Biochemists and biophysicists study the chemical and physical principles of living things and of biological processes, such as cell development, growth, and heredity.
Biochemists and biophysicists typically do the following:
- Plan and conduct complex projects in basic and applied research
- Manage laboratory teams and monitor the quality of their work
- Isolate, analyze, and synthesize proteins, enzymes, DNA, and other molecules
- Research the effects of substances, such as drugs, hormones, and food on tissues and biological processes
- Prepare technical reports, research papers, and recommendations based on their research
- Present research findings to scientists, engineers, and other colleagues
Biochemists and biophysicists use advanced technologies, such as electron microscopes and lasers to conduct scientific experiments and analysis. They also use computer modeling software to determine the three-dimensional structures of proteins and other molecules. Biochemists and biophysicists involved in biotechnology research use chemical enzymes to synthesize recombinant DNA.
Biochemists and biophysicists work in basic and applied research. Basic research is conducted without any immediately known application; the goal is to expand human knowledge. Applied research is directed toward solving a particular problem.
Biochemists involved in basic research may study the genetic mutations in organisms that lead to cancer and other diseases. Others study the evolution of plants and animals, to understand how genetic traits are carried through successive generations.
Biophysicists may conduct basic research to learn how nerve cells communicate or how proteins work. Biochemists and biophysicists who conduct basic research typically must submit written grant proposals to colleges and universities, private foundations, and the federal government, to get the money they need for their research.
Biochemists and biophysicists who conduct applied research attempt to develop products and processes that improve our lives. For example, in medicine, biochemists and biophysicists develop tests used to detect diseases, genetic disorders, and other illnesses. They also develop new drugs and medications, such as those used to treat cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.
Applied research in biochemistry and biophysics has many uses outside of medicine. In agriculture, biochemists and biophysicists research ways to genetically engineer crops that are resistant to drought, disease, insects, and other afflictions. Biochemists and biophysicists also investigate alternative fuels, such as biofuels—renewable energy sources from plants. In addition, they develop ways to protect the environment and clean up pollution.
Large amounts of data are generated by biochemists, biophysicists, and others who work in biological research. Specialists called bioinformaticians use their knowledge of statistics, mathematics, and computer science to analyze these data. Bioinformaticians often work to create a theoretical framework intended to combine large amounts of data into meaningful theories. They mine large data sets for correlations that might suggest relationships or explain biological phenomena.
Many people with a biochemistry background become professors and teachers. For more information, see the profile on postsecondary teachers.
Biochemists and biophysicists held about 29,200 jobs in 2012. The industries employing the most biochemists and biophysicists in 2012 were as follows:
|Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences||47%|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private||17|
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||14|
|Drugs and druggists' sundries merchant wholesalers||2|
Biochemists and biophysicists typically work in laboratories and offices, to conduct experiments and analyze the results. Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow safety procedures to avoid contamination.
Most biochemists and biophysicists work on teams. Research projects are often interdisciplinary; and biochemists and biophysicists frequently work with experts in other fields, such as physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering.
Some biotech companies might need researchers to help sell their products. These technologies can be very complex, and having an expert explain them to potential customers might be necessary. This may be more common in smaller companies, where workers often fulfill multiple roles, such as working in research and in sales. Working in sales may require significant amounts of travel. For more information on sales representatives, see the profile on wholesale and manufacturing sales representatives.
Most biochemists and biophysicists work full time and keep regular hours. Some positions may require longer hours.
Biochemists and biophysicists need a Ph.D. to work in independent research and development positions. Most Ph.D. holders begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions. Bachelor’s and master’s degree holders are qualified for some entry-level positions in biochemistry and biophysics.
Most Ph.D. holders in biochemistry and biophysics have bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry or a related field, such as biology, chemistry, physics, or engineering. High school students can prepare for college by taking classes related to the natural and physical sciences.
Students in bachelor’s degree programs in biochemistry or a related field typically take courses in mathematics, physics, and computer science in addition to courses in the biological sciences. Courses in mathematics and computer science are important for biochemists and biophysicists, who must be able to do complex data analysis. Most bachelor's degree programs include required laboratory coursework. Additional laboratory coursework is excellent preparation for graduate school or for getting an entry-level position in industry. Students can gain valuable laboratory experience by working for a university’s laboratories and occasionally through internships with prospective employers, such as pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturers.
