Sr. Research Scientist, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
“Research” is a very broad term, covering an entire spectrum of activities from basic research to applied research to product development.
The vast majority of academic scientists conduct basic (or pure) research, which involves gaining more comprehensive knowledge or understanding of the subject under study without specific applications in mind. Professors and their students, funded by grants, create new theories and hypotheses, then design and conduct experiments to test them. Results are published in peer-reviewed journals, and scientists at different institutions test and build on each other’s work.
Many government labs also conduct some basic research; however, even though the research may not have specific applications as its goal, the subject area is limited because it must pertain to the mission of the funding agency.
Industrial employers are generally more concerned with applied research—gathering knowledge with the goal of producing useful materials or devices to meet specific, recognized requirements. Industrial scientists apply their academic knowledge to real-world problems and develop products that meet a specific need, while factoring in business considerations. For example, chemists might develop a new food with enhanced flavor to increase sales or with a longer shelf life to save money. Applied research has traditionally been used in industry, but academics are becoming more interested in the practical applications of their work.
Once applied research has identified a workable solution to a specific problem, the focus shifts to development of a specific product. This phase involves refining the solution to produce a substance that will be effective, safe and appealing and that can be manufactured in a timely and cost-effective way.
Job duties in applied research and product development vary widely with industry and development stage of the product, but typical job duties include the following.
Companies conduct applied research and product development in a vast number of sectors and markets, ranging from commodities to fine chemicals to specialty chemicals. These compounds are then modified, combined, and formulated for specific uses in industries such as agrochemical, pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical, and personal care. Companies may develop compounds to be sold to consumers or ingredients to be sold to other businesses.
In most cases, the final products that you see on store shelves are a mixture of basic and specialty chemicals. For the most part, large chemical companies produce basic chemicals as commodities and companies of all sizes produce specialty chemicals.
Product development involves a blend of science and business. The scientist may come up with the idea for a new product, but they must convince the business manager and manufacturers that it will be profitable and can be manufactured cost-effectively. The product development timeline must be synchronized with sales and marketing departments and with manufacturing efforts.
A minimum of a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or engineering is usually required to work in this field, and master’s and Ph.D. degree holders are also valued. Senior researchers with a Ph.D. and several years of experience will supervise small groups. Many universities have co-op programs with local industry, allowing both undergraduate and graduate students to obtain experience while earning their degree, and such experience is highly valued by industry.
The location of the work will vary depending on the development stage of the product. Preliminary research is usually conducted in laboratories on a small scale, while applied research and product development moves into larger laboratories and pilot and production plants. Depending on the company, you may either move with the product through the research and development cycle or hand it off to another team as it moves closer to being ready for market.
Companies will always need people to develop new products and enhance existing ones. However, the demand will ebb and flow with the specific industry and with the maturity of its product line.
In industry, most chemists start out in research and then advance by climbing either the research or management career ladder. The research ladder involves staying close to product development, taking on more supervisory responsibilities and larger projects. The management or business ladder involves moving away from the lab bench and more into sales/ marketing or operations/production of highly technical products that are sold to other businesses rather than consumers. Scientists in management generally have slightly more experience than those in research, and they earn slightly higher salaries.
Once you move out of research and into management, it is difficult to move back to the laboratory, as your technical knowledge and skills become outdated quickly.
Government sector employers include:
Food and Drug Administration, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, National Air and Space Administration, Brookhaven National Laboratory
Demand for applied research and product development chemists will increase in some fields (i.e., materials science, alternative energies, agriculture, environmental conservation) and decrease in other areas (pharmaceuticals). Demand in a particular product category changes with the maturity of that market and with changing consumer preferences.
If you love scientific research but want to see a more practical application of your work, this may be the career for you. A strong desire to create products that people use and enjoy, as well as an entrepreneurial spirit, can definitely be helpful.