What to expect from research roles in the public sector

Published: Mar 29, 2017 By

Public Sector ResearchPublic sector research positions are available in a wide range of institutes that are sponsored or owned by the government and run on a not-for-profit basis. If you’re looking to transition to this sector from academia you may have questions that need answering. Where do you work? How does working in the public sector differ from research in academia? What are the advantages and disadvantages over university positions? We spoke to researchers employed in the sector, to get their viewpoint and insights.

An overview of public sector research opportunities

Research in the public sector is carried out in a wide range of establishments that include those run by government departments and agencies, nationalised health services (e.g the NHS in the UK), and independent research institutes. The latter are funded by charitable trusts or government research councils.

Research councils are, in effect, independent public bodies financed by the government. Each country has its own unique set of research councils, to span different academic disciplines. For example, in the UK there are seven, including the Medical Research Council (MRC), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) [1]. Some research councils exist at a more international level, like the European Research Council [2].

In addition to the research councils, there are specific charitable trusts that manage their own research institutes. An example of such an organisation is Wellcome [3]. It runs its own independent medical research units, like the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge, UK.


"The research institutes usually have close collaborations with...universities...as a result, there is generally a great deal of overlap..."


The research institutes usually have close collaborations with, or in some cases are housed within universities. As a result, there is generally a great deal of overlap between the two environments.

Some institutes are intergovernmental collaborations, that are supported with public research money from several member states. Examples of this include CERN in Switzerland [4], funded by 22 member countries, or the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) [5], that has five sites across Europe supported by 20 countries.

Additionally, there are a number of government departments that sponsor national research institutes directly and employ researchers from graduate level upwards. For example the Department of Health and Human Services in the US, runs the National Institutes of Health (NIH)[6], in Bethesda.

From a more international perspective, the World Health Organisation (WHO) [7], an agency of the United Nations (UN), also recruits researchers in areas related to international public health. Its international headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland.

What are the experiences of researchers moving from academia to the public sector?


Most researchers we spoke to, report there is an extensive overlap between how they conducted research in academia and their present position. Many state, that since both establishments have a common aim — to advance knowledge, they see little, if any distinction between the two. Some researchers at research institutes said they felt they received slightly better renumeration or tax benefits than their equivalent peers in academia. However, on the whole, most felt the salary scale was comparable. A number mentioned better benefits including private healthcare. Others mentioned appreciating the access to onsite childcare facilities for staff and a gym.


"Some researchers at research institutes said they felt they received slightly better renumeration or tax benefits than their equivalent peers in academia..."


Research institutes are often geared to a specific research area. The latter focus contributes to researchers perceiving they have better access to research equipment, than in their prior academic post. Early career researchers mention that they have a similar degree of flexibility in their post as in universities. Moreover, they are able to innovate with their research to the same degree. They are also encouraged to publish their work.

Researchers working in government agency institutes and laboratories indicate they have access to good facilities. Several offer good employee benefits and options for good pensions and flexible working. There can be an emphasis placed on producing their own in-house publications and reports for wider distribution, rather than publishing in peer-review journals. Although, the latter is not discouraged.

Public sector research institutes generally employ early-stage researchers on temporary contracts. In the UK, (in a similar vein to many countries), government agencies often take employees on a three-year fixed contract in the first instance. This can then be extended to a full-time position. The National Health Service in the UK, in contrast, does offer employees permanent contracts, providing they have worked a period of 12 months. Since researchers often cite temporary contracts as a reason for leaving academia, they may have similar reservations about working in certain public sector positions.

One other piece of feedback we received was that promotional paths and career progression were sometimes unclear in the public sector.

Case Study: Research Council Institute

Graham currently works in a research role at a UK-based MRC unit in Cambridge. He completed a PhD in Immunology, involving transgenic models to research cytokine pathways in allergy. This was followed by a US postdoctoral position. When asked why he applied for his current role he said, ‘“It was of particular appeal because of the quality of the research underway.” He went on to state, “I still view myself as an academic scientist. We have close collaborations with the university and I hold a parallel position there. The recruitment process and renumeration is very much comparable to academia too.”


“I still view myself as an academic scientist. We have close collaborations with the university..."


Case Study: National Health Services Laboratory

Julie is employed by the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, working in a hospital research department. She completed a PhD at Liverpool University researching depression in patients, following heart attacks. When asked why she chose the sector she mentioned, “I liked the idea of doing hands-on clinical work. I didn’t really want to do too much lecturing and the NHS was an ideal environment for the balance I wanted.”

She discussed that she viewed the position differently to academia, as she was not required to teach undergraduates and had no pastoral duties or lecturing commitments.

She stated, “I have been awarded a permanent position after working for a year for the NHS, therefore, have not encountered the same problems as my counterparts in academia. I think my salary may be better than the academic equivalent.’


The public sector encompasses a broad sector, offering diverse opportunities for early career researchers looking for opportunities beyond a pure academic environment. We collated the advantages and disadvantages most often mentioned over academia, from our discussions with those working in the sector.

Perceived advantages of working in the public sector

  • Access to improved facilities due to targeted research
  • Similar approach to publishing as in academia
  • Opportunities to innovate
  • Comparable or better renumeration to academia
  • More personal benefits in some cases (e.g private healthcare and crèche)


Perceived disadvantages of working in the public sector

  • Employment may be on a short term contractual basis
  • Salary is comparable to academia, but generally lower than industry
  • A clear path for career progression may not be offered


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  1. Research Councils UK: See the ttp://www.rcuk.ac.uk for more information.
  2. European Research Council: https://erc.europa.eu/about-erc
  3. Wellcome Trust: https://wellcome.ac.uk/about-us
  4. European Molecular Biology Laboratory [EMBL] http://www.embl.org
  5. CERN http://home.cern
  6. NIH https://www.nih.gov
  7. World Health Organisation http://www.who.int/en/

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