Welcome to The Lab: 4 Things You Must Know about Starting a Career in Research

Approximately 30,000 people earn a PhD in science or engineering each year, and many of those that graduate want to find a job working in a research lab. Many picture working in a lab as an idealistic view of wearing a lab coat and finding new discoveries each day. In reality, the actual life of a research scientist is quite different.

While still exciting and rewarding, there are many things to consider before pursuing this type of career. These are the four things any budding researcher should know before entering the lab.


Funding is King

The vast majority of research positions do not come with a salary from the institution. Even those that work for a university and balance teaching, do not receive an institutional salary for the research portion of job duties. Instead, scientists must fund their own salaries through grants. Even professors must find funding for research to buy out time to teach a smaller class load. Grant money funds salaries, expenses for conferences and the price to publish in an academic journal. A job in a lab requires designing a budget and submitting grant applications annually. Typically, researchers need multiple grants to have an adequate salary and cover research costs. Professional organizations for a researcher’s specific field and universities have resources for funding options and how to write grants.


Work Hours are Long

Working in a research lab requires a heavy time commitment, at least 50 hours per week. Working the way up the research career ladder requires even more of a time commitment, and those that publish often work the longest amount of hours. Researchers who also have teaching or practical commitments must also balance those with extensive hours in the lab. Even holidays can be spent in the lab instead of on a vacation, especially as a career begins. Prospective researchers who want a work and life balance must make sacrifices and learn to budget time very efficiently. Researchers should maintain daily, weekly and long-term calendars to insure deadlines do not fall through the cracks.


Research is Competitive

There are a large number of scientists graduating college each year, but there is a limited supply of positions and funding. This creates an immense amount of competition when applying for a position, for keeping a position once in a lab. The adage ‘publish or perish’ is common in research circles as a reflection of the competition for research positions in which scientists must consistently publish research or be fired from the lab. This pressure to perform is part of the competitive process as scientists who publish in research journals have more opportunities for funding. Collaboration among other investigators can help reduce the pressure and allow for more publications.


Failure is Part of the Path

There is a paradox in scientific research in that publishing research findings is critical to performance; however, most research does not produce significant findings. Unfortunately, few journals publish insignificant findings. Not only are null findings the bulk of research, it is also still important to report insignificant findings as it saves other researchers in the field from making the same deductions in their hypotheses. As a researcher, accepting and navigating this truism regarding science is simply part of working in the field. There will be research that fails to have a significant effect, and it probably will not get published. When this occurs, good researchers accept it and start again.


When researchers begin their scientific careers, there is much more to learn than the correct way to use a pipette. Like any career field, scientific researchers exist in a community that breeds certain characteristics. These warnings of life as a researcher should not be a deterrent, but helpful information that prepares a new graduate for a challenging but rewarding career. Don’t let the realities of research scare you off—this is still an extremely thrilling and viable career for those with a deep love for science and research. The information for this article was provided by the science enthusiasts of Microscope.com, where you can learn the parts of a Microscope.

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