Would a career in science suit me?
With a career in science you could make a difference to society. You could find a cure for a deadly illness or develop an exciting, new product to name just two possibilities.
But do you have the right skills to be a scientist? What’s the lifestyle like? And would a career in science match your values?
Key skills and qualities you need to be a scientist
Here are the main qualities that a good scientist will possess:
- Good numerical skills. You may be working with lots of calculations and large amounts of data. Most science apprenticeships will require you to have obtained a grade C or above in GCSE maths (or equivalent) and some employers ask for A level maths (or equivalent) too.
- An enquiring mind. Curiosity is essential for any scientist. Do you want to discover the unknown? And do you have the courage to challenge existing theories?
- An interest in scientific developments. You will need to be willing to keep up to date with the latest advances and news in your field.
- The ability to work in a team and independently. Your job will probably involve a mixture of working with other scientists and working on your own.
- Good IT skills. Working with cutting edge technology may be a major part of your job. You will need to be comfortable using advanced equipment.
- The ability to stay calm under pressure. If there is an emergency or something goes wrong, you will need to keep your cool and think of a solution quickly.
- Problem solving skills. Scientists need to be able to think on their feet to provide solutions and alternatives.
- Perseverance and patience. The process of testing, patenting and manufacturing is extremely long – it usually takes about ten years from start to finish. You need to be a determined person who does not give up easily.
- Good written and spoken communication skills. Scientists don’t spend all of their time alone in a laboratory. You will need to be able to communicate with colleagues, write scientific reports and explain your work to people who are not experts in science.
- The ability to take responsibility for making decisions. At times your job may involve making important and difficult decisions. The wrong decision can be costly or dangerous. You need to be confident enough to make a decision and accept responsibility for the outcome.
- Empathy and understanding. Some careers in science will involve dealing with patients and their relatives. Have you got good interpersonal skills? You will need to be professional but compassionate.
Office hours in science
Most scientists work full time in permanent jobs. However, some positions may be offered on a temporary basis. This can be good for people who like working on a flexible basis or for recent graduates who need to gain experience.
On paper a scientist will work a 30- to 40-hour week, usually around 37.5 hours a week. A typical working week would be Monday to Friday, 9.00 am to 5.00 pm. However, longer hours may be necessary during busy periods and in the run up to deadlines. You may need to occasionally work in the evening or at the weekend.
For some jobs, such as an astronomer or ecologist, it might be necessary to work long, irregular hours including weekends, evenings and nights.
Other jobs may involve shift work or working on a rota which includes weekends, bank holidays and occasional nights; for example, a laboratory technician and a forecaster or an observer in meteorology.
You could also need to be on-call in case of an emergency. This is likely for a forensic scientist or veterinary surgeon.
Travel for jobs in science
A career in science will probably include travel within the UK and sometimes overseas for meetings and conferences. You may also be asked to attend talks and educational events.
Your job, depending on the sector, may involve some form of fieldwork or research trip. This can mean that you are away from home for extended periods of time, especially in the oil and gas industry. You might need to be based in a remote location, on land or at sea, for the duration of a contract.
Professional development for scientists
It is likely that you will need to continue building on your skills and knowledge, especially in the first few years of your career. This might involve further study while working, for example studying part time for a masters degree or taking a specialist qualification. The Institute of Biomedical Science, for example, offers several academic and vocational qualifications. Its Certificate of Competence is a postgraduate qualification that allows you to register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) as a biomedical scientist. To work as a biomedical scientist in the UK you must be registered with the HCPC.
Your employer may also encourage you to gain membership of a professional body and work towards chartered status, an internationally recognised mark of excellence. Possibilities include becoming a chartered scientist, ecologist, environmentalist, chemist, biologist, engineer, geologist, physicist or meteorologist. Becoming chartered can lead to a higher wage.
Will a career in science fit my values?
The values of a company will often depend on whether you are working in the private or public sector. The ultimate aim of the private sector is to make money. There are still financial factors in the public sector, for example making sure that you are spending taxpayers' money wisely.
Research cannot be done without funding. This is usually provided by the government or private companies. At times you may have to face the disappointment of not being able to do the research you want until you can find the cash.
Funding can also introduce biases. Whoever is funding your research may want to influence the study.There may also be a time when you need to resist the temptation to modify the results of an experiment, for example if your findings do not support the argument you want to make. As a scientist, it is important for you to remain objective and honest at all times.
Testing new products to check that they work and are safe is an important process. If you are against animal testing, certain roles or companies may not be well-matched with your morals. You could also be working on a top secret project that needs to be kept under wraps. Would you be willing to remain tight-lipped about your work, potentially even with your friends and family?
If you’re a successful scientist your work could lead to ground-breaking discoveries and your name could go down in history. Your work could improve and even save lives; for example you could find a cure for cancer or diabetes. You could gain prestige among your peers and even win a Nobel Prize. Once you are an expert in your field you could be called upon to appear on television, write books or consult on sci-fi films.