The CSIR’s research career ladder

The CSIR’s career ladders for research and development personnel provide an opportunity for researchers to grow - as they develop their expertise, gain experience, and grow their profiles. Researchers are afforded a robust and transparent process to measure their progression and reward their career advancement from junior (candidate researchers) to very senior levels (principal and chief researcher levels). The CSIR career ladders are unique in their ability to offer scientists, engineers and technologists opportunity to be promoted at their own pace as they acquire expertise and gain experience.


Candidate researchers – These are junior researchers who work under supervision and focus on developing their skills.

Researchers – These are competent professionals who work independently within a given field.

Senior researchers – These are seasoned professionals with a track record in research and development.

Principal researchers – These are specialists whose sustained track record has led to widespread recognition within their field and who are able to lead research and development programmes.

Chief researchers – These are specialists whose sustained track record in research and development has led to an international profile and international recognition as leaders in their field/s of expertise.

Progressing up the research career ladder

Researchers move up a career ladder as they gain the experience necessary to deal with increasing complexity in terms of the technical and management aspects of the job.

The below diagram implies that reaching higher levels on the career ladder is not possible by simply increasing one’s technical or managerial capacity alone. It requires, for example, for principal researchers to manage aspects of the research projects that they are directing. It is also logical that executive directors will have to have a sound technical grounding. The relative balance determines where a person’s job focus will be.

The relative position of researchers in relation to their proficiency along two axes of leadership (the concentric arcs represent zones of equal seniority)

Making progress in a research career will initially require the ability to master technical aspects of the job. However, as a researcher’s career progresses, additional responsibilities, which require a different set of skills, will need to be shouldered.

Consider, for example, the difference between a post-doctoral researcher working on one or a few research projects in a laboratory and a laboratory director. The post-doctoral researcher will focus almost entirely on aspects of leadership in research, working on technical problems and guiding post-graduate students. The director, on the other hand, will be involved in quite different activities. In addition to providing guidance in technical research matters, he/she will, for example, travel extensively to talk to government and private sector funders, liaise with publishers to produce books or special issues of journals and speak to companies to refine the instruments that they make. None of these tasks are regarded as traditional research, but they are necessary, if not vital, for research to take place effectively. The traditional view of a researcher as a white-coated laboratory worker is therefore not accurate in the case of the director, whose job could not be done by any manager unqualified and inexperienced in research.

Advancing up the research career ladder is usually done in step-wise increments, which provide the opportunities to increase either technical or managerial aspects of the job, which are both necessary. Completing a PhD or finalising the publication of results from a completed research project, are examples of advancing in terms of technical skills and experience. Managing a challenging research project or assuming responsibility as a research group leader, are examples of advancing in terms of management and leadership. From time to time, researchers should assess where they are in terms of this model and should look for opportunities to gain appropriate experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

Choosing the right career is a critical step in your life. Your career choice will determine where you go, what you learn and who you meet. It will also allow you to unleash your full potential and fulfil your passion, therefore, it is important to make informed decisions. When choosing your career path, you have to ask yourself: What do I want from a career? What do I expect? What is it that I am looking for in an employer? These critical questions will help you identify your strengths, preferences and will contribute to your planning and taking the appropriate steps towards a fulfilling career.

At the CSIR, we believe our commitment to diversity is one of our greatest strengths. We nurture it, as we believe it improves our odds of truly improving the lives of South Africans. As an organisation committed to transformation, the CSIR’s employment principles are aimed at attracting top professionals, as well as addressing historical imbalances. The CSIR boasts a number of highly successful black and female scientists and engineers among its professional ranks: About 49% of our science, engineering and technology (SET) base are black and about 32% of the SET base are female.

The CSIR mentoring programme has been designed to be highly experiential and to facilitate self-discovery. It is well aligned to assist professionals to ‘create their space’ within the organisation. The programme embraces the concept of ‘power mentoring relationships’ where protégés can select their own mentors and what type of mentoring relationship will fit their career ladder and plan.

To attract the best and the brightest, the CSIR offers competitive salaries that are regularly reviewed, taking into account experience and work performance. A formal career ladder plots the growth phases along all career types. To ensure that staff members are remunerated competitively, salaries are benchmarked and reviewed annually. We also offer the flexibility to structure salary packages according to staff members’ specific needs.


With the world becoming more and more of a ‘global village’, it is now, more than ever, imperative to forge strong relationships with local and international research bodies. The CSIR provides staff with the opportunity to change places with researchers in other organisations, locally and abroad. This facilitates the exchange of ideas and knowledge, it builds relationships between research teams and it keeps the CSIR research fraternity abreast of cutting-edge skills. CSIR scientists travel all over the world, from major cosmopolitan centres in countries such as Moscow, Paris and New York to the dunes of Cairo and the icebergs of the Antarctic.

The CSIR understands the importance of maintaining a healthy balance between work and life and supports staff in all facets; from providing an onsite crèche for working parents, to facilitating sports activities and social clubs. Other support services include stress management, relationship and trauma counselling and financial and legal advice through an employee assistance programme. The health conscious at the main site in Pretoria can join runners and cyclists on their route around the campus, join the onsite gym or make use of the tennis and volleyball courts.

Science and technology is essential in addressing issues such as poverty, unemployment, disease, alternative sources of energy, infrastructure, safety and global climate change. As a public research organisation, with its roots in Africa, the CSIR knows the continent, its people and their needs and strongly believes in using science in service of society. Our diverse projects continue to touch thousands of lives, improve health and living conditions, ease suffering and create economic opportunities. As part of the CSIR, you can make a real difference in the lives of communities and individuals, from discovering new approaches to prevent the spread of airborne diseases, to making school infrastructure accessible to learners with disabilities.

Created in 1945 by Parliament, the CSIR is a central scientific research and development resource for South Africa and has remained one of the continent’s top research, development and innovation organisations. Today, the CSIR accounts for a substantial proportion of total government expenditure on research and development and considerably contributes to national initiatives, strategies and projects, as well as support to the public sector. When you join the CSIR you will be part of the top technical and scientific minds in the country working from advanced research facilities in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth or Durban.