Research scientist vs. research engineer

There’s much confusion about the role of a research engineer. This is a rare role, often seen at major research labs in the industry. Loosely speaking, if the role of a research scientist is to come up with original ideas, the role of a research engineer is to use their engineering skills to set up and run experiments for these ideas. The research scientist role typically requires a Ph.D. and/or first author papers at top-tier conferences. The research engineer role doesn’t, though publishing papers always helps.

For some teams, there’s no difference between a research scientist and a research engineer. Research scientists should, first and foremost, be engineers. Both research scientists and engineers come up with ideas and implement those ideas. A researcher might also act as an advisor guiding research engineers in their own research. It’s not uncommon to see research scientists and research engineers be equal contributors to papers7. The different job titles are mainly a product of bureaucracy -- research scientists are supposed to have bigger academic clout and are often better paid than research engineers.

Startups, to attract talents, might be more generous with the job titles. A candidate told me he chose a startup over a FAAAM company because the startup gave him the title of a research scientist, while that big company gave him the title of a research engineer.

Akihiro Matsukawa gave an interesting perspective on the difference between the research scientist and the research engineer with his post: Research Engineering FAQs.

7: Notable examples include “Attention Is All You Need” from Google and “Language Models are Unsupervised Multitask Learners” from OpenAI.

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