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There are over 1.2 million people employed in primary science based roles in the UK, working in bio-sciences, chemical sciences and physical sciences. These are no longer clearly distinct disciplines: many scientists work at the interface between these sciences. They work, mostly in multidisciplinary teams, right across industry, in the health service, government establishments, research and educational institutions. A science graduate career can be extremely varied, as well as challenging to attain.

Science generates knowledge and understanding. Research continually improves our quality of life and is central to the success of our knowledge driven economy, creating wealth and employment in both the UK and abroad. In the area of graduate careers, the scientific field offers many different opportunities and new challenges. New technology and new discoveries often stimulate growth within the science industry and thus create more jobs. 

The pharmaceutical and agro-chemical industry, one of the most successful sectors in the UK, employs scientists, from right across the range of disciplines, to discover, formulate and develop and bring to market new drugs and treatments for disease. Within the pharmaceutical industry there are varied work environments depending on the area of science you work in which can include an office, laboratory, fieldwork or an offshore oil rig. This area has good salary prospects with an average science graduate career starting at around £24,000 and at a senior level you could earn more than £100,000.

The biotechnology sector employs research scientists to exploit, manipulate and develop living systems to solve a wide range of medical, industrial and environmental problems. The biotechnology industry, made up largely of small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs), has become huge in recent years, and is still expanding rapidly. Research scientists are employed in the food and drink industry to develop new products and processes for the manufacture of food and equipment; food preservation and packaging. Other major industries employing research scientists include defence and aerospace, energy (oil, gas, electricity and nuclear power), electronics and the telecommunications industry. Large numbers of mainly physical scientists work to harness and develop new technologies within these industries to produce commercial products and services. Government establishments and agencies, charity research institutes and medical research institutions also employ graduates.

Average Science Graduate Salary

Science Graduate Career Path

Scientific work fulfils a number of different functions and professional scientists perform a wide range of roles within society. Typical areas you will find a career path in science include:

  • Research and development
  • Scientific analysis and investigation
  • Product and process development
  • Education and the media
  • Administration

Graduate life scientists can pursue a career in a laboratory where analysis, testing and investigation are all key activities. Some may also be involved in the research and development department of a company. A laboratory career may not be of interest to every graduate and therefore useful career openings can be found in the defence, education, health, scientific publishing, technical authorship/scientific journalism, quality control/assurance and regulatory affairs, processing/production, patent, management, technical sales, marketing and purchasing sectors.

Physical scientists also have a wealth of opportunities available to them in areas such as academic research, manufacturing, finance, information technology, telecommunications, consultancy and the chemical industry. Many find lucrative career openings including software development, IT, finance (eg mathematical modelling for predicting stock market performance) and management consultancy.

One of the most popular UK sectors is the pharmaceutical industry which continues to be at the forefront of global research and development. It employs over 20,000 graduates and develops them into highly skilled scientists specialising in key areas such as drug discovery, product development, clinical trials and patenting. There are many major companies in this sector that run graduate training schemes or who recruit large volumes of students and graduates each year in to specific areas of the business. There are also opportunities within generic companies that don't do their own research as well as contract manufacturing and packaging companies. Many graduates associate this sector only with laboratory-based research and development, but of equal importance is the development of processes to produce the final product and package it, as well as the smooth running of production sites.

Career progression is very good within the scientific sector with many graduates also receiving funding to complete a PhD or post doctoral research. With trends in globalisation and continuous developments in information and communications technology (ICT) fuelled by a desire to share knowledge, openings for work abroad (especially in Europe) will be commonplace. With so many different openings and choices available in sometimes unique companies the scientific sector continues to be a challenging and high profile job market.

Qualifications and Skills Needed

What proportion of candidates as a percent we place into Science graduate careers and the typical qualities graduate employers look for.

GRB Placements for Science by Degree

Typical Candidate Attributes

Qualifications and Skills Needed

Generally a relevant degree will be required depending on the type of area in which you want to go into. Degree courses include Mathematics, Physics, Geoscience, Materials Science, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biotechnology, Pharmacology, Pharmacy, Physiology, Biology, Microbiology and Food Science/Technology. Requirements will vary from company to company so it is a good idea to check your suitability before you apply. 

Lots of graduate scientists encounter problems where they have a lack of practical experience. They will have strong theoretical knowledge without the technical skills to back it up. The need for relevant work experience can't be stressed too much, whether this comes as a placement at university or vacation work. Short-term placements of between four and six months, arranged through a recruitment agency, can give you the practical experience you need and may lead to a permanent job.

Many of the large companies offer a structured two-year training programme for graduate entrants. In fact, there has been an increase in graduate training schemes for physicists and chemists being run by major employers, lasting at least two years and including the take-up of chartered status.

Companies and organisations recruit scientists at both first and higher degree level. It is more common for those wishing to enter research and development work to study for a PhD but in large companies it is possible for first-degree graduates to progress in a research career, although having an MSc or PhD may be an advantage for longer-term promotion and professional development. In more competitive areas, like biotechnology and astrophysics, a PhD is essential for entry. In some companies and public sector institutions it is possible to study for a PhD whilst working, although this can be difficult and take longer than the usual three years.

Competition in some areas like biotechnology is fierce. You will need to offer at least a PhD and preferably with an MRes and a stint as a post doc.

Employers require not only good subject knowledge and technical skills but also a wide range of other 'soft' skills, which are essential in today's workplace, for a scientist to function effectively. These skills include interpersonal and negotiating skills, team working, presentation skills and project management. All scientists need to be resilient, resourceful, determined, and accurate, have a high-level of attention to detail, and a willingness to take responsibility and direct the work of others. Whatever specific scientific skills are in demand it will always be important that scientists can express themselves effectively in a rapidly changing team environment. Effective communication is essential. There are increasing needs and opportunities for graduates with commercial skills and flair, especially in the biotechnology sector. Employers are increasingly demanding IT skills from all science graduates. In both research and development and scientific analysis, scientists use complex computer-based equipment. There is a high demand for graduates who can blend computing, maths or statistics with biological analysis especially but not only in bioinformatics. Scientists increasingly need to be able to work in multidisciplinary teams, working with a range of other scientists and also those from commercial functions like marketing and sales. Those working in industry need to understand the focus on commercial pressures and profitability of products. In the public sector there may be emphasis on providing a service or in academia, publishing scientific papers and applying for funding.

Automation of equipment is always a big area of development and this is ongoing. Alongside this, sustainable development issues and environmental legislation mean that there is always the drive to optimise manufacturing processes for maximum efficiency. Standards regulators constantly push for improvements in the industry at large which keeps technology development progressing very quickly. Graduates applicants need to be able to demonstrate a knowledge of what is going on in this sector as changes can happen every week.

The variety of people and projects make this a great sector in which to establish a career. There is also the opportunity to use your own judgement and put your mark on things. As you might expect, the scientific industry is heavily regulated so paperwork and dealing with regulations is a large part of the job.

Sources for Further Information

Royal Society of Chemistry
Association of Clinical Biochemists
Institute of Physics and Medicine in Engineering
Institute of Physics
British Pharmacological Society 
Royal Society of Biology
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Institute of Mathematics and its Applications
Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining