Medical scientists conduct research aimed at improving overall human health.
What they do
Medical scientists often use clinical trials and other investigative methods to reach their findings.
They typically do the following:
- Design and conduct studies that investigate both human diseases and methods to prevent and treat them
- Prepare and analyze medical samples and data to investigate causes and treatment of toxicity, pathogens, or chronic diseases
- Standardize drug potency, doses, and methods to allow for the mass manufacturing and distribution of drugs and medicinal compounds
- Create and test medical devices
- Develop programs that improve health outcomes, in partnership with health departments, industry personnel, and physicians
- Write research grant proposals and apply for funding from government agencies and private funding sources
- Follow procedures to avoid contamination and maintain safety
Many medical scientists form hypotheses and develop experiments, with little supervision. They often lead teams of technicians and, sometimes, students, who perform support tasks. For example, a medical scientist working in a university laboratory may have undergraduate assistants take measurements and make observations for the scientist’s research.
Medical scientists study the causes of diseases and other health problems. For example, a medical scientist who does cancer research might put together a combination of drugs that could slow the cancer’s progress. A clinical trial may be done to test the drugs. A medical scientist may work with licensed physicians to test the new combination on patients who are willing to participate in the study.
In a clinical trial, patients agree to help determine if a particular drug, a combination of drugs, or some other medical intervention works. Without knowing which group they are in, patients in a drug-related clinical trial receive either the trial drug or a placebo—a pill or injection that looks like the trial drug but does not actually contain the drug.
Medical scientists analyze the data from all of the patients in the clinical trial, to see how the trial drug performed. They compare the results with those obtained from the control group that took the placebo, and they analyze the attributes of the participants. After they complete their analysis, medical scientists may write about and publish their findings.
Medical scientists do research both to develop new treatments and to try to prevent health problems. For example, they may study the link between smoking and lung cancer or between diet and diabetes.
Medical scientists who work in private industry usually have to research the topics that benefit their company the most, rather than investigate their own interests. Although they may not have the pressure of writing grant proposals to get money for their research, they may have to explain their research plans to nonscientist managers or executives.
Medical scientists usually specialize in an area of research within the broad area of understanding and improving human health. Medical scientists may engage in basic and translational research that seeks to improve the understanding of, or strategies for, improving health. They may also choose to engage in clinical research that studies specific experimental treatments.
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.
How to become a Medical Scientist
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.
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.
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.
Employment of medical scientists is projected to grow 6 percent from 2019 to 2029, 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.
Similar Job Titles
Associate Director, Experimental Medicine; Clinical Laboratory Scientist; Clinical Pharmacologist; Investigator; Laboratory Director; Post-Doctoral Fellow; Research Scientist; Scientist; Senior Research Scientist; Senior Scientist
Microbiologist, Geneticist, Health Specialties Teacher-Postsecondary, Optometrist, Nuclear Medicine Physician
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- American Association for Cancer Research
- American Association for the Advancement of Science
- American Association of Bioanalysts
- American Association of Immunologists
- American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists
- American Chemical Society
- American Federation for Medical Research
- American Gastroenterological Association
- American Society for Cell Biology
- American Society for Investigative Pathology
Magazines and Publications
- Health Science Magazine
- The Scientist – Disease and Medicine
- The Biomedical Scientist
- New Scientist
- AAAS Science Magazine
- Scientific American-Medicine
In their quest to improve human health, medical scientists study the cause of diseases and test new methods to prevent and treat them. Medical scientists oversee many phases of development for drugs and medical devices. For example, they might develop an experimental combination of drugs to slow the progress of an illness… then design and lead a clinical trial to test its effectiveness… and conclude by writing a report and publishing their findings. When a new medication is developed for mass production, medical scientists are responsible for determining standards for the potency, dosages, and methods of use. They also develop health programs for organizations. Much of their work includes leading teams of technicians or when in university settings students, who perform support tasks. Medical scientists work in private industry on company-approved research projects, and in government and university positions, where they typically write grant proposals to obtain funding for their research. Most medical scientists work full time… both in offices studying data and reports… and in laboratories conducting experiments. Precautions must be taken when they work with dangerous biological samples and chemicals. Medical scientists typically have a Ph.D. in biology or a related life science. Some medical scientists get a medical degree instead of, or in addition to, a Ph.D. Most have a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, or a related field.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org