This section of our Academic Jobs in Biological Science series gives an overview of academic research jobs in biology, typical career paths in the sector and opportunities for progression in this extensive field.
Biology is one of the most diverse and expansive research fields, where researchers apply their knowledge to solve problems in areas such as disease, health, genetics, drug discovery, ecology and the environment. Whether you are looking for your first postdoctoral research post in a university or you are an experienced research scientist working in a research institute, health organisation or biosciences industry, you will find a wide range of specialist projects and activities in advanced biology research worldwide.
After completing a first degree and Master’s qualification in biology, the next step is to undertake a PhD in an area related to the research field you wish to pursue. Biology encompasses a huge range of disciplines, so your focus could be on anything from molecular biology to bioinformatics. Advances in computational biology have transformed how research is carried out in biosciences, so employers will generally require candidates to have strong programming skills and the ability to analyse data using highly technical equipment, in addition to their academic qualifications.
The traditional entry route for aspiring researchers is to apply for postdoctoral research or research assistant jobs on a project which aligns with your specialist area and experience. Most research jobs are offered on a temporary, fixed-term basis so you may need to complete a number of postdoctoral projects at the start of your academic research career.
On gaining experience and a published record of impactful research outcomes, you could choose to combine your research with teaching in a lecturing role, apply for a further research fellowship or work as a research scientist in a non-university setting such as a charity or public health organisation.
Working as a Biology Researcher
Biology research is carried out in multiple settings, both inside and outside academia, and your day-to-day duties will depend on your specialist area and the type of project you are involved in. Research areas in biology are almost limitless, however, there is a significant focus on human health and disease prevention/treatment.
Popular biology research areas include:
- Molecular biology
- Human disease, drug discovery and development
- Marine biology/Ecological systems
- Cancer biology/Immunology/Virology
- Computational Biology/Bioinformatics
You could be working with a team of scientists within a university or teaming up on a project with researchers in the health, charity or commercial sectors. In any area of research, your working day will involve conducting experiments, analysing and interpreting data using state-of-art equipment and engaging in knowledge transfer activities with colleagues and the wider world.
The higher education sector is focused on providing research-led and practical teaching to their students, so roles may also include some teaching, mentoring and supervision.
Most biological sciences research positions involve the following duties:
- Conducting experiments and analysing data in a laboratory environment.
- Managing own research and administrative activities.
- Contributing to wider project planning and further research proposals.
- Testing hypotheses using appropriate methodologies.
- Gathering, analysing and presenting results.
- Contributing to funding proposals, scientific reports and journal articles.
- Knowledge transfer activities, mentoring and supervision of students.
Where to find jobs
You will find biology research jobs in universities and scientific organisations worldwide. However, it is a highly competitive field and permanent research positions are scarce, especially in the UK.
You will need to be flexible in your approach, moving between several temporary projects before securing a lectureship or other permanent research position. Despite this, you will find that the research landscape for biology disciplines is well-funded and structured, and biological sciences research is considered to be a priority area for the majority of countries worldwide.
The availability of research jobs is funding-dependent and linked to the current focus and strategy of each university or research organisation. Biological science research is predominantly carried out in collaboration with external partners (for example charitable organisations or public health bodies) so this should also be a consideration when looking for jobs.
To find out more about how biology research and development is funded and current projects in the UK, visit the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). You can also find more information about the output, themes and impact of biological sciences research in the UK through the Research Excellence Framework (REF) results, to gain a better idea about which institutions are world-leading in your specialist area.
If you choose to work as a researcher at a university, here are some of the roles you may come across during your search:
- PhD studentship
- Research Assistant
- Research technician
- Laboratory research scientist
- Postdoctoral research fellow/associate/scientist
- KTP associate
- Senior research fellow/associate
- Lecturer/Senior lecturer
Salaries in biological sciences research vary depending on the field and specific research activities of the university. However, as a general rule, postdoctoral researchers and research associates can expect to start on a salary of around £30,000 to £39,999 p.a.
If you’re just finishing a biosciences undergraduate or Master’s degree, you may be considering doing a PhD in a specialist field. Doctoral research is ideal for science graduates who are looking towards an academic career or those who wish to discover more about a specific field before embarking on a career in biosciences industries and the non-university sector.
There is a wide range of PhD studentships available in biological sciences. A PhD takes around three to five years to complete; most are fully funded and come with a stipend in the range of £16,000 and £20,000 p.a.
Find PhD studentships in biology here