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Where to start

Many scientists are drawn towards applying their skills in hands-on research and development in a non-academic setting. This could be working for a government department, a large multi-national firm, a charitable foundation, the NHS, or a small-to-medium enterp­rise (SME). You might be working on fundamental research, developing a new product, commercialising research, or scaling up a process. This work takes place across a wide range of sectors including pharma, medical devices, energy, technology, and manufacturing.

Our guide to Research in Academia (STEM) may also be of interest.

Do take a look at the Prospects Guide to a Career in STEM 2020/21.

Read our top tips on starting a career in Life Science research.

Hear the experiences of Cambridge alumni working in wet lab R&D and quantitative research roles in the Biotech and Pharma sector.

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How to know if you’re suited to this sector

Working in Research and Development involves research and problem-solving skills, analytical skills, innovative thinking, and technical ability. Your ‘research’ skills, however, are not the only factor. Employers also look for evidence of wider skills, including leadership, communication, teamwork, attention to detail, resilience, project management, and commercial awareness. Read about and talk to Cambridge alumni working in R&D to get a feel for what they do, and to learn about their career paths.

You may like a career in commercial R&D if you’d enjoy:

  • working with interdisciplinary teams of scientists/engineers
  • seeing the outcome of your research being realised over a shorter timescale than in academia
  • having the option to move into business/management later in your career
  • attending scientific conferences.

There may, however, be drawbacks to this career:

  • you may have to drop scientifically interesting projects if they do not seem profitable
  • you may have less scientific freedom than in academic research.
How to get the experience to be credible

Getting research experience outside of your degree is important. This will help you work out if research is right for you, and provide key evidence of your interest to a future employer.

There are several research programmes and schemes that enable STEM students to explore academic or industry research during their vacations. This document represents a selection of opportunities that usually operate annually, it is not exhaustive and some schemes may not run every year. Check eligibility and application requirements carefully.

Summer R&D internships

Many large organisations provide formal summer internship experience. These are likely to be highly competitive and aimed at penultimate year students. Recent examples that have been advertised include AkzoNobel, Diamond Light Source Ltd, GlaxoSmithKline, Illumina, Mars UK Ltd, Unilever, P&G, STFC, Amgen scholars, CERN. Search for current postings via Handshake, Gradcracker, Target Jobs, and Prospects.

Consider smaller organisations

Widen your search by looking at smaller companies. This is particularly important for students in their early years. Many Cambridge students find work experience in smaller organisations, and build on this in later years. These may not be household names, and they may require a speculative approach, as not all advertise formal schemes. Useful starting points for finding opportunities include UK Science Park Association, One Nucleus, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, as well as any friends or family contacts you may have. Use social media, including LinkedIn, to follow interesting companies and research companies in your local area.

Specialist science recruitment agencies may advertise short term experiences (for example,

Don’t forget about government organisations, research institutes and universities

Several research institutes and government organisations offer summer research placements. Examples include Wellcome Trust, Diamond Light Source, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), Cancer Research UK, The Met Office, CERN. Some of these will be advertised via Handshake, but not all, so look directly at their websites and sign up for any alerts.

Formal Undergraduate Research (Opportunity) Programmes (UROP/URP) are more common in the USA, although Cambridge and Imperial offer them too, and the Amgen Scholars Program and the DAAD RISE scheme include students enrolled at UK universities. 

The UK Research Councils, including the BBSRC, NERC and EPSRC, fund research experience placements at universities (primarily those hosting their doctoral training programmes) for undergraduate students to gain research laboratory work experience. Handshake may carry these vacancies, but please check the Research Council websites from the second half of Michaelmas Term in your second year.

Charities, including Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust, also have similar schemes at a number of different UK locations.

Let your DOS, supervisors, or other academics know you're looking—it's OK to approach people whose lectures, practicals, or papers you've enjoyed. Check departmental noticeboards and the websites of other Universities. Many students start building their research experience via speculative approaches to academics at Cambridge and beyond. 

Your Part II or III research project

Think carefully when choosing your research project. Will it help you to develop skills that commercial R&D are looking for (such as lab techniques and programming), or to develop skills in a relevant area (such as synthetic chemistry for the pharma industry)?

Get inspiration from previous students

Vacation work survey results

Use the community section of Handshake to find out what others in your subject did last summer.

Further study or certification required

Is a PhD required?

Large industrial companies may recruit new graduates. A PhD, however, will probably be required for career progression, for instance if you want to lead a team of scientists or direct research.

The importance of a PhD varies from sector to sector; it is less important in engineering areas, but more important in pharma/biotech. It may be possible to do a PhD after you have gained some industrial experience. If you do undertake a PhD, your research topic will be important. Does the project have a strong industry focus/collaborator? Can you develop relevant technical skills and knowledge? Does it also allow you to develop your transferable skills? Does it give you exposure to industrial partners and collaborators?

How to find employers or training courses

Large graduate schemes will recruit in the Michaelmas term for an autumn start the following year. Some companies, including SMEs, will recruit all year round (particularly for PhD-level roles). Use Handshake, and the Engineering Science and Technology event in November.

Around Cambridge, make use of One Nucleus and the Cambridge Cluster Insights.

National listings:

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Tips for succeeding in the application or selection process

Be prepared to talk about any research you’ve already done and/or what particular areas of research are interesting to you. If you are approaching an individual academic or research group, do you know what makes their research unique? It may not be related to the topic they lectured on.

If you are applying to a larger organisation such as the Wellcome Trust, find out about their current strategy and key priorities.

As you gain experience, it is important to have a dedicated section on the first page of your CV outlining your research experience to date; what problems did you solve? What techniques did you learn? You can include research completed as part of your course, experimental techniques you have developed, or any projects you completed in your own time. 

What Cambridge offers to help with this career

Cambridge is a world leading centre for research - don’t shy away from talking to lecturers, supervisors and alumni. Most people want to help current students; even if they can’t directly offer you work experience, they may be able to advise you on who to contact.

Other things you should know
What to do next

Now you have looked at this page, think about your next steps. Everyone's journey is different. There are many ways to move forward. Here are some actions you could take now: