How to Become a Research Scientist

Industry Advice Science & Mathematics

Professionals with a background in biotechnology can choose to pursue many lucrative careers. One of the most common choices is to become a research scientist. These individuals work in drug and process development, consistently conducting research and performing experiments to help move the biotechnology industry forward. 

“At the highest level, a research scientist is somebody who can design and execute experiments to prove or disprove a hypothesis,” says Jared Auclair, director of the biotechnology and bioinformatics programs at Northeastern. “Within the world of biotechnology, that can mean a number of different things, from creating new drugs to improving the process of how we make a drug.”

Professionals in this industry are often drawn to the wide array of applications of this work, as well as the consistently positive career outlook. The average salary of a biotechnology research scientist is $85,907 per year, with plenty of opportunities for increased salary potential depending on specializations, location, and years of experience. 

These factors—alongside the growing demand for advancement in biotechnology over the last few decades—have led many aspiring biotechnologists to consider a career in research science. Below we offer five steps professionals can take to kick-start a career in this field.

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5 Steps to Become a Research Scientist

1. Acquire the necessary technical skills.

According to Auclair, there are four main applications of research science within the biotechnology field:

  • Molecular Biology
  • Process Science
  • Biochemistry
  • Analytical Biotechnology

Professionals hoping to pursue a career in research science must begin by deciding which of these four areas is the best fit for their interests and backgrounds. They must then acquire the specific skill sets they need to excel in that area. 

Below, Auclair breaks down some of the key skills and knowledge required within each of these specializations:

  • Molecular biologists should focus on developing a complex understanding of DNA and learn how to do a Polymerase Chain Reaction alongside other DNA-related experiments. 
  • Process scientists must understand cell biology and how to work with living mammalian cells, as well as how to perform analytical experiments using mass spectrometry and other analytical tools.
  • Biochemists should focus on obtaining the skills necessary to make a protein drug, including the expression and purification of proteins.
  • Analytical biotechnicians must become comfortable with techniques like mass spectrometry—a process that uncovers what drug products are at a molecular level.

One efficient way aspiring research scientists can obtain these specific skill sets is to pursue a master’s degree in biotechnology at a top university like Northeastern. 

“The biotech program is designed in collaboration with industry so that we’re meeting their needs,” Auclair says. “This includes training students with the skills they need to be a successful research scientist.”

The curriculum of Northeastern’s program explores the core competencies required to excel in the general biotechnology field and provides students with the unique subsets of skills they need to specialize in a specific area of research science. Students can even declare one of 10 industry-aligned concentrations, including options that directly relate with these common research science roles.

“Especially in industry, most people who are doing research science—who are actually doing the experiments and helping think about experiments with some of the senior leaders in the company—are people with a master’s degree,” Auclair says.

2. Become a critical thinker.

Alongside honing technical skills, Auclair says that critical thinking abilities are key for aspiring research scientists. 

“It’s important to become a critical thinker and a problem solver, and to challenge yourself wherever you can to step outside of your comfort zone,” Auclair says. 

Though critical thinking is a common requirement among most professional career paths, it is especially important for research scientists, who are constantly tasked with innovating and thinking creatively to solve problems.

Northeastern’s master’s in biotechnology program is designed to help students grow in this regard. “Everything we do within the program is geared [toward] making you a critical thinker and a problem solver,” Auclair says. “We try to define classes and assessments to make you think, [and] we also hire most of the faculty in our program directly from the industry, so they bring with them real-world experience that they can talk about with the students.”

These real-world case studies are a core component of Northeastern’s approach to learning, and they help prepare students to think critically about their work. By bringing this exposure into the classroom, students also graduate better prepared to tackle current industry challenges and adapt to evolving trends.

3. Hone your “power skills.”

It’s no longer enough for research scientists in biotechnology to have obtained the technical skills needed to complete their work. Today, many employers require an array of industry-specific “power skills”—previously known as “soft skills”—among candidates for research science roles.

