Medical scientists are a select group of professionals who study human diseases and conditions with the ultimate goal of improving the health of humans, either through the eradication of disease or through the development of treatments to relieve pain and symptoms from existing diseases. Medical scientists can be credited with the development of new vaccines, medical treatments and drugs and are most frequently found in laboratory or clinical settings at hospitals, universities and government laboratories across the country. Other medical scientists work for pharmaceutical companies or biotechnology companies.
Some research conducted by medical scientists, depending on the setting in which they work, is funded by grants administered through the federal government. The National Institutes of Health provides this funding to scientists who present proposals to the agency, which approves or denies proposals based on their financial feasibility and their promise of furthering new advances in protecting human health. When working with grant funding, medical scientists are typically under a great deal of pressure to complete and submit their findings by specific deadlines.
Medical scientists perform a variety of different tasks while studying the biological systems to understand the causes of disease and health problems. They may study cell or chromosomal changes that indicate a developing medical problem, or they may work with physicians conducting clinical trials, drawing blood or excising tissue.
To enter the medical science field, an individual should earn a Ph.D. in biological science, which requires approximately 6 years of additional study time beyond an undergraduate degree. The Ph.D. prepares the individual to research basic life processes and specific medical issues and analyze the data obtained.
Those who want to perform clinical work must obtain a medical degree, even if they do not intend to become a physician. In today’s competitive marketplace, medical scientists find it increasingly helpful to hold a Ph. D. in biological science as well as a medical degree. An example of the benefit of this dual degree is the medical scientist who wants to interact in a medical capacity with patients – such as during gene therapy or blood draws; these scientists must be licensed physicians. Those who choose to study for both degrees may want to enroll in a joint M.D.-Ph.D. program at a medical school; this course of study will take an additional 7-8 years beyond their undergraduate work. While this may seem to be a significant amount of schooling, those holding dual degrees are anticipated to experience the best employment opportunities in the future.
Before applying for a permanent position in the field, medical scientists are expected to participate in postdoctoral work to gain laboratory experience and exposure to specific techniques and procedures. Oftentimes, these postdoctoral work arrangements lead to permanent employment.
The rapid growth of the biotechnology industry will continue to contribute to an extraordinary increase in employment opportunities for medical scientists. As genes continue to be identified in the search to eradicate diseases, stem cell research continues to grow, and new diseases continue to surface, medical scientists will be needed to apply their knowledge and expertise in the fight to keep the human race healthy.
While employment prospects are very good, it is important to remember that a large portion of the funding for research is provided by the federal government. As such, this funding can be influenced by recessionary factors and funding may be reduced in times of financial crisis, which could negatively affect available positions.
Potential wage earnings by a medical scientist will depend on several factors including where employment occurs, whether or not the scientist holds a dual degree and where funding for the position is being obtained. Overall, medical scientists just starting their careers can expect wages in the low $50s on average; top earners in the field often earn more than $130,000 per year.