Skip to main content

Research Scientist in Academic or Government Institutions

Research Scientist – Academic/Government Institutions


What do research scientists at academic or government institutions do?

Research scientists may be primarily involved in conducting experiments (wet lab) or analyzing data (dry lab) or they may be in a lab management role in which they supervise others, plan experiments, contribute to grant proposals, presentations, and other publications.  Those with advanced degrees may be principal investigators (have their own lab).  For the most part, university level research will be considered “basic” – asking/answering fundamental questions about how life (molecules, cells, organisms, etc.) works as opposed to “applied” in which a marketable product or service is being developed.  Both basic and applied research is conducted in government agencies. 

What type of training is required to become a research scientist at an academic or government institutions?

The Bachelor degree is usually required for entry level positions, variously called research assistants, lab technicians, or lab technologists.  Some students are hired after graduation to continue working in the labs where they worked as undergraduates.  With experience, individuals may be promoted to more supervisory roles. Generally a doctoral degree will be required to become a Principal Investigator (PI).  In universities there are fewer and fewer “hard money” positions (built into a departmental budget) so many research positions are term appointments dependent on ongoing grant funding for re-appointment (“soft money”).  Often these are ideal for students who want to take a gap year or two before entering a graduate program.

How do I best prepare for a research position in an academic or government institution?

The required coursework for the Genetics major provides you with a solid foundation for pursuing a research career at many levels but you will also need to have experience conducting research as an undergraduate.  (See also advice for admission to a PhD program.)  Your GPA will not be given the same consideration as when applying to graduate or professional schools but still should be above 3.0.

If you are in the freshman honors program, plan to jumpstart your research career by taking HON 290H during your first spring semester.  Go above and beyond in your required BIOL and GEN labs – if working in groups, be sure to be the leader and doer. Consider BIOL 423L (Developmental Biology Lab) which is offered every spring and can be repeated.  It is open to all life sciences majors, freshman through senior; students do gene-editing in zebrafish. Talk to your faculty advisor and instructors about their research; look at the faculty research interests on the people pages of the departmental websites, BBMB, EEOB, and GDCB and the IGG (Interdepartmental Graduate Genetics and Genomics) website; read some of the research summaries or publications of those whose research areas are of interest and contact them by e-mail or go knock on their office doors.  Most faculty employ one or more undergraduates to do lab maintenance (paid positions) and to do research projects (for GEN 499 or other course credit).


Lisa Coffey

Education: BS, Genetics, ISU 2005

Current Position:  Research Associate II, Plant Sciences Institute, Iowa State University

I have been working as a Nursery Manager for a corn research lab here on ISU campus since I received my B.S. from ISU.  Much of my time is spent organizing and planning for larger and complicated field projects.  I also spend a fair amount of time to help guide new graduate students as they plan their field experiments with lessons learned from previous projects that I have been around for the past 15 years on the job.  And I hire and train a team of undergraduate students to help out with the projects the lab undertakes as well.  I want to encourage any undergraduate in the scientific community to find a job in a research lab right away, keep your eyes and ears open as you’re in the lab working, and ask questions.  Not every job might be glamorous all of the time – we all have to spend some time washing the glassware after all.  But get your foot in the door, see what you like and what you don’t like.  Use this to shape an idea of what you want from your college experience and what you might want to do after you receive your degree.  You have 4 years while obtaining your degree to try out different research fields and see what looks interesting and excites you.  Don’t miss that opportunity.


Tom Maier

Education: BS, Genetics, ISU, 1994

Current Position:  Assistant Scientist, Plant Pathology and Microbiology, Iowa State University

I have been employed as an Assistant Scientist in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology for the past 25 years, serving as both a lab manager and research specialist in a lab focusing on the molecular interaction of a plant-parasitic nematode and its plant host.   A large part of my preparation for this career came in my experiences during my undergraduate degree in Genetics.   I was fortunate to have taken part in several undergraduate research experiences during my undergraduate degree, including my first experience with research as an undergraduate research assistant in my academic advisor’s lab in Genetics.   I can’t stress enough how important it was for me to get into a lab and conduct actual research as an undergrad.  Additionally, courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, and Plant Molecular Biology were great influences on my eventual career decision.