How to become a scientist: careers in science
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If you’re interested in a career in science you could look for higher apprenticeship programmes, which are offered by a few large employers. However, there are also many smaller employers in science and since these tend to take on only graduates – and larger employers also run graduate schemes – you may decide that going to university would suit you better. Whichever route you choose, you will first need to make sure you are taking the right A levels, Scottish Highers or equivalent.
The area of science in which you are interested in working will determine your choice of A levels or equivalent.
Life sciences and food science and technology
If you are interested in working in these areas of science then you will need to take A levels in chemistry and biology. An A level in maths and/or physics may also be needed to get onto many higher apprenticeship programmes and university courses.
Chemical development and manufacturing
If you want to work in the chemical industry then you will need to take A level chemistry, physics and maths to get onto higher apprenticeship schemes and university courses. You may also need at least one other science subject such as maths, physics or biology.
If you want to work in this area, you will need to take A levels in physics and maths. Studying further maths may also prove beneficial.
Other areas of science
The A levels you will need to do for other areas of science will vary according to the career you wish to follow and for some careers you may find non-science subjects are useful. For example, if you are interested in becoming a meteorologist then A levels in maths, physics and geography would help. If you want to become an ecologist then A levels in biology, geography, and either maths or chemistry would be a good combination.
A number of employers in the science sector offer higher and degree apprenticeships to school leavers. Entry standards can be high, with some employers asking for 96 UCAS points (240 UCAS points on the old tariff) or more to join their apprenticeship schemes.
Some examples of apprenticeships available include GSK’s manufacturing science apprenticeship and pharmaceutical technician apprenticeship, Unilever’s research and development apprenticeship, Mondelez’s trainee scientist apprenticeship and Pfizer's laboratory scientist apprenticeship.
As part of a higher apprenticeship, you might study to gain a foundation degree. As part of a degree apprenticeship, you will study for a BSc (a bachelors degree) in a specific degree discipline, which is determined by the apprenticeship you take.
After you have finished your apprenticeship, your employer may well offer you a permanent job as a scientist. However, if you decide that you want to go to university to study for a degree that is of a higher level than the one you gained from your apprenticeship then that could be an option, depending on the entrance requirements of the university you wish to study at and the qualification your apprenticeship gives you.
To further explore your science job options straight after school, see our article on science apprenticeships and jobs for 18-year-olds. For more information on apprenticeships, see our article on school leaver programmes, apprenticeships and sponsored degrees.
Which course should I choose?
The more traditional way into the science sector is by taking a degree in a relevant subject. The degree course you should choose depends on the area of science you want to build a career in.
If you are interested in a career in life sciences or food technology then the following degree courses are a good bet.
- food science.
There are many other life science degrees that would also appeal to employers in this sector; the above list is far from exhaustive.
If you are interested in working in chemical research and manufacturing then these are just some of the degree courses that could lead to careers in this area.
- chemical engineering
- materials science.
In addition, there are some very specific degree courses that can lead to careers in certain fields of science, for example forensic science, biocomputing, and brewing and distilling.
In general, most employers in the science sector will require you to have attained at least a 2.1 in your degree (the second highest grade) for research roles, although you may find some jobs for which employers will accept 2.2s (the grade below that).
Read our article on choosing a degree and university for your science career for more information.
Masters degrees and further study
For many careers in science, particularly those in research, you will need at least a masters degree and quite possibly a PhD as well. Many science degrees are offered as four-year courses that are a BSc combined with a masters degree (and these can lead straight into a PhD). These courses may be a good idea if you think you have the ability and the desire to study for a higher entry-level role.
Some companies will provide you with financial support while you do your degree. The exact details vary – some companies will employ you and pay for you to do your degree course part time; others may award you a sponsorship deal and pay for your degree and you work for them during your vacations. Others will provide you with some money towards the cost of your degree but with no other ties to the company.
Which university should I choose?
The sort of job that you want to do in the science sector may well influence your choice of university. If you are interested in working in a research role then you should consider applying to a university that is highly regarded in research in the area of science that interests you. The Russell Group consists of a number of universities that specialise in research and getting a degree from one of these institutions may give your science career in research a head start.
A degree from a Russell Group university may also give you the edge when applying for a PhD if your career choice requires it.