The basic researcher is driven by curiosity and a desire to explore unknown territory. Basic research includes theoretical research and early-stage investigations in the laboratory or field. A tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity is essential.

Typical Job Functions

Basic research is where it all starts: new ideas, fundamental theories, unanswered questions, and investigation into things that don’t quite make sense. It requires the ability to identify interesting problems and to come up with original ideas. The researcher may have to invent new test methods, customize equipment, or create new computer software to perform specific functions.

Basic research projects usually involve teams. Teams may involve researchers in many locations around the world. Chemists may work with materials scientists, biologists, geologists, physicists, or medical doctors. They may also enlist the help of computer scientists, engineers, and instrument design specialists to help them develop the new capabilities they need.

Typical activities involved in basic research include:

  • Identifying research topics and applying for funding
  • Collecting and analyzing laboratory and field data
  • Developing synthesis procedures and characterizing products
  • Constructing models and theories
  • Performing computational laboratory studies
  • Conducting literature searches and reading scientific publications
  • Ensuring that laboratory facilities meet health, safety, and regulatory standards
  • Publishing articles in scientific journals; making presentations at conferences

Funding for basic research commonly comes from government grants or nonprofit organizations. (Private industry is less likely to fund this type of research, because there is often no clear path to a marketable product.)

Career Paths

After gaining several years of postgraduate experience, basic researchers generally gain increasing independence and larger budgets for their work. They may supervise research teams consisting of undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, or technical staff members. Some basic researchers in academia may work as “adjunct faculty” members in a strictly research capacity (vs. teaching classes and mentoring students).

Some experienced researchers move into program management or administration, where they spend much of their time preparing budgets and schedules and obtaining funding, in addition to overseeing research programs and other researchers.

Getting Started

Basic research almost always requires a Ph.D. for entry, although some technician and support staff positions may be available to those with bachelor's or master's degrees. Students or recent graduates may do one or more internships or postdoctoral fellowships in preparation for obtaining a full-time career position.

Following are useful skills and background for a career in basic research:

  • Understanding of theoretical principles (e.g., kinetics, thermodynamics, quantum chemistry)
  • Problem-solving skills and an interest in solving basic and applied research problems
  • Critical thinking and analytical skills
  • Ability to work with and extract information from large datasets
  • Ability to interpret visual representations of models and datasets

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