Scientific research is not all about investigating living organisms, like plants, animals and human beings: the scientific community also needs to pay some serious attention to the world’s other physical systems. The experts that work in this area are the people who investigate the weather, volcanoes, earthquakes, rocks, outer space and other exciting things like that!
Physical scientists tend to specialise in one area of physical sciences, such as physics, astrophysics, chemistry, nuclear chemistry, astronomy, geology, materials science, earth science and meteorology.
If you enter this profession, you’ll be working on research projects, collecting and recording data and analysing your findings under different conditions and across multiple variables. Following this process, you’ll be preparing detailed research reports to be published or distributed to commercial clients and other interested parties.
Your conclusions will allow you to develop scientific theories and then apply them to practical situations, such as in the design and manufacture of aircraft and spacecraft. In order to achieve your research objectives, you’ll need to collaborate with fellow scientists, train junior researchers and manage technicians and interns.
Physical scientists work in a wide variety of fields across an equally wide variety of industries, such as aerospace, mining, energy production, engineering and manufacturing.
Salary & benefits
Annual salaries for physical scientists in the early stages of their careers range between £18,000 and £35,000 per annum, increasing to between £35,000 and £75,000 as you gain more experience and professional expertise.
Research scientists engaged in academic activities are dependent on the availability of public and private grants or funding resources. Consequently, their annual earnings are towards the lower end of the pay scale when compared to the salaries of scientists employed in the private sector.
Working hours vary from employer to employer, but usually range between 35 and 40 hours per week. Occasionally, you may be required to put in an extra shift or two during weekends and national holidays in order to meet research deadlines.
Opportunities for travel across the UK and overseas may be extensive. However, this depends on your area of specialisation and your reputation within the research fraternity.
To enter this profession, it’s essential to obtain an undergraduate degree in a relevant physical science subject, such as physics, geology, environmental geoscience, chemistry, geography, archaeology, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering or civil engineering.
However, a relevant MSc or PhD will further improve your chances of finding employment, and may even be preferred by certain employers.
Analytical and logical reasoning, research acumen and strong verbal and written communication skills are vital for making a good impression on potential employers. Continued professional learning and undertaking networking and collaborative activities are crucial for developing recognition within the field.
Training & progression
Most employers in the commercial and public sectors provide structured training and development programmes, which are usually comprised of formal and practical training sessions. These organisations may also sponsor you to complete relevant postgraduate and professional courses.
If you take the academic route, you will probably already have a PhD. Consequently, in order to improve your skill-set further, you will focus your efforts on gaining as much hands-on research experience as possible or taking very niche academic courses offered by relevant professional bodies.
As you progress, you may choose to specialise further and work as a senior research scientist in a particularly niche area. Alternatively, you may take a step back from the hands-on, technical side of research projects and become a project manager. Here, the financial rewards will be significant, but you will be moving further and further away from pure science.
Many physical scientists have the opportunity to work abroad at some point in their careers, either permanently or on a short-term basis when they are working on projects which involve international collaboration.
Essentially, academic research scientists are the masters of their own destiny. Promotion into more senior positions (e.g. lecturer or professor) is entirely dependent on the success of your research projects and your academic reputation.