their own lab or work group and determines the direction of the research in their group. Most faculty members spend a good deal of their time writing grant proposals and manuscripts, reading research papers, reviewing colleagues' manuscripts and grant proposals, thinking and talking with others about their research to gain new ideas, and mentoring the people in their group.

Faculty positions are usually very competitive to get and are often a result of hard work over many years. However, most faculty members love what they do and wouldn't trade it for anything.

Research Scientist

Ph.D.-level research scientists usually work under the supervision of a faculty member and have fewer responsibilities, but may work equally hard as the faculty member. A research scientist will often spend time actually performing the research, as well as helping to write manuscripts and grant proposals. These positions are not as competitive as faculty positions, but they are often seen as an ideal position for scientists who love benchwork and don't want to spend most of their time in administrative or leadership activities.

Shared Resource Specialist

Shared resource specialists can have a bachelor's, master's, or doctorate. They work in a lab with equipment that is shared by scientists throughout the institution, often for a fee. They assist the scientists with designing experiments, running the experiments on the equipment, and analyzing the results. Most shared resource specialists like to help people and their role is part scientific specialist and part customer service. The skills needed for these positions are usually very specific, so while the applicant pool of qualified scientists may be limited, the positions can still be quite competitive.

Technician and Other Support Staff

Technicians usually have bachelor's or master's degrees. They spend most of their time doing research under the supervision of a faculty member or research scientist. Most of the time, they are doing experiments that have been designed by others and have less say in the overall direction of the research. They are often included in research publications, but this is not the case in every lab. These positions are somewhat competitive, with the main factor being the greater number of applicants for the limited number of spots. Those with skill sets that are the best fit for the job have the advantage in the application process. Many technicians love the hands-on nature of the lab work that they do and see their position as a permanent spot. Others view their jobs as a temporary stop for a few years while they are deciding what the next step is in their career. Some technicians receive promotions to become lab managers and ensure that the lab runs well, placing orders for equipment and reagents, managing budgets and lab tasks, and supervising technicians. Others may go on to graduate school, medical school, business school, or law school.

Administrative Positions

A substantial amount of administrative work is required to ensure that research runs smoothly. Administrative activities include recruitment of good scientists, coordination of research studies across multiple sites on a national or an international basis, assistance with manuscript and grant preparation, payroll management, and public communication. In many academic settings, administrative positions can outnumber scientific positions. Many of the people in these positions started out by majoring in biology as undergraduates and then moved into administrative roles. For example, Scott majored in the life sciences as an undergraduate, then earned an M.Sc. in Immunology and an M.B.A. He works well with people and is a quick judge of character, which makes him an excellent scientific recruiter. His background in the life sciences serves him well to understand the scientific language involved in recruiting for scientific positions.


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