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Here's how to become a natural science researcher

Image: 123RF/Jos Luis Soriano De Vicente.

Natural science researchers should not only have a passion for their subject, but also for making a valuable contribution to society’s understanding of nature, and our ability to protect nature for everyone’s benefit.

Scientists publish their research in scientific papers but may also use their findings to inform the management of natural areas, government policy- makers and the general public.

To do this they also present talks, produce popular articles and policy briefs. Scientists typically work long hours on their own, reading, writing and conducting their experiments.

However, they frequently also have to work in teams with those in other fields of expertise, including, for example, social scientists, educators, policy makers or biodiversity managers. Scientists often travel widely, both to do their research or to present their findings to other scientists around the world.

Research assistants usually work under the supervision of a researcher who typically designs and leads the study, analyses the data and presents the results. Research assistants focus mostly on collecting data and maintaining equipment.

Some research is conducted in the laboratory (for example in aquariums or in test tubes), but most research is conducted outdoors. This might include research from a boat, research on remote islands, in nature reserves or in city parks and even in canals! To some extent researchers can choose whether they spend time in rugged outdoor conditions, or carry out more indoor work.

Personal requirements

  • Must understand the process of doing scientific research
  • Be comfortable with figures and information technology
  • Must be able to work with technical apparatus
  • Be precise, thorough about details and the accuracy of information
  • Think analytically but often also creatively
  • Need good computer skills to capture, manage, analyse and present their data

How to enter

Schooling & school subjects National Senior Certificate meeting degree requirements for a degree course.Each institution has its own entry requirements.

What to study

Degree: BSc degree in a Science Faculty at a university or university of technology. This is a 3 or 4 year degree, depending on the university.

Post-graduate: Often students choose to follow this with an Honours degree, which can take 1 or 2 years. Ideally, they would go on to complete a Masters degree (MSc, also 1 to 2 years) followed by a PhD (typically 2 to 3 years), to give them the in-depth knowledge needed to be really knowledgeable in their field.

To support scientists through these years of study, government and other agencies provide bursaries. It is also possible to start working after completing one or more degrees, and then to complete the remaining degrees through part-time study or as part of one’s job.

Possible Career Paths Scientists can choose a number of fields in which to specialise. As post-graduates, they can continue to do research and also train others in a university or a research institute such as CSIR, SAIAB or SANBI.

They may become managers of protected areas such as national parks, or senior managers of companies, government departments or organisations. They can also set up their own businesses and consult to government and industry.

A strong background in the sciences can give an individual credibility and valuable skills, including the ability to keep learning and contributing to knowledge production.


Scientists that focus on plants, animals and ecosystems, work in a variety of organisations, including:

  • South African National Parks
  • South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON)
  • SA Weather Service
  • Research institutes such as the CSIR, SANBI and SAIAB,
  • Almost all universities in South Africa, where they will teach others about their field and how to do research
  • Consulting firms and NGOs such as WWF South Africa and the Endangered Wildlife Trust

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