Medical scientists held about 130,700 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of medical scientists were as follows:
|Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences||34%|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private||24|
|Hospitals; state, local, and private||18|
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||6|
|Offices of physicians||2|
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 have a Ph.D., usually in biology or a related life science. Some medical scientists get a medical degree instead of, or in addition to, a Ph.D.
Students planning careers as medical scientists generally pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, or a related field. Undergraduate students benefit from taking a broad range of classes, including life sciences, physical sciences, and math. Students also typically take courses that develop communication and writing skills, because they must learn to write grants effectively and publish their research findings.
After students have completed their undergraduate studies, they 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.), Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.), and advanced nursing degrees. Whereas Ph.D. studies focus on research methods, such as project design and data interpretation, 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 emphasize both 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 dissertation that the candidate presents before a committee of professors. Students may specialize in a particular field, such as gerontology, neurology, or cancer.
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 may be required to participate in residency programs, meeting the same requirements that physicians and surgeons have to fulfill.
Medical scientists often continue their education with postdoctoral work. This provides additional and more independent lab experience, including experience in specific processes and techniques, such as gene splicing. Often, that experience 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 or gene therapy or who otherwise practice medicine on patients in clinical trials or a private practice need a license to practice as a physician.
Medical scientists often begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions or in medical residency. 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. Graduates of M.D. or D.O. programs may enter a residency program in their specialty of interest. A residency usually takes place in a hospital and varies in duration, generally lasting from 3 to 7 years, depending on the specialty. Some fellowships exist that train medical practitioners in research skills. These may take place before or after residency.
Postdoctoral positions frequently offer the opportunity to publish research findings. A solid record of published research is essential to getting a permanent college or university faculty position.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Although it is not a requirement for entry, many medical scientists become interested in research after working as a physician or surgeon, or in another medical profession, such as dentist.
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 $88,790 in May 2019. 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 $49,020, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $159,680.
In May 2019, the median annual wages for medical scientists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||$111,630|
|Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences||95,770|
|Hospitals; state, local, and private||84,280|
|Offices of physicians||83,710|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private||64,140|
Most medical scientists work full time.
Employment of medical scientists is projected to grow 8 percent from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations. A larger and aging population, increased rates of several chronic conditions, and a growing reliance on pharmaceuticals are all factors that are expected to increase demand for medical scientists. In addition, frontiers in medical research are expected to require the services of medical scientists.
Medical scientists will be needed for research related to treating diseases such as AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. Research into treatment problems, such as resistance to antibiotics, also continue to provide opportunities for medical researchers. In addition, a higher population density and the increasing frequency of international travel may facilitate the spread of existing diseases and 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. Going forward, the level of federal funding will continue to affect competition for winning and renewing research grants.
For more information about research specialties and opportunities within specialized fields for medical scientists, visit