Science Simplified: What Does it Mean to be an Academic Scientist?

Want to learn about scientific topics without needing a PhD? Check out the Science Simplified blog from TESS Research Foundation! Dr. Tanya Brown, PhD, works with researchers to make science accessible and empower rare disease community members with scientific knowledge. Dr. Brown has over a decade of experience in neurodevelopmental research and is currently the Scientific Director for TESS Research Foundation. Please reach out to her at [email protected] if you have questions or comments.

This article was written by Tanya Brown, PhD. Tanya is the Scientific Director at TESS Research Foundation.

There’s a lot of terminology floating around when we talk about scientists. Who is a scientist? There are scientists in industry, in academia and in government, just to name a few types of scientists. Since TESS Research Foundation recently announced our Early-Career Investigator Grants, and the grantees all happen to be academic scientists, we wanted to take a moment to clarify some of the roles in academia for scientists and how early-career investigators fit within those roles.

What do we mean by academic science or academia? Generally speaking, this refers to someone pursuing research at a college or university. There’s still a lot of different types of scientists who work in academia, all with different levels of experience. Some of these roles include:

  • Undergraduate researcher
  • Graduate student
  • Research Technician/Scientist/Associate
  • Postdoctoral scholar/fellow
  • Principal Investigator (PI)

Let’s break these down one at a time. It’s important to note that different universities may use slightly different terminology, but these are the general terms.

Undergraduate researcher: An undergraduate student completing research in an academic lab. This is often under the guidance and supervision of a senior scientist in the lab.

Graduate student: A graduate student could refer to either a master’s or a PhD student.

Master’s student: A student may pursue a research project in about 2 years. Depending on the program, some master’s students pursue research ranging from a few months to a couple of years. This type of degree includes taking classes and may include completing a research project. Some master’s programs require students to complete a capstone or master’s thesis: a substantial project demonstrating mastery in the given subject.

PhD student: Studying for a PhD takes a long time, generally between 4-6 years. In general, science PhD students complete independent research projects by the end of their training. Each PhD program looks a little different. Many programs require students to take classes and pursue research for the first two years of the program, and then students develop independent research projects to complete their thesis. This involves publishing research in peer-reviewed journals, presenting at scientific conferences, writing grants, and defending their thesis. A defense is often both an oral presentation of your results and a written document explaining your completed research.

Research Technician/Scientist/Associate: Research scientists are essential contributors to research labs. These scientists are highly skilled in different laboratory techniques. Because they are not required to take classes, they are able to fully focus on driving the science in the lab. They may or may not have a graduate degree.

Postdoctoral scholar (postdoc): A postdoc is a scientist who has completed their PhD and is continuing research in a different lab, often at a different university. This allows the scientist  to learn new research techniques or learn a new subject. Postdocs are generally not required to take classes and focus primarily on research. Postdocs are often asked to train other members of the lab, present research at scientific conferences, and write grants.

Principal Investigator: A Principal Investigator (PI) is often the head of a lab and is a professor at the university or college. A new PI is someone who recently started their own lab. In academia, professors have different titles. A new PI is often an Assistant Professor, then gets promoted to Associate Professor, and then can get promoted to full Professor.

Now that we know who the researchers are, which ones are considered early-career investigators? It may seem a bit surprising, but many people with a PhD (aka a lot of schooling and scientific training) are considered early-career or early-stage investigators. For example, one of the major funding agencies in the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), considers anyone who has completed their terminal degree (such as a PhD) and has not received a substantial independent research award, to be an Early-Stage Investigator. This means you can have a PhD, or even an independent lab at a university or college, and still be considered “early-career”.

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We want to hear from you! If you want to add to our list of topics for Science Simplified, please email Tanya Brown, PhD: [email protected].

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