Ph.D. programs typically include advanced coursework in topics such as toxicology, genetics, and proteomics (the study of proteins). Graduate students also spend a lot of time conducting laboratory research. Study at the master’s level is generally considered good preparation for those interested in doing hands-on laboratory work. Ph.D. level studies provide additional training in research project planning and execution.
Most biochemistry and biophysics Ph.D. holders begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions. During their postdoctoral appointments, they work with experienced scientists, as they continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research.
Postdoctoral positions frequently offer the opportunity to publish research findings. A solid record of published research is essential to get a permanent position doing basic research, especially for those seeking a permanent college or university faculty position.
Analytical skills. Biochemists and biophysicists must be able to conduct scientific experiments and analyses with accuracy and precision.
Communication skills. Biochemists and biophysicists have to write and publish reports and research papers, give presentations of their findings, and communicate with team members.
Critical-thinking skills. Biochemists and biophysicists draw conclusions from experimental results through sound reasoning and judgment.
Interpersonal skills. Biochemists and biophysicists typically work on research teams and need to work well with others toward a common goal. Many serve as team leaders and must be able to motivate and direct other team members.
Math skills. Biochemists and biophysicists regularly use complex equations and formulas in their work; and they need a broad understanding of mathematics, including calculus and statistics.
Perseverance. Biochemists and biophysicists need to be thorough in their research and in their approach to problems. Scientific research involves substantial trial and error, and biochemists and biophysicists must not become discouraged in their work.
Problem-solving skills. Biochemists and biophysicists use scientific experiments and analysis to find solutions to complex scientific problems.
Some biochemists and biophysicists become natural sciences managers. Those who pursue management careers spend much of their time on administrative tasks, such as preparing budgets and schedules.
The median annual wage for biochemists and biophysicists was $81,480 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,430, and the top 10 percent earned more than $147,350.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for biochemists and biophysicists in the top five industries in which these scientists worked were as follows:
|Drugs and druggists' sundries merchant wholesalers||$103,390|
|Research and development in the physical, engineering,
and life sciences
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||82,490|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state,
local, and private
Most biochemists and biophysicists work full time and keep regular hours. Some positions require longer hours.
Employment of biochemists and biophysicists is projected to grow 19 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast growth will result in only about 5,400 new jobs over the 10-year period. More biochemists and biophysicists are expected to be needed to do basic research that increases scientific knowledge and to research and develop biological products and processes that improve our lives. However, budgetary concerns may limit the ability for researchers to find funding for basic research.
The aging baby-boom population and the demand for lifesaving new drugs and procedures to cure and to prevent disease likely will drive demand for biochemists and biophysicists involved in biomedical research. For example, biochemists will be needed to conduct genetic research and to develop new medicines and treatments that are used to fight genetic disorders and diseases such as cancer. They also will be needed to develop new tests used to detect diseases and other illnesses. Currently, there is a trend of smaller companies doing biomedical research, rather than the large pharmaceutical companies. This helps the larger companies avoid risks and costs.
Areas of research and development in biotechnology other than health are expected to provide employment growth for biochemists and biophysicists. Greater demand for clean energy should increase the need for biochemists that research and develop alternative energy sources, such as biofuels. A growing population and rising food prices are expected to fuel the development of genetically engineered crops and livestock that provide greater yields and require fewer resources. Efforts to discover new and improved ways to clean up and preserve the environment will increase demand for biochemists and biophysicists, as well.
As the amount of biological data continues to grow and computer analytical techniques and software continue to become more sophisticated, the number of dedicated bioinformaticians should also continue to grow. This specialty is relatively new but is growing in importance and complexity.
Biochemists and biophysicists involved in basic research should expect strong competition for permanent research and faculty positions at colleges and universities. Biochemists and biophysicists with postdoctoral experience who have had research articles published in scientific journals should have the best prospects for these positions. Many biochemists and biophysicists work through multiple postdoctoral appointments before getting a permanent position in academia.
A large portion of basic research in biochemistry and biophysics is dependent on funding from the federal government through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Therefore, federal budgetary decisions will have a large impact on job prospects in basic research from year to year. Typically, there is strong competition among biochemists and biophysicists for research funding.
Most applied research projects that involve biochemists and biophysicists require the expertise of scientists in multiple fields, such as microbiology, medicine, and chemistry. Biochemists and biophysicists who have a broad understanding of molecular biology and its relationship to other disciplines should have the best job opportunities.
Those who gain laboratory experience through coursework or employment during their undergraduate studies will be the best prepared and have the best chances to gain employment or to enter graduate level programs.
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