One aspect of life as a scientist that is not often represented in popular culture is career progression – that is how academia works and how scientists actually progress in their careers. For those interested in becoming a scientist, this is actually quite an important consideration! Here are a few pointers about how academia actually works.
Being a scientist is a highly specialized job. After high school, scientists pursue an undergraduate degree in any scientific discipline. After completing their undergraduate studies, they head for graduate school. Some get a Master’s degree – but all eventually enroll to do a PhD. A doctoral degree lasts from 4 to 6 years depending on what country it takes place and it is where students become scientists who can develop their thoughts independently. In most countries, PhD students are working full-time as laboratory scientists and get paid – which takes the burden off from having to get a “real job”!
2.Where Science Happens
Science takes place in all kinds of different places. After receiving their PhDs, scientists can work in universities, in research institutes associated with universities (but where no undergraduate courses are taught) or in private pharmaceutical companies. The term “academia” refers to universities and institutes – while pharmaceutical companies are usually referred to as “the private sector”. Scientists in academia start as postdoctoral associates (or “post-docs”) and eventually progress to become a Principal Investigator (or PI). PIs head their own group of scientists, which usually includes both post-docs and PhD students and stir their research as well as mentor them towards doing better research and becoming better scientists. PIs can be involved in university teaching – where they can be associate professors, professors, readers or lecturers – or not have anything to do with university teaching whatsoever.
3. How Academics Rate Each Other
Salespeople are rated according to how much they sell. Surgeons are rated by how many successful surgeries they perform. Scientists are rated by how many papers they author. A paper is a novel piece of scientific research that is written up and published in a peer-reviewed journal. Peer-reviewed means that it has been subject to the intense scrutiny of other academics, who (anonymously of course) go over the data and methods used by the paper in question. Peer-reviewers often ask for new experiments to be carried out, until they are satisfied that the results presented in the paper are correct. Journals are rated by “impact factor”, which is a numerical score reflecting how cited a particular journal is. Highly cited journals are believed to be more respected in the field and therefore publishing in them is considered more prestigious than publishing in lower-impact publications. This system certainly has huge problems, but so far it is how the life sciences work and how scientists progress in their careers.