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Focus on… medical researchers

Continuing our regular feature focussing on a range of careers in the UK, we take a closer look at medical researchers.

What do medical researchers do?
Medical research firms cover a wide spectrum of health-related investigations, experiments and analysis. Companies that specialise in these areas are responsible for discovering problems and solutions to health conditions, testing treatments and reviewing the results.

Areas of research include biomedical studies, such as looking at causes of disease and health conditions, and these cover anything from cancer, heart disease and dementia, to irritable bowel syndrome, flu and even athlete’s foot.

Scientist filling test tubes with pipette in laboratory

Biomedical research firms also look at how humans respond to environmental changes and factors, including addiction and dependency.

There’s also pharmaceutical research which relates to the production, sale, and use of medicinal drugs, including developing new medicines to treat conditions.

Firms, organisations and charities that specialise in medical research make ground-breaking discoveries every day. Although some may not seem as revolutionary, they still dramatically change people’s lives every day.

Getting started
If you’re interested in a career in medical research, then you will need a degree (with honours) in a medical or life science, and it’s not possible with an HND or foundation degree only.

If you’ve graduated in one of the following subjects, then these are particularly relevant:

• biochemistry;
• biomedical sciences;
• genetics;
• immunology;
• medical microbiology;
• molecular biology;
• pharmacology;
• physiology.

Degrees in this subject area are considered a traditional route to a medical research career, however graduates in bioinformatics/statistics, chemistry and physics are all acceptable, depending on the area of research you’re looking to get into.

Although there are some entry-level positions you could get into, if you’re looking to progress in the field of medical research, you’ll also need a Master’s degree (MSc) or a doctorate (PhD), or at least be working towards one.

If you’re looking to undertake a PhD, there are several funding options available through the Medical Research Council (MRC), in the form of scholarships, bursaries and studentships.

Industry challenges
While working for a large research company, charity or institute comes with job security and career progression, smaller organisations are often reliant upon external funding, which can change or even stop without warning.

If the income stream dries up, then there is a good chance the research can stall or stop indefinitely. This uncertainty can lead to high levels of stress in certain parts of the industry.

As the role of a medical researcher is largely academic, there are seldom any chances to build leadership skills and project management capabilities. In turn, this can hinder career opportunities, as these are both essential elements to leading major projects and teams.

Flexible working is not typically offered for scientists in this field, as most of the work is carried out in laboratory conditions, albeit some reporting and analysis can be done at home.

Personal challenges
Getting a breakthrough in research provides a thrill like no other, however getting to that stage can be frustrating and repeating the same test conditions over and over can feel repetitive and unfulfilling.

However, the basic starting salary is good, and even as a research assistant you can live a decent quality of life.

There are also lots of international opportunities for anyone looking to work overseas. Depending on the specialism, special visa conditions can apply to certain areas of research, enabling you to travel the world.

Industry facts
• A research scientist earns on average of £30,166 per year, figures from Payscale.com show.
• Senior researchers and university professors earn between £50,000 and £70,000 each year, according to graduate website www.prospects.ac.uk
• Physics, Software Development, Chemistry, Project Management, and Bioinformatics are the highest-paid areas of the industry

Case study: An alternative route to medical research

Sera Aylin Cakiroglu of the Francis Crick InstituteSera Aylin Cakiroglu is a postdoctoral research fellow at The Francis Crick Institute – an organisation that promotes multidisciplinary working and collaborative approaches that was founded by a range of health organisations, including the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Cancer Research UK.

It aims to determine why disease develops and come up with solutions to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and strokes.

With an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from the Technical University Braunschweig in Germany, Sera began her PhD there doing statistics.

It wasn’t long before she began feeling the need to branch out of the classroom and undertake some real-life application of her knowledge.

At a career’s fair, Sera got chatting to recruiters from Cancer Research UK. Putting her in touch with Professor Nicholas Luscombe at the Crick Institute, he was coincidentally looking for a mathematician to diversify into a new area of research, and he took Sera on in the role.

Although branching out into a new field, Sera still applies her mathematical approach to problem solving, using her knowledge of computing and statistics to recurring patterns in DNA.

“I think apart from my mathematical background,” says Sera, “the most important skills for my current job are programming and that I enjoy research on very noisy data.

“However, especially since I am a newbie in biology it is important that I can communicate easily with people and sometimes ask very silly questions without being too embarrassed.”