Biomedical Research Scientist

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This wiki is in very early stages and is a work in progress.

This page contains all notes on biomedical researchers in academia over and above what we put in our career profile. Read the profile first, here.

Profile type

Medium-depth

What is this career path?

Biomedical scientists do research on how the human body works with the aim of finding new ways to improve health. Biomedical research spans academia and industry. Academia tends to focus on improving tools and techniques, studying healthy biological processes and studying diseases, whereas industry tends to focus on generating and evaluating possible treatments. [1]


In this profile we focus on biomedical scientists who work in academia.

What does the work involve?

What are the major stages of this career?

Training is done either through a PhD in biomedical sciences, or through doing a medical degree.

Typical career trajectory:

  • Initial training: Study in medicine or a PhD in biological sciences (4-10 years)
  • Junior researcher: Work in an established lab underneath the lab head, initially as a postdoc, and then as a tenure-track professor. During this phase you aim to publish, and find a promising field to specialise in.
  • Tenured professor:: Lead a lab, manage students, post-docs and other junior researchers, apply for research grants, sometimes teach.

What are the major sub-options within this path?

What is it like day-to-day?

Your days mainly consist of:

  • Running experiments in the lab
  • Writing academic papers and grant applications
  • Discussing your experiments with your boss and other members of the lab
  • Going to conferences, talks and learning about developments in the field
  • Teaching graduate students
  • If senior, managing and mentoring the other members of your lab.

Junior researchers may spend most of their time in the lab, while senior researchers spend most of their time managing, writing papers and speaking to other researchers.

Some day in the life profiles:

What are the people like?

  1. “(A) – (C) are generally associated with academia, while (D) – (F) are generally associated with industry. “ [1])

Personal fit

Entry requirements.

“The MD and programming/statistics combo is lethal. Top of the world. There’s major demand.” “All the kids need to learn to program and understand statistics. The data sets are getting bigger and bigger, and better. You need to learn to move data around. You need to avoid being fooled by randomness.” https://80000hours.org/2013/11/interview-with-a-cambridge-professor-of-medical-genetics-on-research-careers/

What does it take to progress?

“This career is hard to predict. You have someone just starting their PhD. It’s quite hard to predict how it’s going to go for them. If they’ve done really well, they’ll probably succeed, but probably not quite as they imagine. And you may find that, although you’re first author on a Nature paper, you relied on having a great mentor. If they haven’t done really well, they can succeed, I’ve seen it happen. More likely, they’ll have to do something else.” “You’ll need to bear in mind that if it’s not working out, you may need to think about alternatives. It’s better to make the decision at that point rather than in 10 years. You can help yourself a lot by going to a top lab. Then ask, are you swimming or sinking?” https://80000hours.org/2014/01/interview-with-leading-hiv-vaccine-researcher-prof-sir-andrew-mcmichael/

"“To pursue any scientific career, you must have an insatiable curiosity for your subject because what we do is hard, and most of the time things don’t work and it can be quite frustrating. Every now and again you have a day where something amazing happens and you get a really fascinating result that makes the other 364 days of the year feel worthwhile. Unless you have an absolute obsession with your subject, it’s very hard to persevere and not become demoralized. I personally am really obsessed with how the immune system interacts with the malaria parasite and how t-cells evolve after vaccination. I’m lucky enough to travel to Africa now and again and see the magnitude of the problem that we’re trying to address. If you’re not motivated in that way and don’t really think you can make a difference with what you’re doing, then it’s probably not the career for you.” https://80000hours.org/2013/11/interview-with-malaria-vaccine-researcher-katie-ewer/

“It is a tough career, and nobody goes into medical research for the money. You get into it because you believe you can make a difference and it’s scientifically and academically challenging and stimulating. I would strongly advise people to find a branch of medicine or science in which they can find a new question to answer and be motivated enough to go and answer when their last 10 experiments haven’t worked and they don’t know why.” https://80000hours.org/2013/11/interview-with-malaria-vaccine-researcher-katie-ewer/

Who should especially consider this option?

“If you are uniquely gifted in scientific research, then you should probably be a scientific researcher. But for the other 99.9% of the population, they’re probably best going and earning £1 million elsewhere and funding research.” https://80000hours.org/2013/11/interview-with-malaria-vaccine-researcher-katie-ewer/

Barriers

Career capital

Common exits

“You can take jobs in lab admin, lab managers, research councils. It’s better to go into these careers at the start, but it’s an option. It’s difficult to go into medicine by this stage. People have, but it’s not ideal. Others just leave science, and go on to do other worthwhile things. One guy I know who went and started a coffee chain and did really well!” https://80000hours.org/2014/01/interview-with-leading-hiv-vaccine-researcher-prof-sir-andrew-mcmichael/

“If you have the MD, just drop out into medicine! There’s lots of other options for someone with those qualifications." “From research, many people drop out into teaching.” https://80000hours.org/2013/11/interview-with-a-cambridge-professor-of-medical-genetics-on-research-careers/

"Katie listed the following options: public health and policy, scientific writing and publishing (e.g., working for a scientific journal), and teaching. She also knows several women who have left the field to become full time mothers." https://80000hours.org/2013/11/interview-with-malaria-vaccine-researcher-katie-ewer/

Culture

Exploration value

Role impact

Direct impact potential

"Overall, there is strong evidence that new biomedical technologies have created significant value, as measured through the economic value of health improvements. Some scholars believe that even if public sector research was responsible for only a small share of this gain, it delivers high returns on investment (Murphy and Topel 2003)." http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK83123/

