Medical research jobs and qualifications

Petri dish - careers in medical research
Interested in a career as a medical researcher? Find out what they do and how to become one, and learn more from Dr Rebecca Barlow at the Medical Research Council.

Medical researchers are scientists who seek to understand human health and disease, and to develop better ways of preventing and treating ill health. They may conduct experiments, or use a mixture of measurements and statistics to uncover trends outside the laboratory (for example tracking the spread of a disease or monitoring how the lifestyle of a group of volunteers affects their health). They might also set up clinical trials, which involve trying out a new drug or vaccine on human participants.

Medical researchers can work in universities, for the NHS (for example in a hospital laboratory), for a research institute such as the Medical Research Council, for a medical charity or for a private business (such as a pharmaceutical company).

To get into medical research a typical path is to take:

  • science/maths A levels, Scottish Highers or IB options
  • an undergraduate (first) degree – medicine is a good bet, or you might choose to study something related such as pharmacology, immunology, genetics or biochemistry
  • sometimes, a masters degree – a higher level degree typically lasting one year, possibly two
  • a PhD – the top level of degree you can get, lasting at least three years and involving your own original research

Working for the Medical Research Council

Dr Rebecca Barlow is programme manager for experimental medicine at the Medical Research Council (part of UK Research and Innovation). After training and working in pharmaceutical research, she now helps bring together scientists with sources of funding.

How did you get into a career in medical research?

I took chemistry and biology at A level, so I could go on to study pharmacology at the University of Leeds. Pharmacology was a good choice for me, as I knew I was interested in medicine but had no desire to become a doctor or a nurse! I was very interested in psychopharmacology (how drugs act on the brain) and really enjoyed lab work and research projects during my degree, so I went on to do a PhD at the University of Cambridge. I investigated the neural basis of compulsive behaviours and how this can increase a person’s likelihood of becoming addicted to drugs such as cocaine.

After this I went on to work in research and discovery in the pharmaceutical industry in Germany, before coming back to the UK to work at the Medical Research Council. Here, I help to fund academic medical research in the UK, rather than doing it myself.

I think the academic path I followed is a pretty common one for people who want to get into medical research. A lot of people also do a masters degree in between their undergrad and PhD. This can be a good idea as you do a couple of different lab placements, so you can really see what kind of research you enjoy and what sort of labs/teams you enjoy working in.

However, you can also follow a more technical path by starting to work as a technician in industry after your undergraduate degree, rather than a scientist. Here you become very technically skilled, but don’t have as much intellectual control over your work, which is the bit I really enjoyed.

What skills does a medical researcher need?

Working as a researcher, you need to be able to think critically and often quite creatively. Scientists have to be very good at problem-solving and need to think outside the box to come up with experiments that challenge their hypotheses in the best and most innovative ways possible. You also need to be comfortable presenting your work, both orally and written, and discussing it with other people – it’s one of the best ways to get critical feedback and help develop exciting new ideas, as well as letting the wider community know what work you’re getting up to.

What does your job at the Medical Research Council involve?

The Medical Research Council (MRC) invests in research on behalf of the UK tax payer. My job is to act as an interface between the scientific community and the MRC. In particular I look after our experimental medicine portfolio (which is basically discovery science that is conducted in humans, rather than in cells or in experimental animals) and act as a ‘knowledge holder’ for this area.

Activities include: speaking about funding with potential applicants, reading applications, finding peer reviewers, preparing strategically relevant reports for senior management or external stakeholders such as government and reading about the latest science. What I don’t do is make any funding decisions – that job belongs to our expert board and panel members.

For my current job, a background in science and research, whether in academia or industry, is key. I think you also need to care about science, find it interesting, and consider both the detail and the bigger picture. You have to really listen to what people are saying, write well and tailor key messages to your audience.

What do you enjoy most about your job, and what are the downsides?

I like that I’m involved in a variety of projects and initiatives. I was always interested in many science subjects and now I get to follow a really wide range of world-class science every day! But I do sometimes miss the lab, particularly the freedom of being able to plan my experiments and the excitement of working at the forefront of science.

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