How to get into Research and Development careers

How to get into Research and Development

How far can you seek to gain an expertise in an area of study? In earnestness, you can never truly master a field and one can continue to learn and unearth new information till the end of their lifetime.

However, the ability to think about a subject independently truly only arrives for most by the time they are ready to pursue unanswered aspects of the field through research.

Most people, with such an ambition, reach such an ability through the machinery of education, with Bachelor’s and Master’s culminating in a PhD plus further. For all among them who choose to consider a career advancing in the same pursuit, Research and Development is a good career option.

In Science, advance Research and Development career option leads to jobs in both the academic world as well as in industries supporting in-house scientific innovation.
 

Research and Development in Academia

This is the usual streamlined path of research enthusiasts who have followed the route of educational hierarchy towards a doctorate degree. Most academic research jobs are associated with faculty positions at a university or research institute, national laboratories, etc.

Some are more focused in say national defense research, space programs, and more. Each of these organizations have their independent hiring pattern that often begins with years of building a scientific reputation within the research community.

For instance, a lot of these university or research institute faculty positions follow the route of post-doctoral fellows giving seminars and familiarizing the existing faculty and student community with their research interests. This is step one that is essentially about networking.

The second step involves going through a rigorous application and interview process that can take up to a year for some universities.

Subsequently, upon selection, these faculty members share their work time between pursuing active research, taking on various doctoral and post-doctoral students under their wing, and teaching classes to graduate or undergraduate level students. Work products involve scientific publications, number of PhD qualified graduates they have mentored, collaborations, research grants, etc.

For all intents and purposes, a Professor’s life is less stressful as compared to industry research jobs that often involves hard deadlines.

Professors do have evaluations, though, and are accountable through performance reviews conducted by the institutes or the parent funding organizations which is typically a department of the government that oversees scientific research – Central Government’s Department of Energy, Department of Science and Technology, or Ministry of Human Resource Development, or any State Government body with similar interests.
 

Research and Development in Industry

Industries in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, semiconductors, cosmetics, technology, and more, often have a research and development department whose main job is to use scientific research and innovation to develop new products and improvements. They hire researchers in fields like Biology, Biotechnology, Chemistry, Engineering, and Physics.

Not just big-name organizations and companies, but also young startups looking to create a niche market for their products. Going above and beyond the market competitors is the main advantage, as is finding proprietary or patented technologies that can promote their brand and gain them exclusive share of the market.

So, long-lasting mobiles that can withstand cold, heat, water, volcano, or the devil himself, is proprietary research for one company making their phones more durable than the other phones that simply refuse to work in rain.

The advantage of having a research and development cell within the company are the following

  • The research itself is proprietary and not open source as is the work product of most academic research.
  • The interest of the research can be directed to market trends and demands. Thus, it is more regimented, subject to deadlines, and alternates between a hard focus on the research study or the development of the studied research, depending on the mood of the company.

They too usually hire highly qualified Master’s, Doctorate, or Post-Doctorate graduates in the desired field who have additional skills that can help them adjust to the corporate culture and its values. Read Research and Development Careers and Jobs in Industry
 

Career Prospects and Salaries

There is always the need for innovation and research scientists fulfil that intellectual need in every modern society. In academia, professors are consistently in demand for teaching and bringing in grants to the institute for research.

Research quality also plays a big role in rankings and university reputation. Salary wise, faculties in India can make well over 10 – 15 lakhs per annum depending on the seniority. If you aren’t able to make it into faculty positions, universities and institutes also have research scientist positions available on a contract (usually 5 years renewable) basis.

In industry too, companies can pay quite handsomely depending on their experience and contribution. In the US, for instance, R&D personnel in big firms can make over $100k to start with. According to Glassdoor, the average salary of an IBM research scientist, in India, can be over 20 lakhs per annum.
 

How to get into Research and Development?

An advanced qualification is a pre-requisite to cutting it through into a career in R&D, however, it is definitely not sufficient. Here are a few things you can do to find yourself comfortably employed in industry research and development.
 

  • 1. Research experience makes a difference

Yes, PhD is a great way to prove that you have had a taste of the research world, but any place – big company or a small startup – needs to confirm the veracity of your claim to do independent work. PhD is but the first tepid foray into research work, often under heavy guidance of your blessed advisor.

You could end up doing great worked while in PhD itself, but it certainly does help to seal your credibility deal if you have had a stint as a post doctorate researcher – independently writing research proposals, setting up laboratories, independent research publications – essentially all the goodies that prove that you can definitely handle the research as well as the development angle of the desired job, without the need for a superior guidance.
 

  • 2. Projects with Industry R&D Groups

There are two components to R&D, as we all know – Research and Development. Most of academic research is based on researching usually open-ended problems without hard deadlines hanging over your head. Industry research, however, may often be prompted by “Development” of something innovative to corner the competitor’s edge.

In that sense, it is useful to have hands-on experience with how industry R&D functions. This can be achieved with prior short-term research stints over graduate school summers.

This is easier done during Master’s or the break before one enters a PhD program. Industry projects during PhD are also possible but is contingent on the approval of the thesis supervisor and other funding overlords.

For instance, a Mechanical Engineering researcher can gain a lot of industry insight by working on short projects at say an automobile industry. Given that most industry research work are highly proprietary, chances are that the summering interns will barely get into the meat of the research work.

Qualitatively, though, the skills and familiarization with industry work culture can help promote the cause. It will also help develop crucial networks within the research circle.
 

  • 3. Publications and Citations

R&D personnel in industries may not share the same research niche as you do. This makes the usually accepted academic reputation, subject to years of collaborating, attending conferences, and other activities that make academic researchers familiar with each other, somewhat difficult to gauge within the corporate circle.

One of the more objective standards of evaluation, for people recruiting into R&D, is the quality of research publications, especially how well they have been received in the scientific community – citations.

Impact factors of journal publications, or the reputation and quality of the journal publications (read Science, Nature, etc.) tend to make a very impressive dent in the recruiter’s imagination regarding candidate capability. Scientific recognitions or awards can obviously also set you apart as a valuable future asset.
 

  • 4. Working your way up within the Industry

Another convenient path is to obtain a scientific position such as in engineering within a company with an R&D division, and then use your time within the company to initiate various scientifically oriented projects aimed at process or quality improvements.

Activities, such as these, can help you laterally move within departments, inching closer to the R&D division. Enough experience, network, and continuous effort towards such initiatives can be used as a leverage to gain interviews at the R&D department, with a possible entry.
 
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Rakhi Acharyya //
Rakhi Acharyya
Rakhi is a freelance writer, a Physics PhD from Michigan State University, an ex-teacher and a former employee of Corporate America. Follow her on Twitter.

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