Education and Training

What sort of education do I need to become a scientist?

Most students begin thinking about becoming a scientist in high school, usually because they find that they love or excel in science classes, or because a teacher suggests they consider a career in science.

Start your science education by looking into guidance and mentoring programs. Pre-college or college-prep programs provide you an opportunity to enhance your regular math and science education by offering classes that wouldn’t necessarily be found in the school curriculum, such as physics, robotics or calculus. You should also take Advanced Placement (AP) classes, especially in science, whenever possible. Not only will these classes deepen your understanding of the subject, they may also exempt you from some introductory courses in college. Begin looking at colleges and universities as early as possible; the Internet has made researching institutes of higher education and their programs easier than ever. Find out if the college you are interested in offers a summer program that allows you to take classes on campus — it is a great way to get to know the school and for the school to get to know you.

Once you begin an undergraduate program, you will develop your skills as an investigator by learning the basics of your discipline and testing the validity of what you learn. You will take a wide variety of science classes, including biology, chemistry and physics, as well as such math classes as calculus and statistics. You will learn about conducting research and the ethics involved.

In addition to your course work, you should begin to look at the kinds of research projects that your science faculty is conducting on your campus. You can benefit from working in faculty labs, where the exploratory aspect of science becomes more real and you begin to work on something that you can become passionate about. Many colleges and universities are now encouraging students to begin research as early as possible, even as soon as their sophomore year. At the very least, you should be working with a faculty mentor on a research project by your junior year.

And don’t forget about opportunities outside the classroom. Internships either on or off campus — whether they are paid unpaid, or for credit — provide valuable hands-on learning. You’ll get to investigate and explore different areas in a more tangible way and in a real-word setting. Very often, an internship will help you solidify your planned path of study, or it may open up an entirely new branch you hadn’t considered before. Summer breaks following your sophomore and junior years are an ideal time to score an internship.

Once you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree, you must decide whether or not to join the workforce or to pursue a graduate degree. An advanced degree, such as a master of science or arts, an M.D. or a Ph.D., will allow you to learn more advanced aspects of your undergraduate major and to continue on research projects. If you decide that a particular area appeals to you, you may choose to study for an advanced degree at an institution that conducts specialized research in that area.

Depending on your career goals, you have the following educational options. Visit the National Institutes of Health Office of Science Education LifeWorks to learn about the kinds of jobs and the educational background necessary for many careers in science.

  • Bachelor’s degree - Directly after completing your undergraduate degree you may enter the workforce. Most opportunities are entry-level positions in industries or with government agencies. As an alternative, you may want to participate in a teacher-training program, in which you can begin teaching grades K–12 while studying for additional education or certification.
  • Master’s degree - If you have earned a master’s degree by completing advanced study in your field, including a significant amount of research, you will be well prepared for your profession. You may become a teaching assistant at a college or university, a secondary school teacher or a laboratory technician, or you may work in industry or for government agencies.
  • Ph.D. degree - During and after the completion of your doctoral degree, you begin to contribute to the body of existing scientific and technical knowledge. With your Ph.D. in hand, you may teach at the college or university level, work in research labs in industry or government, or work for government agencies.
  • Postdoctoral study - It is often necessary to spend time after completing a Ph.D. continuing your education, advancing in a particular area of research, or honing your skills as scientist. Postdoctoral study of a year or two beyond the Ph.D. could be considered. Scientists can have several postdoctorates in a given field or in several fields.

To get more information about if graduate study is right for you, the National Academies Press will help you assess your options.

How long is this going to take?

You can expect to spend about four years earning a bachelor’s degree. If you wish to pursue a master’s degree, it will take an additional two years. To earn a Ph.D., you may spend up to six years taking classes and conducting research. For some disciplines, it is possible to pursue a Ph.D. directly after attaining the bachelor’s degree, so you should check with your faculty adviser for the best course of action.