Career Overview: Research

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Research is a broad field encompassing careers with myriad responsibilities in myriad industries.

Consumer products industry market researchers, for instance, do things like conduct focus groups and apply statistical analysis techniques to demographic data to better understand consumer behaviors.

Political researchers do things like conduct telephone polls of voters to learn where they stand on political issues and candidates.

Pharmaceutical researchers (who are usually chemists) research the properties of new chemical combinations.

Aerospace researchers (who are usually engineers) do things like study how air flows around different aircraft designs.

On Wall Street, financial analysts research companies, industries, and markets with a goal of helping their employer or their clients make good securities investments.

And psychology researchers conduct studies, for instance, of depression in young children or elderly women.

As a research professional, you might do any one of these things, or hundreds more. In sum, if you're a trivia junkie, a science buff, a bookworm, or an armchair philosopher-if you get a rush out of conducting scientific experiments, debating opposing viewpoints, translating ancient texts, or deconstructing postmodern political thought-you might find your professional calling in research.

What You'll Do
All researchers share one primary objective: to uncover the meaning, significance, causes, and effects of whatever subject they're investigating. The work they do can have academic, commercial, political, social, or scientific impact. They may be trying to advance society's understanding and appreciation of a particular subject, or develop products or practical applications based on their findings, or advocate changes in their organization's policy.

During the course of their work, researchers review previously published findings, formulate hypotheses, and gather original data to support or rebut their hypotheses. In technical or scientific fields, researchers develop experiments and conduct trials to test their hypotheses and gather new data.

The results of research vary depending on its subject and purpose. An academic may research and write about new ways to understand U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War. A researcher at an investment bank tries to determine the proper current valuation and future prospects of a company. A market researcher might investigate the market potential and public reaction to a new food product, such as a hot dog made of soy products. And a scientist at a high-tech company might investigate scientific principles that can be applied to developing a new type of computer chip or wireless data transfer technology.

Who Does Well
Researchers must have an inquisitive mind, a hunger for knowledge, and a passion for their subject. They also need to be resourceful in finding ways to gather information and, in some cases (such as in academia), funding for their projects. It takes an analytical mind to interpret the data you find, and communication skills to present your findings to the public, a professional group, or your boss. You have to be determined and willing to accept failure because, more often than not, you'll wind up at several dead ends before hitting the jackpot.


Opportunities to do research are vast in almost every industry. There is a tremendous range of opportunities for people with various academic, business, and technical backgrounds and interests.

At a minimum, most careers in research require a BA or a BS in a related discipline. Advanced positions generally require an advanced degree. Unlike such careers as investment banking or management consulting, where there is a formalized recruiting process set up for college graduates, many research positions-particularly those in social science or science-are the kind you network into on the basis of your independent accomplishments in the field. Internships or research assistantships will open many doors.

Financial Services, Consulting, and Market Research
Careers in financial or market research emphasize analysis over discovery, and tend to be more structured than other research careers. The most important requirements for such professions are strong analytical and business skills.

Scientific Research
In scientific fields, researchers are often searching for solutions to problems that have eluded others for years, if not centuries. Although routine testing and experiments may be a large part of their day-to-day jobs, scientists also rely heavily on innovation to achieve the major breakthroughs. Beyond analytical ability, success in such careers requires a high degree of creativity and intellectual curiosity.

Academic Research
The requirements for an academic research position are straightforward: a stellar academic record, including an advanced degree, usually a PhD; strong written and oral communication skills; and strong recommendations from other academics. However, securing a tenured research position at a university is perhaps the most competitive and political venture that academics endure in their professional lives.

Professors are generally required to publish papers regularly in order to earn tenure. Hence the oft-cursed dictum "publish or perish," which echoes through the halls of academia. There are many more people who have the credentials to fill teaching and research slots than there are slots to fill, and only the most accomplished and tenacious succeed.

Job Outlook

Following are U.S. Bureau of Labor projections for job growth in a variety of research-oriented fields:

Growth in opportunities for social scientists, chemists, economists, statisticians, and operations research analysts is expected to be slower than the average for jobs overall between 2004 and 2014.

Opportunities for market researchers are expected to grow much faster than the average for jobs overall between 2004 and 2014.

Opportunities for medical scientists (who research diseases) are expected to grow much faster than the average for jobs overall between 2004 and 2014.