Below we explore the top three “power skills” for biotechnology research scientists:

  • Communication: As a research scientist, “you must be able to communicate scientific information to both technical and non-technical people,” Auclair says. For this reason, professionals should work to hone their verbal and written communication styles, focusing specifically on the variances in each depending on which audience they’re interacting with.
  • Presentation Ability: Research scientists must be able to present their findings clearly and concisely to a variety of different audiences, ranging from fellow scientists to investors to C-suite executives. Research scientists must be comfortable in front of a group and know how to speak about their experiments and conclusions in an engaging and informative way.
  • Teamwork: Although one might think a research scientist’s work is very siloed, today’s professionals must be very comfortable working with others in a lab environment. They must become comfortable sharing ideas, providing feedback to others in their cohort, and tweaking their experiments based on contributed findings.

Northeastern offers students the chance to explore each of these core “power skills” during their time within the master’s in biotechnology program. For example, the university offers countless opportunities for students to collaborate with and present to classmates, instructors, and even industry-leading organizations through Northeastern’s experiential learning opportunities, giving them the chance to apply these skills in both classroom and real-world situations early on.

Learn More: How to Become a Biotechnologist: Build Your Soft Skills

4. Obtain hands-on experience.

One of the most effective ways an aspiring research scientist can prepare for a career in this field is to obtain experiences working in a real lab. While finding these kinds of opportunities can be difficult for those just breaking into the field, programs like Northeastern’s MS in biotechnology bake hands-on learning directly into the curriculum. 

“Students do essentially four to six months [working in the] industry, and put what they learn in the classroom…into practice,” Auclair says.

These opportunities, known as co-ops, provide students with the chance to work within top organizations in the industry and explore the real-world challenges of the field from inside a functioning lab.

Did You Know: Northeastern’s program provides students with exposure to the tools and equipment used within labs in the industry. This access to cutting-edge technology reduces the learning curve and allows students to dive into their work as soon as they graduate.

Another unique way Northeastern provides hands-on experience is through Experiential Network (XN) Projects. Students who participate in these projects are typically paired with a sponsor from an active biotech company that has a real-world problem they need to solve. Then, “under the guidance of a faculty member, students spend the semester trying to come up with solutions to that problem,” Auclair says. “It’s all student-driven.”

Hands-on learning opportunities like these give students a competitive advantage when it comes to applying for jobs. “The experiential learning piece [of our program] is what has our students actually stand out above others in the field,” Auclair says, because employers like to see that their candidates are capable of applying their skills in a real-world environment. 

5. Grow your network.

Research shows that 85 percent of all jobs today are filled through networking, making it more important than ever for professionals across industries to invest time and energy into building these vital relationships.

Professionals hoping to establish a career as a research scientist are no exception. These individuals should aim to develop connections with organizations and individuals within the greater biotech industry early on in their careers, and use those relationships to help carve their path forward.

Northeastern’s master’s in biotechnology program has strategically created many great opportunities for students to network throughout their time in the program. They are encouraged to build relationships with their classmates, guest speakers, faculty, and even the industry leaders they meet through co-ops and XN projects. As a result, they establish various impactful connections with individuals at different stages in their careers, all before they graduate.

Learn More: Networking Tips for Scientists

Another way Northeastern’s program supports networking is through opportunities for student/faculty collaboration. “We encourage our students to interact with our own faculty who are research scientists as much as possible, whether that’s volunteering in their lab or finding a half an hour to talk to them about what they’re doing,” Auclair says. “We want our students to be exposed to as many research scientists as possible while they’re in the program.”

Take the Next Step

Pursuing a master’s degree in biotechnology from a top university like Northeastern is a great way for aspiring research scientists to break into the field. Students in these programs can hone related skill sets, grow their professional networks, and experience hands-on learning, all while pursuing graduate-level education. 

Learn more about how a master’s in biotechnology can set you up for success as a research scientist on our program page, then get in touch with our enrollment coaches who can help you take the first step.


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