Most people know that being a scientist means working in a lab doing research every day, but people probably know less about what that actually looks like and how it’s structured. In our ‘Scientists’ Daily Lives’ series, we will explore how science is done and what it’s like to be a scientist. In this first edition, we discuss the structure of a ‘lab’ and how scientists work together to make discoveries. Comment below to suggest future topics in this series!
Do scientists work alone or in groups?
In short, scientists mostly work in groups. The reality is that with science, two heads are always better than one—we need to work with others to make sure that our reasoning is sound. We spend a lot of time debating the logic behind our experiments and thinking together, and working in groups gives us people around us who we can go to when we need advice.
How are these groups structured? I’ll describe how this works in two different settings: ‘academia,’ which means college campuses, and ‘industry,’ which means for-profit science companies.
In academia, scientists work in groups under the supervision of a Principal Investigator (PI), who is a professor at the university (sometimes we also refer to this person as our advisor). Each PI has a group of around 5-20 scientists who work for them, and we sometimes refer to this as our home ‘lab.’ All of the people in the group are working on small pieces of a larger problem. For example, in my lab, we are all studying the protein that makes your muscles move, which is called myosin. We study how myosins that make your heart pump can sometimes have genetic mutations that make the heart become enlarged and thus cause diseases in people. Each of us have our own unique way of addressing that problem, but our research intersects with other people in the lab in useful ways.
Labs in academia tend to have people from many different experience levels:
High school students and undergraduate college students are allowed to intern in many labs. These young students will often start learning the ropes by doing basic tasks like making materials for the lab or doing dishes, and then they work their way up the ladder and learn how to do experiments.
Research assistants (RA’s) are usually people who have a bachelor’s degree in science from college but have not done any graduate school. RA’s usually both do their own research and help out by ordering supplies and doing other lab maintenance chores. They are often people who are learning more about science to decide whether they want to go to graduate school or not. RA’s are paid and can stay as long as they want, but they usually move on to graduate school or a different job after 2-3 years.
Graduate students are often working towards a Ph.D. but sometimes working towards a master’s degree (master’s degrees are typically 2 years, while Ph.D. degrees often take 5-6 years). In graduate school, we are expected to learn how to develop ideas that are entirely our own and design experiments to test those ideas. Most scientists must go to graduate school, so it’s an important rite of passage!
Post-doctoral fellows, or ‘post docs,’ are people who already have Ph.D.’s. After they got their Ph.D. in one lab, they have moved to a new university and lab to learn even more about science before they can get a job as a professor, industry scientist, or research associate. Post docs usually take anywhere from 1.5 years to 5 years to complete.
Research associates are people who have already gotten a Ph.D. and done a post-doc and are now senior scientists working in the lab. Each lab usually only has 1 or 2 of these high-experience individuals who pursue their own research interests and help guide the students and post-docs. Many research associates work in the same lab for long periods (sometimes their whole career!).
One of the fun things about working in academia is that even though lab members have different levels of experience, everybody’s boss in the PI, so everybody feels like they are working together at the same level. Labs also like to plan fun events together, and the people we work with in the lab often become our lifelong friends.
In industry, which includes science jobs in pharmaceutical companies, technology companies, and others; scientists also work in groups, but the groups often have a more hierarchical system (although it depends a lot on the company). At the lowest level are the people who joined the company most recently, and one person at the next level oversees 3-4 people at the lowest level. Then one person at the third level oversees 3-4 people at the second level, and so on. But there are still overall groups that work together on similar problems, and the size of the problem they are working on will determine how many people are in that group. They can range from small groups of 10-20 people to larger groups of hundreds! Even if the group is very large, scientists end up working closely with a handful of people around them who report to the same supervisor.
Having a Ph.D. can help you enter at a higher level in industry and means that you can reach very high management levels by the end of your career, but you don’t necessarily need a Ph.D. to work in industry. For many positions, a bachelor’s degree in science is enough. However, the type of work Ph.D. holders do usually differs—Ph.D. holders usually design their own experiments and do lots of independent thinking, while people without Ph.D.’s usually carry out experiments that have been designed by their supervisors.