Job: Research and development engineer
The role: Major breakthroughs in science, technology, math and engineering often produce new ideas, theories and algorithms, but aren’t always readily applicable to real-world problems. It is the role of a research and development engineer, or R&D engineer, to turn those abstract concepts into practical, marketable, real-world products, services and solutions.
“It’s applying discoveries, basic sciences, physics, mathematics, [etc.,] and applying it to technological problems,” said Nicolas Godbout, a professor in the department of engineering physics at Polytechnique Montréal, the engineering school at the University of Montreal.
Prof. Godbout said that many discoveries and breakthroughs are made in educational facilities and research centres before the baton is passed to an R&D engineer. For example, quantum mechanics began as an abstract theory developed by John Stewart Bell in 1964 that helped explain the nature of atoms and subatomic particles. In the period following that discovery, the theory led to the invention of lasers, semiconductors and transistors.
“A typical high-technology product, when you see the final product and you purchase it, what you’re seeing is the 1,000th iteration, and there were many prototypes before that didn’t work,” said Prof. Godbout. “The R&D engineer, over time, finds the problems and finds the technical solutions so that it actually works.”
He adds that the role involves a lot of creative problem-solving, both behind a computer screen and in a lab setting. R&D engineers are employed to solve complex engineering puzzles for a range of industries, and some start companies to take one of their own discoveries to market.
Salary: The salary of an R&D engineer is typically tied closely to educational attainment. “The typical range for a starting salary, if you have a bachelor’s degree, is $55,000 to $60,000, and then for every subsequent diploma you can add roughly $10,000,” said fellow Polytechnique Montréal engineering physics professor Caroline Boudoux.
Prof. Boudoux adds that annual salaries can reach $150,000 for the most experienced practitioners, and as high as $200,000 for senior R&D engineers with a PhD. “Because you’re working hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship, it’s not uncommon for an R&D engineer to also have stock options or royalties,” she said.
According to Canadian job listings aggregate website Neuvoo, the average salary of a research and development engineer in Canada is $104,000.
Education: All R&D engineers must obtain an engineering degree from a post-secondary institution accredited by Engineers Canada. Prof. Boudoux and Prof. Godbout said that engineering physics graduates typically go on to become R&D engineers, though practitioners come with a wide range of engineering backgrounds.
“There’s a huge spectrum of R&D engineering, but if you work in high tech you need to understand fundamental physics, which is where you’ll find engineering physics graduates,” said Prof. Boudoux.
Engineering physics is the fastest-growing engineering discipline in Canada, according to a 2016 report by Engineers Canada. There are currently 10 post-secondary institutions that offer degrees in engineering physics, including undergraduate, masters and PhD studies.
Job prospects: According to Prof. Boudoux, R&D engineers are in high demand in Canada right now as its high-tech sector continues to expand. “There’s a shortage of R&D engineers countrywide,” he said.
Challenges: Attempting to solve complex problems for which there might be no solution could be appealing to some, but the unstructured nature of the work is not without its frustrations.
“It’s not a linear job where someone says execute task A, and you’re given instructions on how to execute task A,” Prof. Boudoux said. “Because it’s research, because it’s development, it’s, ‘I don’t know what the solution is, and I can’t even give you instructions on how to solve it.'"
Why they do it: While the open-ended nature of the work may be frustrating to some, others enjoy the challenge that comes with creative problem-solving.
“It’s never repetitive,” said Prof. Boudoux. "And you really can create new things that have a real impact on people’s lives,” adds Prof. Godbout.
Misconceptions: The words “research” and “development” can sometimes give the false impression that the job is more theoretical than practical, said Prof. Godbout.
“The biggest misconception, even among engineering programs, is that it’s abstract and only generates knowledge,” he said. “A successful R&D engineer actually builds things, and it can be based on abstract science.”
We’ve launched a new weekly Careers newsletter. Sign up today.