Career Overview: Science

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

When someone says scientist, what kind of person do you picture? An Einstein type, hair and clothing unkempt, someone deeply intelligent but forgetful about day-to-day issues? If so, you're not alone-but in reality, there are many different kinds of scientists out there. You may not realize it, but the work of scientists is everywhere you look. Physicists did the research that eventually resulted in cell-phone and other wireless technologies. Chemists did the research that eventually resulted in the creation of your prescription medications, and many of the foods lining your local supermarket's shelves. Geologists use computer models and field research to find the oil that heats your home each winter. Government meteorologists make the weather predictions that help leaders decide whether to take actions like evacuating citizens from areas about to be hit by storms.

In the broadest possible terms, science is a system of gaining knowledge that uses reproducible experimentation and empirical data in the pursuit of truth.

Applied Versus Academic Science
With few exceptions, scientists who work in the private sector are involved with applied research and development. While their work deals with the same concepts as scientists employed at universities, private-sector scientists generally cope with a tighter time frame, and are more attuned to the bottom line. Scientists are in business to turn their ideas and hypotheses into products their companies can sell.

Applied Science Versus Engineering
Engineers also apply scientific principles to create products. But unlike engineers, applied scientists usually work on more fundamental research and are removed from the production lines. If you want to think of it in terms of a continuum, research scientists at universities deal with abstract principles of science. Applied scientists use the same principles, but shape them into more specific ideas, materials, and equipment. Engineers then use such equipment to make products within a budget, on a timetable.

That doesn't mean the lines between science and engineering don't occasionally get blurred. As one industry insider with a PhD in physics says, "When I first started, I was hired to build a lot of equipment. At the time, I felt a lot more like a cross between a plumber and an electrician than a physicist. But after a while, I started to analyze the data and began feeling like a scientist again."

What You'll Do
Scientists who aren't working in academic research typically apply their skills to develop and/or understand materials, products, equipment, and production methods in a variety of ways. Physicists, for instance, might be hired by biotechnology firms to design the equipment needed to work on materials at the molecular level; by semiconductor manufacturers to apply their knowledge of solid-state quantum mechanics (the study of crystalline solids such as silicon) to create computer chips that will run faster at lower temperatures; or by computer software firms to write and develop computer programs used to model complex processes, such as the blood flowing through a heart or money through a stock exchange.

Chemists work at such firms as the Dow Chemical Co., of course, as well as at petroleum refining plants, pharmaceutical companies, paint manufacturers, and food-processing plants.

Many biological scientists work in the biomedical field and are known as medical scientists. They research infectious diseases (such as the common cold and AIDS) and develop vaccines, new drugs, and treatments. They may be employed by government agencies, such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or work for large drug companies such as Merck or Pfizer.

Who Does Well
Applied scientists need to be analytical thinkers and comfortable with math. There's a reason why scientists are often portrayed as people who speak in technical jargon impenetrable to the common ear: All fields of science require mastery of a host of precise terminology and complicated theories that have been piling up since the dawn of the Enlightenment.

Of course, that's not to downplay the role of solid communication skills. In today's business climate, scientists typically work in teams and need to be able to communicate efficiently what they've been doing and why it's important, especially if they're looking for a bigger budget.

Beyond Science
Getting a well-rounded education is important because, whether right after school or after getting experience in a hardcore science setting, you may want to change careers to something outside the laboratory. For instance, if you study biochemistry, you may eventually decide to go to work for a financial services institution as a biotech stock analyst. Increasingly, employers are realizing that the analytical skills and computer experience picked up learning science can be put to use in a host of other professions, such as sales, marketing, and business consulting. If you have good social skills and interests outside of science, you may find that you have a better chance making such a career change. In addition, scientists can always teach high school or go back to academia to research or try to land a job as a professor. As one industry insider puts it, "People are beginning to realize that someone who has mastered quantum physics usually treats something like analyzing the stock market or a complex business problem as an enjoyable break. Your options are really wide open."


If you're looking for a science-related career, at a minimum you'll need a bachelor's degree from a four-year university. Which shouldn't be a problem: If you're interested in a career in science, you should naturally be drawn to its study. In fact, for most research positions, the industry requires a master's degree, and many employers-particularly large labs run by corporations or the government-require a PhD before they'll consider hiring you into a research division.

Without an advanced degree, you might find yourself pushed into a new line of work such as sales, marketing, or an engineering role. If you want to stay near the test tubes, the jobs can resemble those done by lab technicians, where you'll find yourself doing things like labeling hundreds of petri dishes and cleaning the centrifuge.

