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How Does a PhD Affect Job Advancement in Applied Research?

12/14/2009 5:05:33 PM

Jean Scheijen:

Basic vs. Applied Research

Scientists conduct basic research to further the body of knowledge in a particular area, without a goal of solving a specific real-world problem. Applied research, on the other hand, always has a specific objective such as curing a disease, improving technology or solving a societal problem. Typically basic research occurs within the academic setting. Applied research is a focus for many private companies, nonprofit foundations and government agencies. But even academic institutions engage in applied research, often funded by one of the other entities. Scientists who work in basic research generally have a greater ability to choose the direction of their own research, while those in applied research have greater opportunities to get involved in different types of work in addition to their core research activities.

Research Roles

Because of the varied settings and roles, career path opportunities differ for researchers depending on whether they seek positions in basic or applied research. Some of the career path options for individuals in applied research are similar to those for individuals in basic research. In both academic and nonacademic settings, entry-level candidates can seek roles as research assistants or technicians. Such a position generally includes supervised laboratory work or data gathering. It may not require full understanding of research principles or even of the subject matter under study but instead focuses primarily on the ability to follow instructions and document activity. As individuals progress along the career path, they take on responsibilities that require increased scientific knowledge as well as solid professional skills. Intermediate positions include tasks such as managing junior-level researchers, selecting projects and acting as a liaison to other entities. In the academic setting, these individuals may serve as postdoctoral researchers or research professors. In other organizations, they may be called senior scientists or something comparable. At even more advanced levels, a scientist can coordinate an entire research program, head a university department or take on a lead role in writing cross-functional grants and proposals.

Auxiliary Roles

Scientists who advance on the career path through various applied research positions can also choose to move into auxiliary roles and move out of day-to-day research activities. Some take on roles in company leadership, filling high-level administrative roles that involve setting research strategy, obtaining grant funding or serving as a liaison with clients, business partners or other divisions. In the university setting, research scientists can move into dean or provost positions or run a specialized research center.

Impact of Ph.D. on Advancement

Jobs in applied research are less likely to require a Ph.D. than are jobs in basic research. For instance, almost all marine biologists engaged in basic research hold a Ph.D. However, while individuals with 4-year and master's degrees can and do hold research positions in applied research, the doctoral degree opens up far more opportunities. The situation varies depending on the field of scientific research: social science, biological science, atmospheric science, chemistry or physical science. For instance, social scientists have the highest education levels of all, and in social science fields a Ph.D. is usually the minimum requirement for academic positions, and is required for most nonacademic high-level positions. The situation differs for chemists: a chemist with a master's is more likely to obtain an independent research position, at least in smaller organizations. Across the board, someone with a bachelor's degree has more limited options than someone with a master's degree, who in turn has fewer options than a job candidate with a Ph.D. A minimum of a master's degree is usually required to conduct independent research, while 4-year-degree holders are limited to supervised research positions such as research assistant or technician or to nonresearch positions such as administrative assistants. Most peer-reviewed journal articles are published by individuals with doctorates, and a strong publishing history is required for advancement in academics. In other organizations, preference is given to doctorate holders due to their advanced experience with methodology, their increased subject matter expertise and their greater understanding of how an organization functions and interacts with other entities. In summary, while a Ph.D. is not as critical a prerequisite to engaging in applied research as it is for basic research, an individual with a doctorate is more likely to advance and has far more opportunities from which to choose.

References Biotech and Pharmaceutical News & Jobs
Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-2007 Edition; The United States Department of Labor; 2006

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