Group of students conducting an experiment in physics class at Bede's Senior School

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Science in the UK: a tradition of innovation

The UK has been home to groundbreaking scientific research for centuries, and its schools, colleges and universities are at the heart of the action. From inventors to Nobel prizewinners, people in the UK love new ideas and students are encouraged to think independently.

A long tradition of innovation, combined with a modern, trail-blazing spirit, makes the UK an ideal place to study science. This is an exciting time – there is heavy investment in scientific research, and in new subjects. Forensics, Radiography and Environmental Sciences are just a few of the newer science courses on offer. Science departments work closely with fields such as social sciences and the arts, to find new ways of doing things.

UK schools, colleges and universities also work with science research organisations to keep the UK at the cutting edge. Find out more from organisations such as the Royal Society – the world’s oldest scientific academy – and the Science Museum, or watch some clips from the BBC series Science Britannica, hosted by Professor Brian Cox.

There are many pioneering projects underway at UK universities right now – find out about just a few of them in Discover, create, innovate.

What can I study?

‘Applied science’ courses focus on the practical applications of science, while those in the ‘pure sciences’ are more focused on scientific theory. Both may be assessed through a combination of laboratory and written work.

At school and further education level, you can study GCSEs, International Baccalaureate, AS-levels, A-levels, Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers in Biology, Chemistry, Physics or Combined Sciences. These courses are designed to give you an understanding of general scientific principles.

Courses that lead to applied science qualifications are often more vocational (career-focused) than those in the pure sciences. There are several options available to you:

  • You can take a GCSE in Science alone or alongside a GCSE in Additional Science or Additional Applied Science, or a GCSE Double Award in Applied Science. These can lead to AS- and A-levels (Single or Double Awards), International Baccalaureate or Scottish Higher/Advanced Higher qualifications in Applied Science, all of which provide a good basis for a career or for studying applied science at higher education level.

  • You can also study for qualifications such as a BTEC First Diploma in Applied Science, or BTEC Nationals in a wide range of subjects, including Applied Biology, Applied Chemistry and Applied Physics. These courses will be tailored to your chosen career. If you gain a BTEC National qualification in Applied Science, for example, you can specialise in areas such as Forensic Science, Laboratory Science and Industrial Science.

In higher education, there are many more options:

  • There are many undergraduate degrees in the pure sciences at UK universities and colleges. Biology, chemistry and physics can all be studied alone or combined with other theoretical sciences to form ‘joint honours’ degrees – for example, Physics and Astrophysics, Chemistry with Environmental Studies, or Biology and Education. From the beginning of the degree, you can choose to specialise in specific areas – in biology, for example, you might focus on biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, immunology or genetics.

  • Most undergraduate programmes in the pure sciences last for three years and lead to a Bachelor of Science (BSc) qualification. There are a growing number of four-year programmes, however, which lead to an undergraduate Master of Science qualification (MSci, which is different from the postgraduate MSc).

  • If you study applied science at undergraduate level, you can specialise in a particular professional or technical area – for example, scientific literacy or laboratory science. You can also study applied science at BTEC Higher National Diploma (HND) level. You could take BTEC HNDs in chemistry, biology, biochemistry, biological sciences and ecology, for example, which would qualify you to work in a responsible position in a research or quality control laboratory.

  • If you're unsure which branch of science you want to pursue as a career, a Foundation Degree in a subject such as Biological Science, Human Biology or Chemistry will give you useful basic knowledge. If you don’t have a science qualification, don't worry – many universities and colleges run foundation year programmes that allow you to progress to undergraduate science degrees.

  • An undergraduate degree in science may lead directly to a career, to a one-year MSc or MA postgraduate taught course, or to a postgraduate research-based award (MPhil or PhD) as part of a major research project.

At postgraduate level:

  • ‘Taught’ postgraduate courses are generally assessed through a combination of exams and coursework, or by coursework alone. For a Master of Science (MSc) degree, you will usually need to complete a research project as well. You may also be assessed on your performance in the laboratory. ‘Research’ postgraduate programmes generally require more in-depth independent study and a written thesis or dissertation.

  • An MPhil is an advanced postgraduate research degree. Full-time students usually complete their studies in two years, and write a thesis based on original research. At some institutions, MPhil students may progress to the PhD programme after the first or second year of their studies.

  • A PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy) is the highest academic qualification you can achieve, and requires a large amount of independent research. Entry requirements vary, but will usually require a 2:1 or higher result at undergraduate level, or a master’s degree. Some PhD courses might include a taught component, but almost all PhDs will be assessed on the quality of your final thesis – the result of your research. This will usually be completed over three or four years if you’re studying full-time, or six years part-time.

Entry requirements

To apply to most science courses at higher education level, you need a good A-level, IB or equivalent grade in the subject you want to study. For some institutions, you should also study at least one other science, and/or mathematics. If you're interested in a pure science degree and your pre-university qualifications are in applied science, you may have to take a foundation year. Ask your chosen institution for details, as entry requirements vary.

Working in science

When it comes to careers, a UK qualification in science prepares you for a wide range of jobs around the world. You might work in research – as part of a university department or research organisation, or securing funding to pursue an independent project – or use your skills for product development. You might become an oceanographer, laboratory technician, analytical chemist, clinical researcher, toxicologist, or technologist of food or textiles. You’ll also find that new roles in applied (practical) science, such as forensics or the production of new materials, are continually being created.

Many undergraduate courses in the UK include a period of work experience. There are a growing number of ‘sandwich’ degrees – these are typically four-year undergraduate courses that include a year working at a business, charity or public sector organisation, in a role that helps to build your skills. (Check that your visa status allows you to do this.) A sandwich course in biological science, for example, might give you the qualification 'BSc (Hons) Biological Science with Industrial Experience'.

To work in scientific research, there are many opportunities in the UK – find out more in Research opportunities in the UK. To search for UK research opportunities, from PhD fellowships onwards, visit EuraxessUK.

For more career advice, go to Entering a career.

Student stories

PhD student Nixon, from Hong Kong, shares his experiences as a physics student at Warwick University:

French student Sylvie discusses her research in Biosciences at Swansea University in Wales:

William from California is studying Biosciences, as part of the Study Abroad programme at the University of East Anglia in Norwich: