Most medical scientists work in research and development.
Most medical scientists need a Ph.D. degree in a biological
science; however, epidemiologists typically require a master’s
degree in public health or, in some cases, a Ph.D. or medical
Despite projected rapid job growth, competition is expected
for most positions.
Nature of the Work
Medical scientists research human diseases in order to improve
human health. Most medical scientists conduct biomedical research
and development to advance knowledge of life processes and living
organisms, including viruses, bacteria, and other infectious agents.
Past research has resulted in advances in diagnosis, treatment,
and prevention of many diseases. Basic medical research continues
to provide the building blocks necessary to develop solutions
to human health problems, such as vaccines and medicines. Medical
scientists also engage in clinical investigation, technical writing,
drug application review, patent examination, and related activities.
Medical scientists study biological systems to understand the
causes of disease and other health problems and to develop treatments
and research tools and techniques, many of which have medical
applications. These scientists try to identify changes in a cell
or in chromosomes that signal the development of medical problems,
such as different types of cancer. For example, medical scientists
involved in cancer research may formulate a combination of drugs
that will lessen the effects of the disease. Medical scientists
who are also physicians can administer these drugs to patients
in clinical trials, monitor their reactions, and observe the results.
Those who are not physicians normally collaborate with a physician
who deals directly with patients. Medical scientists examine the
results of clinical trials and, if necessary, adjust the dosage
levels to reduce negative side effects or to try to induce even
better results. In addition to developing treatments for health
problems, medical scientists attempt to discover ways to prevent
health problems, for example, by affirming the link between smoking
and lung cancer or between alcoholism and liver disease.
Many medical scientists work independently in private industry,
university, or government laboratories, often exploring new areas
of research or expanding on specialized research that they began
in graduate school. Medical scientists working in colleges and
universities, hospitals, and nonprofit medical research organizations
typically submit grant proposals to obtain funding for their projects.
Colleges and universities, private industry, and Federal Government
agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National
Science Foundation, contribute greatly to the support of scientists
whose research proposals are determined to be financially feasible
and to have the potential to advance new ideas or processes.
Medical scientists who work in applied research or product development
use knowledge discovered through basic research to develop new
drugs and medical treatments. They usually have less autonomy
than basic medical researchers to choose the emphasis of their
research, relying instead on market-driven forces arising from
their firm’s products and goals. Medical scientists doing applied
research and product development in private industry may be required
to express their research plans or results to nonscientists who
are in a position to reject or approve their ideas; thus, they
must understand the impact of their work on business. Scientists
increasingly work as part of teams, interacting with engineers,
scientists of other disciplines, business managers, and technicians.
Medical scientists who conduct research usually work in laboratories
and use electron microscopes, computers, thermal cyclers, or a
wide variety of other equipment. Some may work directly with individual
patients or larger groups as they administer drugs and monitor
and observe the patients during clinical trials. Medical scientists
who are also physicians may administer gene therapy to human patients,
draw blood, excise tissue, or perform other invasive procedures.
Some medical scientists work in managerial, consulting, or administrative
positions, usually after spending some time doing research and
learning about the firm, agency, or project. In the 1980s, swift
advances in basic medical knowledge related to genetics and molecules
spurred growth in the field of biotechnology. Medical scientists
using this technology manipulate the genetic material of animals,
attempting to make organisms more productive or resistant to disease.
Research using biotechnology techniques, such as recombining DNA,
has led to the discovery of important drugs, including human insulin
and growth hormone. Many other substances not previously available
in large quantities are now produced by biotechnological means;
some may one day be useful in treating diseases such as Parkinson’s
or Alzheimer’s. Today, many medical scientists are involved in
the science of genetic engineering—isolating, identifying, and
sequencing human genes and then determining their function. This
work continues to lead to the discovery of the genes associated
with specific diseases and inherited traits, such as certain types
of cancer or obesity. These advances in biotechnology have opened
up research opportunities in almost all areas of medical science.
Some medical scientists specialize in epidemiology. This branch
of medical science investigates and describes the determinants
of disease, disability, and other health outcomes and develops
the means for prevention and control. Epidemiologists may study
many different diseases, such as tuberculosis, influenza, or cholera,
often focusing on epidemics.
Epidemiologists can be separated into two groups—research and
clinical. Research epidemiologists conduct research in an effort
to eradicate or control infectious diseases that affect the entire
body, such as AIDS or typhus. Others may focus only on localized
infections of the brain, lungs, or digestive tract, for example.
Research epidemiologists work at colleges and universities, schools
of public health, medical schools, and research and development
services firms. For example, Federal Government agencies, such
as the U.S. Department of Defense, may contract with a research
firm’s epidemiologists to evaluate the incidence of malaria in
certain parts of the world. While some perform consulting services,
other research epidemiologists may work as college and university
Clinical epidemiologists work primarily in consulting roles at
hospitals, informing the medical staff of infectious outbreaks
and providing containment solutions. These epidemiologists sometimes
are referred to as infection control professionals, and some of
them are also physicians. Epidemiologists who are not physicians
often collaborate with physicians to find ways to contain diseases
and outbreaks. In addition to traditional duties of studying and
controlling diseases, clinical epidemiologists also may be required
to develop standards and guidelines for the treatment and control
of communicable diseases. Some clinical epidemiologists may work
in outpatient settings.
Medical scientists typically work regular hours in offices or
laboratories and usually are not exposed to unsafe or unhealthy
conditions. However, those scientists who work with dangerous
organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow strict
safety procedures to avoid contamination. Medical scientists also
spend time working in clinics and hospitals administering drugs
and treatments to patients in clinical trials. On occasion, epidemiologists
may be required to work evenings and weekends to attend meetings
and hearings for medical investigations.
Some medical scientists depend on grant money to support their
research. They may be under pressure to meet deadlines and to
conform to rigid grant-writing specifications when preparing proposals
to seek new or extended funding.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
A Ph.D. degree in a biological science is the minimum education
required for most prospective medical scientists, except epidemiologists,
because the work of medical scientists is almost entirely research
oriented. A Ph.D. degree qualifies one to do research on basic
life processes or on particular medical problems or diseases and
to analyze and interpret the results of experiments on patients.
Some medical scientists obtain a medical degree instead of a Ph.D.,
but may not be licensed physicians because they have not taken
the State licensing examination or completed a residency program,
typically because they prefer research to clinical practice. Medical
scientists who administer drug or gene therapy to human patients,
or who otherwise interact medically with patients—drawing blood,
excising tissue, or performing other invasive procedures—must
be licensed physicians. To be licensed, physicians must graduate
from an accredited medical school, pass a licensing examination,
and complete 1 to 7 years of graduate medical education. (See
physicians and surgeons ) It is
particularly helpful for medical scientists to earn both Ph.D.
and medical degrees.
Students planning careers as medical scientists should have a
bachelor’s degree in a biological science. In addition to required
courses in chemistry and biology, undergraduates should study
allied disciplines, such as mathematics, engineering, physics,
and computer science, or courses in their field of interest. Once
they have completed undergraduate studies, they can then select
a specialty area for their advanced degree, such as cytology,
bioinformatics, genomics, or pathology. In addition to formal
education, medical scientists usually spend several years in a
postdoctoral position before they apply for permanent jobs. Postdoctoral
work provides valuable laboratory experience, including experience
in specific processes and techniques such as gene splicing, which
is transferable to other research projects. In some institutions,
the postdoctoral position can lead to a permanent job.
Medical scientists should be able to work independently or as
part of a team and be able to communicate clearly and concisely,
both orally and in writing. Those in private industry, especially
those who aspire to consulting and administrative positions, should
possess strong communication skills so that they can provide instruction
and advice to physicians and other health care professionals.
The minimum educational requirement for epidemiology is a master’s
degree from a school of public health. Some jobs require a Ph.D.
or medical degree, depending on the work performed. Epidemiologists
who work in hospitals and health care centers often must have
a medical degree with specific training in infectious diseases.
Currently, about 140 infectious disease training programs exist
in 42 States. Some employees in research epidemiology positions
are required to be licensed physicians because they must administer
drugs in clinical trials.
Epidemiologists who perform laboratory tests often require the
knowledge and expertise of a licensed physician in order to administer
drugs to patients in clinical trials. Epidemiologists who are
not physicians frequently work closely with one.
Few students select epidemiology for undergraduate study. Undergraduates,
nonetheless, should study biological sciences and should have
a solid background in chemistry, mathematics, and computer science.
Once a student is prepared for graduate studies, he or she can
choose a specialty within epidemiology. For example, those interested
in studying environmental epidemiology should focus on environmental
coursework, such as water pollution, air pollution, or pesticide
use. The core work of environmental studies includes toxicology
and molecular biology, and students may continue with advanced
coursework in environmental or occupational epidemiology. Other
specialty areas that students can pursue include infectious process,
infection control precautions, surveillance methodology, and outbreak
investigation. Some epidemiologists begin their careers in other
health care occupations, such as registered nurse and medical
The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology
(APIC) offers continuing-education courses and certification programs
in infection prevention and control and applied epidemiology.
To become certified as an infection control professional, applicants
are required by a certified board to pass an examination for a
one-time fee. Certification is recommended for those seeking advancement
and for those seeking to continually upgrade their knowledge in
a rapidly evolving field.
Medical scientists held about 77,000 jobs in 2004. Epidemiologists
accounted for only 4,800 of that total. In addition, many medical
scientists held faculty positions in colleges and universities,
but they are classified as college or university faculty. (See
teachers—postsecondary in the careers database)
About 24 percent of medical scientists were employed in government;
24 percent were employed in scientific research and development
services firms ; 14 percent were employed in pharmaceutical and
medicine manufacturing; 9 percent were employed in private hospitals;
and most of the remainder were employed in private educational
services and ambulatory health care services.
Among epidemiologists, 50 percent were employed in government;
23 percent were employed in management, scientific, and technical
consulting services; 12 percent were employed in scientific research
and development services; and 8 percent were employed in private
Employment of medical scientists is expected to grow much faster
than average for all occupations through 2014. Despite projected
rapid job growth, doctoral degree holders can expect to face considerable
competition for basic research positions. The Federal Government
funds much basic research and development, including many areas
of medical research. Recent budget increases at the National Institutes
of Health have led to large increases in Federal basic research
and development expenditures, with the number of grants awarded
to researchers growing in number and dollar amount. However, the
increase in expenditures is expected to slow significantly over
the 2004-14 projection period, resulting in a highly competitive
environment for winning and renewing research grants. In addition,
if the number of advanced degrees awarded continues to grow, applicants
are likely to face even more competition.
Medical scientists enjoyed rapid gains in employment between
the mid-1980s and mid-1990s—reflecting, in part, increased staffing
requirements in new biotechnology companies. Job growth should
be dampened somewhat as increases in the number of new biotechnology
firms slow down and as existing firms merge or are absorbed by
larger, more established biotechnology or pharmaceutical firms.
However, much of the basic medical research done in recent years
has resulted in new knowledge, including the isolation and identification
of new genes. Medical scientists will be needed to take this knowledge
to the next stage—understanding how certain genes function within
an entire organism—so that gene therapies can be developed to
treat diseases. Even pharmaceutical and other firms not solely
engaged in biotechnology are expected to increasingly use biotechnology
techniques, thus creating employment for medical scientists.
Expected expansion in research related to health issues such
as AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, along with treating
growing threats such as the increase in antibiotic resistance,
also should result in employment growth. Moreover, environmental
conditions such as overcrowding and the increasing frequency of
international travel will tend to spread existing diseases and
give rise to new ones. Medical scientists will continue to be
needed because they greatly contribute to the development of many
treatments and medicines that improve human health.
Opportunities in epidemiology also should be highly competitive,
as the number of available positions remains limited. However,
an increasing focus on monitoring patients at hospitals and health
care centers to ensure positive patient outcomes will contribute
to job growth. In addition, a heightened awareness of bioterrorism
and rare, but infectious, diseases such as West Nile Virus or
severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) should spur demand for
these workers. As hospitals enhance their infection control programs,
many will seek to boost the quality and quantity of their staff.
Besides job openings due to employment growth, additional openings
will result as workers leave the labor force or transfer to other
Medical scientists and some epidemiologists are less likely to
lose their jobs during recessions than are those in many other
occupations because they are employed on long-term research projects.
However, a recession could influence the amount of money allocated
to new research and development, particularly in areas of risky
or innovative medical research. A recession also could limit extensions
or renewals of existing projects.
Median annual earnings of medical scientists, except epidemiologists,
were $61,320 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent of these workers
earned between $44,120 and $86,830. The lowest 10 percent earned
less than $33,030, and the highest 10 percent earned more than
$114,360. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the
largest numbers of medical scientists in May 2004 were:
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing
Scientific research and development services
General medical and surgical hospitals
Colleges, universities, and professional
Median annual earnings of epidemiologists were $54,800 in May
2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $45,320 and $67,160.
The lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,130, and the highest
10 percent earned more than $82,310.
For a brochure entitled Is a Career in the Pharmaceutical
Sciences Right for Me, contact:
American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS),
2107 Wilson Blvd., Suite 700, Arlington, VA 22201.
For a career brochure entitled A Million and One, contact:
American Society for Microbiology, Career Information—Education
Department, 1752 N St. NW., Washington, DC 20036-2804. Internet:
For information on infectious diseases training programs, contact:
Infectious Diseases Society of America, Guide to Training
Programs, 66 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 600, Alexandria, VA 22314.
Information on obtaining a medical scientist position with the
Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management
through USAJOBS, the Federal Government’s official employment
information system. This resource for locating and applying for
job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov/ or through an interactive
voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978)
461-8404. These numbers are not tollfree, and charges may result.
Source: Bureau of Labor
Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational
Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,