Biotech career: What it’s really like being a research assistant

Research assistants

Ever wondered what the role of a research assistant is like? Labiotech spoke to Elina Kuznecova, a research assistant at the University of Oxford, to know more about what the role demands, and how integral they are in supporting the biotech and life sciences industry. 

The role of a research assistant entails a range of responsibilities that can vary depending on the setting, explained Kuznecova. 

“In a research setting, research assistants typically work within a specific research group, assisting with experiments, data collection, literature reviews, and contributing to research publications. They may also be involved in managing laboratory resources and assisting with administrative tasks related to research projects,” she said.

On the other hand, in an industrial setting, Kuznecova pointed out that research assistants may have a broader scope of responsibilities. 

“While they may still be involved in research activities such as data analysis and experimentation, they may also participate in project management, product development, quality control, and other operational tasks relevant to the industry they’re working in,” said Kuznecova. 

Table of contents

    What does a day in the life of a research assistant look like?

    They are essentially tasked with supporting fellow scientists. While scientists may have expertise in specific areas of study and may lead research projects, Kuznecova said that research assistants often handle the day-to-day tasks that are necessary for the smooth operation of experiments and studies. Depending on the field of research, this may include gathering and analyzing data, proofreading research papers, conducting experiments in the laboratory, as well as making sure equipment in the lab is in place and chemicals and buffer solutions are ready for use.

    “Research assistants are trained to follow protocols meticulously, ensuring that experiments are conducted accurately and reproducibly. They also have practical laboratory skills, which allows them to perform tasks efficiently and effectively,” said Kuznecova.

    By taking care of routine tasks, they help free up scientists’ time to be able to focus on designing experiments and interpreting results.

    “It’s an intellectually stimulating role where no two days are the same.”

    Elina Kuznecova, research assistant at the University of Oxford

    “This division of labor allows research projects to progress more efficiently and enables scientists to devote more attention to the intellectual aspects of their work,” said Kuznecova.

    In Kuznecova’s line of work, which is cardiovascular research with a focus on myocardial infarcts (heart attacks) and heart failure, a day at the lab involves preparing reagents, plating cells for experiments, setting up polymerase chain reactions and then inferring the results of the reactions. 

    She was drawn to pursue this career as it was an opportunity to help fight the world’s leading cause of death.

    How to secure a role as a research assistant?

    “Building on my previous experience in diabetes research during my Masters of Research project, working in cardiovascular research seemed like a natural progression and a valuable addition to my skill set. Additionally, I was excited by the potential challenges of the role and the opportunity to further expand my laboratory skills,” she said.

    Like Kuznecova, most students bag the role of a research assistant typically after completing their Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees. Internships and previous work experience increase these chances as well. These part-time work opportunities can boost networking and guide people to potential mentors who could be crucial in helping them secure their role as a research assistant.

    Moreover, internships are a great way to prove that you can take on roles beyond what universities ask of you. In fact, graduates in the U.S. who complete more than three internships are more likely to secure a full-time job, according to the State of Millennial Hiring Report. The report also stated that over 80% of graduates found that working as an intern helped them expand their career prospects. The same holds true for those aspiring to be research assistants. 

    Adding one’s internship experience to your resume can amplify the chances of hearing back from hiring managers as well, especially since getting a foot in the door as a graduate is not always easy. Besides, work experience and summer internships can paint a realistic picture of what working in a lab is like compared to what it is like when you’re a student. Just like with any job, research assistants are faced with various challenges.

    The fast-paced nature of research means they often juggle multiple projects simultaneously, which calls for strong organizational and time-management skills. Kuznecova also pointed out that because they often work alone, the job demands self-motivation and independence.

    “Another challenge is that experimentation in the research setting can be unpredictable, with not all experiments yielding the desired results, so perseverance and adaptability are necessary,” said Kuznecova, who added that one must be able to adapt to changes. “The need for optimization is common in research, as protocols may require refinement to achieve reproducible outcomes.”

    What does the future of the career hold?

    Still, a passion for life sciences and biotech research can lead to a rewarding career choice.

    Kuznecova said: “Firstly, it’s an intellectually stimulating role where no two days are the same. The dynamic nature of research means that group needs are constantly evolving, keeping the work engaging and challenging. Additionally, it provides an excellent opportunity to learn a wide range of laboratory techniques, from basic to advanced, which can be valuable for career development.”

    And, for those with a curious mind, Kuznecova believes that pushing the boundaries of knowledge and making meaningful contributions to scientific discovery can be enriching.

    This also opens doors for further education like applying for PhDs to eventually become scientists who lead projects, design experiments and publish their findings. Career opportunities go beyond research scientists too. According to Kuznecova, those with strong organizational skills may transition to roles as laboratory managers, controlling operations, managing budgets, and coordinating research activities.

    “Alternatively, they can explore opportunities in various industries, including biotech and pharmaceuticals, where they may work in research and development, quality control, regulatory affairs, or product management,” she said.

    Although becoming a research assistant is no walk in the park, as Kuznecova mentioned, if you are passionate about specializing in a field of research and eventually working for biotechs or in a public lab, it is likely to pave the way for your dream career in life sciences.

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