Medical scientists held about 103,100 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most medical scientists in 2012 were as follows:
|Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences||34%|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state||21|
|General medical and surgical hospitals; private||10|
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||8|
|Offices of physicians||4|
Medical scientists usually work in offices and laboratories. They spend most of their time studying data and reports. Medical scientists sometimes work with dangerous biological samples and chemicals, but they take precautions that ensure a safe environment.
Most medical scientists work full time.
Medical scientists typically need a Ph.D. from an accredited postsecondary institution. Some medical scientists get a medical degree instead of a Ph.D., but prefer doing research to practicing as a physician. It is helpful for medical scientists to have both a Ph.D. and a medical degree.
Students planning careers as medical scientists typically pursue a bachelor's degree in biology, chemistry, or a related field. Undergraduate students benefit from taking a broad range of classes including life and physical sciences, mathematics, and disciplines that focus on developing communication skills. The importance of grant writing and publishing research findings makes writing skills essential.
After students have completed undergraduate studies, students typically enter Ph.D. programs. Dual degree programs are available that pair a Ph.D. with a range of specialized medical degrees. A few degree programs that are commonly paired with Ph.D. studies are Medical Doctor (M.D.), Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.), Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.), and Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). While Ph.D. studies focus on research methods, such as project design, students in dual degree programs learn both the clinical skills needed to be a physician and the research skills needed to be a scientist.
Graduate programs place additional emphasis on laboratory work and original research. These programs offer prospective medical scientists the opportunity to develop their experiments and, sometimes, to supervise undergraduates. Ph.D. programs culminate in a thesis that the candidate presents before a committee of professors. Students typically begin to specialize in one particular field, such as gerontology, neurology, or cancers, in this phase of their studies.
Those who go to medical school spend most of the first 2 years in labs and classrooms, taking courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, psychology, microbiology, pathology, medical ethics, and medical law. They also learn how to record medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses. They also may be required to participate in residency programs, as they will have to meet the same requirements that physicians and surgeons have to fulfill.
Medical scientists often continue their education with postdoctoral work. Postdoctoral work provides valuable lab experience, including experience in specific processes and techniques such as gene splicing, which is transferable to other research projects.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Medical scientists primarily conduct research and typically do not need licenses or certifications. However, those who administer drugs, gene therapy, or otherwise practice medicine on patients in clinical trials, or in a private practice, need a license to practice as a physician.
Medical scientists typically have an interest in the Building, Thinking and Creating interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Creating interest area indicates a focus on being original and imaginative, and working with artistic media.
If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking or Creating interest which might fit with a career as a medical scientist, you can take a career test to measure your interests.
Medical scientists should also possess the following specific qualities:
Communication skills. Communication is critical, because medical scientists must be able to explain their conclusions. In addition, medical scientists write grant proposals, which are often required to continue their research.
Critical-thinking skills. Medical scientists must use their expertise to determine the best method for solving a specific research question.
Data-analysis skills. Medical scientists use statistical techniques, so that they can properly quantify and analyze health research questions.
Decision-making skills. Medical scientists must use their expertise and experience to determine what research questions to ask, how best to investigate the questions, and what data will best answer the questions.
Observation skills. Medical scientists conduct experiments that require precise observation of samples and other health data. Any mistake could lead to inconclusive or misleading results.
The median annual wage for medical scientists was $76,980 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,340, and the top 10 percent earned more than $146,650.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for medical scientists in the top five industries employing these scientists were as follows:
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||$92,940|
|Research and development in the physical, engineering,
and life sciences
|Offices of physicians||77,180|
|General medical and surgical hospitals; private||71,840|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state||53,740|
Most medical scientists work full time.
Employment of medical scientists is projected to grow 13 percent between 2012 and 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
An increased reliance on pharmaceuticals, greater affluence that allows for more spending on medicine—along with a larger and aging population, and a greater understanding of biological processes are all factors that are expected to increase demand for medical scientists. In addition, new discoveries should open frontiers in research that will require the services of medical scientists.
Employment of medical scientists should grow, as a result of expanded research related to illnesses such as AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. Research into treatment problems, such as antibiotic resistance, also should spur growth. Moreover, higher population density and the increasing frequency of international travel will aid the spread of existing diseases and possibly give rise to new ones. Medical scientists will continue to be needed, because they contribute to the development of treatments and medicines that improve human health.
The federal government is a major source of funding for medical research. Large budget increases at the National Institutes of Health in the early part of the 2000s led to increases in federal basic research and development spending, with research grants growing in both number and dollar amount. However, increases in spending have slowed substantially in recent years. Going forward, the level of federal funding will continue to impact competition for winning and renewing research grants.
For more information about some research specialties and opportunities within specialist fields for medical scientists, visit