All researchers share one primary objective: to uncover the meaning, significance, causes, and effects of whatever subject they are investigating. The work they do can have academic, commercial, political, social or scientific impact. They may be trying to advance society’s understanding and appreciation of a particular subject, or develop products or practical applications based on their findings, or advocate changes in their organisation’s policy.

Put simply, research may be divided into three broad research types:

  • pure basic research - experimental and theoretical work, often called fundamental research, “knowledge for knowledge’s sake”.
  • strategic basic research - experimental and theoretical, but often undertaken to acquire new knowledge and can lead to useful discoveries or to solving practical problems.
  • applied research - original work to perhaps determine new ways of achieving specific objectives or developing new techniques.

Research is a broad field encompassing careers with myriad responsibilities in myriad industries:

Consumer products industry market researchers, for example, conduct focus groups and apply statistical analysis techniques to demographic data to understand consumer behaviour better.

Political researchers conduct telephone polls of voters to learn where they stand on political issues and candidates.

Pharmaceutical researchers (usually chemists) research the properties of new chemical combinations.

Aerospace researchers (usually engineers) may study how air flows around different aircraft designs.

Psychology researchers conduct studies, for instance, of depression in young children or elderly women.

Medical researchers conduct medical laboratory tests to diagnose, treat and prevent disease.

Financial analysts research companies, industries, and markets with the goal of helping their employer or their clients to make good securities investments. Careers in financial or market research emphasise analysis over discovery, and tend to be more structured than other research careers.

The requirements for an academic research position are straightforward: an excellent academic record, including an advanced degree, usually a PhD, strong written and oral communication skills and strong recommendations from other academics. Securing a tenured research position at a university is perhaps the most competitive and political venture that academics undergo in their professional lives.

During the course of their work, researchers review previously published findings, formulate hypotheses, and gather original data to support or rebut their hypotheses. In technical or scientific fields, researchers develop experiments and conduct trials to test their hypotheses and gather new data.

In scientific fields, researchers are often searching for solutions to problems that have eluded others for years, if not centuries. Although routine testing and experiments may be a large part of their day-to-day jobs, scientists also rely heavily on innovation to achieve major breakthroughs.

Science researchers usually spend time designing experiments. Usually, researchers have a particular question that they want to investigate and they try to design an experiment that can answer the question. A researcher is responsible for working out the controls necessary to validate the experiment, the materials necessary, as well as the procedure for the experiment.

Researchers now have better, broader, and faster access to more information and technology than at any other time in history, but the funds necessary to tap into these resources, and so fulfill the full promise of research, are lean and growing leaner.

All researchers, whether in science or other fields, need to write grant proposals. Grants may come from private sources, such as trusts, or from public organisations. Researchers have to write grant proposals to the administrators of the funds, and the administrators may decide to grant money based on the quality of the proposal. Grant proposals consist of a proposal of the project, including the project’s goals and how it relates to the mission of the particular agency. In addition, it itemizes expenses for the proposed research project.

There are, of course, great differences between the different research disciplines. Humanities and creative arts researchers tend to work on their own or in small, highly focused groups. They often need fewer physical resources, such as research maintenance funding, than researchers in other discipline areas.

At the other end of the spectrum, large biological science groups or physical science research centres that require large amounts of research funding for both purchase and maintenance of very large research infrastructure, are probably most common.

Researchers also have to write academic papers. These papers are submitted to various journals for peer review. Usually papers get published based on their quality. Peer reviewers judge the quality of the paper based on elements such as the methods used, the quality of the results and the novelty of the results. Peer-reviewed articles usually undergo a long process before appearing in the journal.

There are many demands on the time of the researcher, for example, those working in universities also have teaching responsibilities, community service and internal administration. Researchers in research institutes or commercial companies also have a range of other responsibilities.

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

National Senior Certificate meeting the requirements for a degree course.
Each institution has its own entry requirements.

What to Study

Degree and Postgraduate: Following the basic bachelor or engineering degree, it is necessary to continue to honours, master’s and PhD, in one’s field of interest. Research is an essential part of this process. It is possible to continue one’s research career on the same subject as one’s PhD, or one may decide to branch out into something different. Critical choices about the paths taken need to be made in order to achieve one’s research goals.


  • universities and colleges
  • research institutes
  • commercial companies.
Opportunities to do research are vast in almost every industry. There is a tremendous range of opportunities for people with various academic, business and technical backgrounds and interests.

Further Information

South African Marketing Research Association
3rd Floor, 264 Oak Avenue
Tel: (011) 886-3771

National Research Foundation
NRF Building, South Gate
CSIR Complex
Meiring Naudé Road
Brummeria, Pretoria
South Africa
Tel: (012) 481-4000

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)
Meiring Naudé Road
South Africa
Tel: (012) 841-2911

Programmes by Study Institutions

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