Along with a degree from an accredited school, lab experience can help you find work. Internships are a great place to start, as much because they allow you to network in your field as because they give you practical experience. "I think one of the biggest differences between the hard-science programs and engineering programs is that the engineering programs usually have the channels set up to give their students real-life experience," says one industry insider. "So students [in the sciences] who want to work in industry after school need to make sure to establish contacts in the business world while still in school."

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the jobs outlook in various fields of science as follows:

Opportunities for hydrologists will grow much faster than jobs overall between 2004 and 2014.

Opportunities for environmental scientists, agricultural and food scientists, biologists, atmospheric scientists, will grow at about the same rate as jobs overall between 2004 and 2014.

Opportunities for chemists, physicists, astronomers, and geoscientists will grow more slowly than jobs overall between 2004 and 2014. However, there will be plenty of opportunities for chemists within the growing pharmaceutical and biotech arenas.

Career Tracks

While some people who study biology in school may end up doing the work of a chemist, for the most part, where you work will depend to a large extent on what you studied in school.

Historically, physicists who didn't teach at universities worked at large government-funded laboratories, unlocking the physical secrets of nature, or at defense corporations, developing stronger explosives or faster aircraft. But as a result of the fall of communism and the advent of federal belt tightening, only about 20 percent of all physicists in the United States now work in government labs-though that may change with the ongoing war on terrorism.

Physicists usually pick a specific subfield while in school, such as astronomy, elementary particle physics, optics, acoustics, plasma physics, or solid-state physics. That doesn't mean physicists get pigeonholed: Each subfield is related to understanding the elementary nature of matter and energy, so career crossovers are common. Someone with in-depth knowledge of atomic and molecular physics, for example, might work alongside a solid-state physicist at a semiconductor manufacturer.

Most physics-related research positions require a PhD; those who get only their bachelor's degrees usually work in more traditional engineering positions. The analytical-thinking skills and mathematical expertise gained studying the intricacies of matter, outer space, and Einstein's theories of relativity are readily put to use in the aerospace and defense, computer hardware, and heavy manufacturing industries.

Chemists working in applied research laboratories use their knowledge of the basic building blocks of all materials (i.e. chemicals) to keep America filled to the brim with low-priced, high-quality consumer goods. Chemists take credit for creating such products as nylon, plastic, and Viagra.

As with physics, the field of chemistry is split into subfields. Organic chemists, for instance, study carbon-based chemicals found in living things, while physical chemists study the fundamentals of chemical reactions.

Chemists have been finding fewer university and basic-research openings, but more opportunities in corporate applied-research departments, although there's an increasing trend for large companies to outsource research and development to smaller consulting firms. Some of the strongest job growth will continue to take place at pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology firms eager to create new drugs to treat America's aging population. The consumer products and semiconductor industries also have abundant opportunities for chemists, and many chemists move from applied-research labs to quality-assurance roles traditionally filled by chemical engineers.

Biological Scientists
If you're not sure whether you'd rather work in a high-tech lab somewhere in New York or camp out in the middle of an Amazon rain forest, take the safe bet and study biology or related fields such as biochemistry.

Many biological scientists-such as zoologists, botanists, and ecologists-work in the field, conducting research on animals and plants to see how they interrelate, and measuring the effects of human civilization on the environment.

Within city limits, biologists generally work in research and development labs and use their knowledge of living organisms to create solutions and products related to the health fields, including vaccines and new drugs.

Throughout the past couple of decades, rapid advances in understanding the structure of DNA led biotechnology firms to employ an increasing number of biological scientists. Their work includes research into how altering genetic material of plants and animals can lead to new and better consumer products and pharmaceuticals, such as the discovery of human growth hormone and human insulin.

Agricultural Scientists
The federal government employs a third of agricultural scientists; many of them are involved in researching new ways to increase the nation's agricultural output. Those employed by private companies work in pure or applied research, though some work in more traditional engineering roles and oversee production of farm-related equipment and supplies, such as pesticides.

Agricultural scientists must have a strong background in biology. While many universities have specific programs for agricultural science, many biology graduates end up working in agricultural science. For example, one of the faster-growing areas of research is the study of how to alter a crop's genetic composition (DNA) to improve net yields.

For the most part, agriculture scientists stay close to the farm and work with crops, the soil, or animals. But large food-processing corporations such as Kraft, or government agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, employ agricultural scientists to develop and test methods of consumer-food production.

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