MadSci Network: Biochemistry

Re: Could you tell me about working as a reaserch scientist?

Area: Biochemistry
Posted By: Michael Benedik, Faculty Biology and Biochemistry, University of Houston
Date: Tue Feb 4 15:58:14 1997

>I would really like to become a research scientist when I grow up. >The thought of discovering new knowledge as a career really appeals >to me. I have some questions about this career option:

The answers to these questions depend a lot upon the type of position that you might take. A position as a research scientist in industry is different from one at a university or at a research institution. I work at a university, so my answer will be emphasize that aspect of the job. But I will try to fill in what I know about other types of research scientists.

>1. Could you describe "a day in the life of a biochemist?"

If you are talking about a an active bench scientist, then most of the day is spend around experiments. Usually you have 3 or 4 separate thing going at once. Whenever there is some time off, you organize your lab notes, work on any manuscripts you need to write, read journals, have lab meetings with your colleagues. Not to mention sitting around and some. Usually your experiments are quite varied and you are doing numerous different things each day.

As you get a bit more senior, you end up spending more time in meetings, supervising other more junior scientists, writing and editing more manuscripts and reports. Believe it or not, my major duty is writing. I probably spend more than half of my day at the computer.

>2. What are your major duties?

I am a university professor. So my major duties are quite varied. They include:

When I have free time, I actually try to do experiments myself. Some days I get to work a few hours at the bench. Other times months go by before I can do an experiment myself. In other works, I mostly write and talk.
>3.  How do you apply the knowledge you gain? Do you go on furthur
>    after you publish it?
Publications are the key measure of scientific accomplishements. Most scientists publish regularly. Whether you continue further after publication depends upon the work. Generally my lab works on a problem for a few years (maybe only 3 or 4, sometimes more than 10). In this case we continue working in the same area, publishing major findings as milestones along the way. So generally we do go further after publishing something.

>4. What kind of schooling/training did you go through?

Finally, an easy question. You need to complete a college degree in an appropriate science. At this point you would be qualified to take a technical position as a research assistant or technician. They often do much of the "hands on" experimental work, but generally donít have much freedom in selecting what to do or how to do it. To reach that level you really have to complete a Ph.D. degree. This takes about 4-6 years of graduate school. In science, the first 2 years or so of graduate school are spent taking advanced classes, learning about your specialization, and beginning to do some research. Then you spend a few more years doing intensive research in the laboratory to complete your Ph.D. research dissertation. By the way, you generally get a meager salary as a graduate student, enough to live on (barely). After getting a Ph.D. usually people go on to a postdoctoral position which generally lasts from 2-4 years. This allows you to get really advanced research training and develop all your scientific skills. Postdocs get paid a more reasonable salary during this period. Finally you get to try and find a real permanent job. I warn you it's hard. There are a lot of people chasing down the jobs. But it is possible. Jobs in industry are much easier to get than in academia, but it still is competitive.

>5. What do you consider as the "best" aspect of your career?

It is wonderful having the freedom to work on problems that fascinate me. It is very intellectually stimulating. I am surrounded by smart people (usually) with similar interests whom I enjoy talking with. I get to play in my own lab whenever I have time.

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