Opportunities for researchers should experience especially strong growth in industries that are growing quickly and/or spend increasingly large amount of money of R&D with each passing year, such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

Career Tracks

Researchers can find employment in private industry as well as the public and nonprofit sectors. In private industry, most large companies have research and development (R&D) departments to create or improve their products. Consulting firms conduct research for clients to solve operations, strategy, and marketing issues.

In the public and non-profit sectors, government agencies, courts, health organizations, think tanks, museums, universities, and activist groups all generate research. Following are descriptions of general career paths in research.

Social Science Research
Social scientists study all aspects of human society-from the optimal distribution of goods and services to human behavior and social relationships within groups and between individuals. On the basis of their studies and analyses, social scientists suggest solutions to social, business, personal, governmental, and environmental problems.

Social science researchers collect information from a variety of sources. They may live and work among the population being studied, analyze historical documents, experiment with human or animal subjects, or design and conduct tests. Careers in social-science research range from anthropology and economics to urban planning and sociology. Employers include educational institutions, think tanks, museums, government agencies, and private industry.

Science Research
Scientists study natural and physical phenomena, from diseases and global warming to atomic fission and ecology. The results of this research can serve both the private and public and nonprofit sectors.

While scientists working in the private sector deal with the same concepts as those at universities, they generally work under tighter time frames and are more attuned to the bottom line-their job is to turn their ideas and hypotheses into products that will sell. For people with backgrounds in biology or chemistry and an interest in medicine, pharmaceuticals, or biotechnology, many companies offer well-paid research careers. In high-tech industries, people with engineering, physics, and chemistry backgrounds work in R&D, developing and testing new products, and finding ways to make production processes more efficient and cost-effective.

Scientific researchers working in colleges and universities combine research with teaching, depending on the nature of the institution and the type of funding they receive. Some university science professors in fact spend the majority of their time in the lab, working on research projects with graduate students. Frequently, the funding for such research comes from outside the university, such as government agencies or corporations that want to encourage a specific type of research that will support their business goals or policies.

Market Research
Market researchers use surveys, studies, and focus groups to collect data about consumer behavior. Some companies have their own market-research divisions. Others hire specialized firms to conduct research for them.

Businesses use the information that market researchers gather in various ways. They may organize a focus group to find out what consumers think about a new product, test the effectiveness of an advertising campaign, or find out how people use a website. Alternatively, they may commission a survey of 1,000 middle-income households to find out what people are willing to spend on an environmentally friendly dishwashing liquid.

Ideally, market researchers should have both qualitative and quantitative analytical abilities, because their jobs depend on gathering data from human subjects as well as crunching numbers and interpreting the results. A background in psychology or statistics may be required for some market-research positions.

Financial Research
Financial research is an analytical function within financial services companies that involves a good deal of number crunching. If you're adept with numbers and interested in business, this might be a good career to explore.

Financial researchers analyze companies' financial statements and operations, report on market trends and company performance, attend or organize industry conferences, develop proprietary pricing models for financial products, offer forecasts and recommendations, and watch emerging companies. It's the researcher's job to stay on top of an industry, and to relay his or her knowledge to those who can act on it: the sales force, traders, or investment bankers.

Financial research opportunities exist at investment banks, mutual funds, commercial banks, venture capital firms, hedge funds, insurance companies, and pension funds. Large companies in various industries hire people with financial research backgrounds to work in corporate development. Quite a few economists and other researchers also work for various branches of government.

Academic Research
Academics, or professors, generally hold PhDs and work in a variety of disciplines, from sociology and medicine to political science and mathematics. To reach that level, they spend three to ten years in graduate school becoming experts in their field. Along with teaching, they conduct research in their specialty (for example, an anthropologist may do field research in another culture), using primary research materials (such as a historian using letters between a settler in the United States and her family in the 18th century), and secondary materials (that is, other literature or research in a particular field of study).

Researchers' work is generally written up and published in book form or in professional periodicals such as The Journal of American Studies or Foreign Affairs, and presented at conferences to other academics in the same field.

Many professors also find work conducting research for government organizations or writing on their topic of expertise for newspapers, magazines, and other publications.


Compensation for research careers varies widely depending on the industry and the skill level a particular job requires. Following are some general salary ranges for a number of research-focused professions:

  • Market research manager: $74,000 to $93,500
  • Securities research analyst: $40,000 to $70,000
  • Pharmaceutical research associate: $35,000 to $90,000
  • Market research analyst: $35,000 to $100,000
  • Logistics research analyst: $45,000 to $140,000
  • Corporate economist: $70,000 to $120,000
  • Statistician: $30,000 to $90,000

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