Summary of a literature survey on the returns to biomedical research and a tentative cost-effectiveness analysis by Givewell

“I think these kinds of issues [bad study design and other biases] are more of a problem in clinical trials. You’re not going to get funding to do a laboratory based project if it has been done before or it isn’t a very sound idea. The process is very rigorous.” “I agree that negative results tend not to be published, which does bias the field occasionally. And sometimes something gets published, but there’s never any follow up, so you might doubt it’s a real result. But in basic science, the word normally gets out one way or another. It’ll probably be mentioned in reviews eventually.” https://80000hours.org/2014/01/interview-with-leading-hiv-vaccine-researcher-prof-sir-andrew-mcmichael/

How valuable is medical research? - Giving What We Can

Talent constraint

Here is what three researchers we interviewed said about how valuable talented researchers were relative to research funding:

Sir Andrew McMichael, leading HIV vaccine researcher

For the good person who’s CV you just described, would you prefer their CV landing on your desk or an extra grant?

“It’s not a simple choice. If they’re that good, they’ll probably get their own funding at some point. You can take them on without huge risk. I would always take the person.”

How about if you could have half a million pound grant?

“It’s hard to turn down half a million pounds. I wouldn’t know many groups who would. You could buy another machine or do another project that would be too expensive otherwise. It depends on how much money I’ve got there already. It’s fantastic to get good people though, no question.”

Can good researchers always get funding?

“Yes, reasonably easily. Everyone can get bad patches. It’s unusual to always be on top of everything. For instance, you can get a dip at the end of a line of work, while you’re getting ready to start something else. But on the whole they can.”

John Todd, a Professor of Medical Genetics at Cambridge

Would you prefer £100,000 per year or [a good person] working for you?

“Definitely the guy”

How about £0.5mn per year?

“I’d still the take the person at £0.5mn. By £5mn, I’d prefer the money! There’s a cut off somewhere between the two.”

Why would you pay so much?

“It’s very difficult to find brilliant people who have the true grit to get things done, even if it takes a long time. Most of them end up in the city.”

“The best people are the biggest struggle. The funding isn’t a problem. It’s getting really special people. I call them the one percenters…If you have a good person, it’s easy to get the grants for them. I don’t think there’s a really good researcher out there who couldn’t get funding from the MRC or Wellcome Trust.”

“One good guy can cover the ground of 5, and I’m not exaggerating”

Katie Ewer, a cellular immunologist

Is your impression is that it’s harder to find good researchers or additional funding?

“In order for research to progress, you need lots of different types of people within an organization. You need people who are very methodical in what they do and are capable of doing large volumes of high through-put work, and then you need a few people at the top with the creativity to pull ideas out of the sky that nobody else would ever think of and convince Bill Gates to give you £1 million. I guess if you have somebody like that in your institution who is that creative and has that amazing ability and insight, then you can probably convince people to give you £1 million. But funding is always limited. We could proceed our field more quickly if we had as much funding as the HIV field.”

“If you are uniquely gifted in scientific research, then you should probably be a scientific researcher. But for the other 99.9% of the population, they’re probably best going and earning £1 million elsewhere and funding research.”

See this post and this post for a discussion of the concept of fields being talent constrained.

Earnings potential

If you train as a medic, then you earn medical salaries. See our profile on medical careers for salary figures.

If you take the PhD route to entry, you earn academic salaries. See data on US salaries and UK salaries.

Advocacy potential

Job satisfaction

"Overall it takes 10-12 years before you’re fully qualified in medicine and able to run a research program. It’s tough, especially if you want to start a family.” https://80000hours.org/2014/01/interview-with-leading-hiv-vaccine-researcher-prof-sir-andrew-mcmichael/

“Overall, I think it’s a fantastic career. The downsides are that it’s not very secure. People can run into funding problems, especially if they’re not at the peak of things or a bit unlucky. It’s not particularly well paid. It has its ups and downs. The ups more than compensate, but when you have a string of bad results and grants rejected, it gets a bit depressing.” “It can leave people a bit stranded mid career. You start out well, but you don’t quite make it to the top. You’re on a 3-5 year contract. You find it doesn’t get renewed. You’re 45 and stranded. https://80000hours.org/2014/01/interview-with-leading-hiv-vaccine-researcher-prof-sir-andrew-mcmichael/

Alternatives

Past experience

Take action

Learn more

Next steps

“We get a lot of people who think they might want to do a PhD and they’re coming to the lab to see a) what it’s like to work in a research group and b) what vaccine research is like. I think that’s a good idea before you commit yourself to a PhD program or even a master’s program. Getting a job as a research assistant is often a good way in, but those posts are often quite competitive. I have hired about eight research assistants in my time at the Jenner. Half of those will go onto do a PhD within the Jenner, some of them will stay as research assistants, and others will decide to do something else.” https://80000hours.org/2013/11/interview-with-malaria-vaccine-researcher-katie-ewer/

“It takes about six months to fit into any new job. If you’re excitement or interest hasn’t been piqued within six months of starting to work in an area, that’s probably a sign the research field isn’t for you.” https://80000hours.org/2013/11/interview-with-malaria-vaccine-researcher-katie-ewer/

Best resources

Advice to a Young Scientist by Medawar

Remaining issues

  • What are the main pros and cons of working in industry compared to academia

Research process

Sources