Medical scientists research human diseases and conditions with the goal of improving human health. Most medical scientists conduct biomedical research and development to advance knowledge of life processes and of other living organisms that affect human health, including viruses, bacteria, and other infectious agents. Past research has resulted in advances in diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of many diseases. Basic medical research continues to build the foundation for new vaccines, drugs, and treatment procedures. Medical scientists engage in laboratory research, clinical investigation, technical writing, drug development, regulatory review, and related activities.
Medical scientists study biological systems to understand the causes of disease and other health problems. For example, some try to identify changes in cells or in chromosomes that signal the development of medical problems. They use this knowledge to develop treatments and design research tools and techniques that have medical applications. Medical scientists involved in cancer research may formulate a combination of drugs that will lessen the effects of the disease. They can then work with physicians to administer these drugs to patients in clinical trials, monitor their reactions, and observe the results. They may draw blood, excise tissue, or perform other invasive procedures. Medical scientists examine the results of clinical trials and adjust the dosage levels to reduce negative side effects or to induce better results. In addition to developing treatments for medical conditions, medical scientists attempt to discover ways to prevent health problems. For example, they may study the link between smoking and lung cancer or between alcoholism and liver disease.
Many medical scientists conduct independent research in university, hospital, or government laboratories, exploring new areas of research or expanding on specialized research that they began in graduate school. Medical scientists working in colleges and universities, hospitals, and nonprofit medical research organizations typically submit grant proposals to obtain funding for their projects. The Federal Government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides funding support for researchers whose proposals are determined to be financially feasible and to have the potential to advance new ideas or processes that benefit human health. Medical scientists who rely on grant money may be under pressure to meet deadlines and to conform to rigid grant-writing specifications when preparing proposals to seek new or extended funding.
Most medical scientists who work in private industry conduct applied research or support product development, using knowledge discovered through research to develop new drugs and medical treatments. They usually have less autonomy than do medical researchers in academia to choose the emphasis of their research. Medical scientists spend more time working on marketable treatments to meet the business goals of their employers. Medical scientists in private industry may also be required to explain their research plans or results to nonscientists who are in a position to reject or approve their ideas, potentially for business reasons rather than scientific merit. Medical scientists increasingly work as part of teams, interacting with engineers, scientists of other disciplines, business managers, and technicians.
Swift advances in basic medical knowledge related to genetics and organic molecules have spurred growth in the field of biotechnology. Discovery of important drugs, including human insulin and growth hormone, is the result of research using biotechnology techniques, such as recombining DNA. Many other substances not previously available in large quantities are now produced by biotechnological means; some may one day be useful in treating diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Today, many medical scientists are involved in the science of genetic engineering—isolating, identifying, and sequencing human genes to determine their functions. This work continues to lead to the discovery of genes associated with specific diseases and inherited health risks, such as sickle cell anemia. These advances in biotechnology have opened up research opportunities in almost all areas of medical science.
Medical scientists held about 133,900 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of medical scientists were as follows:
- Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences - 38%
- Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private - 21%
- Hospitals; state, local, and private - 17%
- Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing - 7%
- Offices of physicians - 1%
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.
A Ph.D. in the biological sciences typically qualifies people to research basic life processes or particular medical problems and to analyze the results of experiments. Some medical scientists obtain a medical degree, instead of a Ph.D., but do not become licensed physicians, because they prefer research to clinical practice. It is particularly helpful for medical scientists to earn both a Ph.D. and a medical degree.
Students planning careers as medical scientists should pursue a bachelor's degree in a biological science. In addition to required courses in chemistry and biology, undergraduates should study allied disciplines, such as mathematics, engineering, physics, and computer science. General humanities courses are also beneficial, as writing and communication skills are necessary for drafting grant proposals and publishing research results.
Once students have completed undergraduate studies, there are two main paths for prospective medical scientists. They can enroll in a university Ph.D. program in the biological sciences; these programs typically take about 6 years of study, and students specialize in one particular field, such as genetics, pathology, or bioinformatics. They can also enroll in a joint M.D.-Ph.D. program at a medical college; these programs typically take 7 to 8 years of study, where students learn both the clinical skills needed to be a physician and the research skills needed to be a scientist.
In addition to formal education, medical scientists usually spend some time in a postdoctoral position before they apply for permanent jobs. Postdoctoral work provides valuable laboratory experience, including experience in specific processes and techniques such as gene splicing, which is transferable to other research projects. In some institutions, the postdoctoral position can lead to a permanent job.
Medical scientists who administer drug or gene therapy to human patients, or who otherwise interact medically with patients—drawing blood, excising tissue, or performing other invasive procedures—must be licensed physicians. To be licensed, physicians must graduate from an accredited medical school, pass a licensing examination, and complete 1 to 7 years of graduate medical education.
Medical scientists should be able to work independently or as part of a team and be able to communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing. Those in private industry, especially those who aspire to consulting and administrative positions, should possess strong communication skills so that they can provide instruction and advice to physicians and other healthcare professionals.
Advancement among medical scientists usually takes the form of greater independence in their work, larger budgets, or tenure in university positions. Others choose to move into managerial positions and become natural science managers. Those who pursue management careers spend more time preparing budgets and schedules.
Employment of medical scientists is projected to grow 17 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.
About 12,600 openings for medical scientists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to increased demand for medical scientists over the projections decade.
Demand for medical scientists will stem from greater demand for a variety of healthcare services as the population continues to age and rates of chronic disease continue to increase. These scientists will be needed for research into treating diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, and problems related to treatment, such as resistance to antibiotics. In addition, medical scientists will continue to be needed for medical research as a growing population travels globally and facilitates the spread of diseases.
The availability of federal funds for medical research grants also may affect opportunities for these scientists.
The median annual wage for medical scientists was $95,310 in May 2021. 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 $50,100, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $166,980.
In May 2021, the median annual wages for medical scientists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences - $102,210
- Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing - $99,830
- Hospitals; state, local, and private - $79,800
- Offices of physicians - $79,760
- Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private - $62,560
Most medical scientists work full time.