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What Medical Scientists Do About this section

Medical scientists
Medical scientists study human diseases in a variety of ways, such as by analyzing data from clinical trials.

Medical scientists conduct research aimed at improving overall human health. They often use clinical trials and other investigative methods to reach their findings.

Duties

Medical scientists typically do the following:

  • Design and conduct studies to investigate human diseases and methods to prevent and treat diseases
  • Prepare and analyze data from medical samples and investigate causes and treatment of toxicity, pathogens, or chronic diseases
  • Standardize drugs' potency, doses, and methods of administering to allow for their mass manufacturing and distribution
  • Create and test medical devices
  • Follow safety procedures, such as decontaminating workspaces
  • Write research grant proposals and apply for funding from government agencies, private funding, and other sources
  • Write articles for publication and present research findings

Medical scientists form hypotheses and develop experiments. They study the causes of diseases and other health problems in a variety of ways. For example, they may conduct clinical trials, working with licensed physicians to test treatments on patients who have agreed to participate in the study. They analyze data from the trial to evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment.

Some medical scientists choose to write about and publish their findings in scientific journals after completion of the clinical trial. They also may have to present their findings in ways that nonscientist audiences understand.

Medical scientists often lead teams of technicians or students who perform support tasks. For example, a medical scientist may have assistants take measurements and make observations for the scientist’s research.

Medical scientists usually specialize in an area of research, with the goal of understanding and improving human health outcomes. The following are examples of types of medical scientists:

Clinical pharmacologists research new drug therapies for health problems, such as seizure disorders and Alzheimer’s disease.

Medical pathologists research the human body and tissues, such as how cancer progresses or how certain issues relate to genetics.

Toxicologists study the negative impacts of chemicals and pollutants on human health.

Medical scientists conduct research to better understand disease or to develop breakthroughs in treatment. For information about an occupation that tracks and develops methods to prevent the spread of diseases, see the profile on epidemiologists.

Work Environment About this section

Medical scientists
Medical scientists usually work in offices and laboratories.

Medical scientists held about 119,200 jobs in 2021. The largest employers of medical scientists were as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences 36%
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 23
Hospitals; state, local, and private 17
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing 4
Offices of physicians 1

Medical scientists typically work in offices and laboratories. In the lab, they sometimes work with dangerous biological samples and chemicals. They must take precautions in the lab to ensure safety, such as by wearing protective gloves, knowing the location of safety equipment, and keeping work areas neat.

Work Schedules

Most medical scientists work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week.

How to Become a Medical Scientist About this section

Medical scientists
Medical scientists typically have a Ph.D. and sometimes are certified medical doctors as well.

Medical scientists typically have a Ph.D., usually in biology or a related life science. Some get a medical degree instead of, or in addition to, a Ph.D.

Education

Medical scientists typically need a Ph.D. or medical degree. Candidates sometimes qualify for positions with a master’s degree and experience. Applicants to master’s or doctoral programs typically have a bachelor's degree in biology or a related physical science field, such as chemistry.

Ph.D. programs for medical scientists typically focus on research in a particular field, such as immunology, neurology, or cancer. Through laboratory work, Ph.D. students develop experiments related to their research.

Medical degree programs include Medical Doctor (M.D.), Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.), Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.), Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.), Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.), and advanced nursing degrees. In medical school, students usually spend the first phase of their education in labs and classrooms, taking courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, and medical ethics. During their second phase, medical students typically participate in residency programs.

Some medical scientist training programs offer dual degrees that pair a Ph.D. with a medical degree. Students in dual-degree programs learn both the research skills needed to be a scientist and the clinical skills needed to be a healthcare practitioner.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Medical scientists primarily conduct research and typically do not need licenses or certifications. However, those who practice medicine, such as by treating patients in clinical trials or in private practice, must be licensed as physicians or other healthcare practitioners.

Training

Medical scientists with a Ph.D. may begin their careers in postdoctoral research positions; those with a medical degree often complete a residency. During postdoctoral appointments, Ph.D.s work with experienced scientists to learn more about their specialty area and improve their research skills. Medical school graduates who enter a residency program in their specialty generally spend several years working in a hospital or doctor’s office.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Medical scientists must be able to explain their research in nontechnical ways. In addition, they may write grant proposals in order to get funding for their research.

Critical-thinking skills. Medical scientists must use their expertise to determine the best method for approaching research questions.

Data-analysis skills. Medical scientists use statistics to evaluate research questions and information from clinical trials.

Decision-making skills. Medical scientists must determine what research questions to ask, how to investigate the questions, and which data answer the questions.

Observation skills. Medical scientists conduct experiments that require monitoring samples and other health-related data.

Pay About this section

Medical Scientists

Median annual wages, May 2021

Medical scientists, except epidemiologists

$95,310

Life scientists

$80,140

Total, all occupations

$45,760

 

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, and some work more than 40 hours per week.

Job Outlook About this section

Medical Scientists

Percent change in employment, projected 2021-31

Medical scientists, except epidemiologists

17%

Life scientists

11%

Total, all occupations

5%

 

Employment of medical scientists is projected to grow 17 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.

About 10,000 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.

Employment

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.

Employment projections data for medical scientists, 2021-31
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2021 Projected Employment, 2031 Change, 2021-31 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Medical scientists, except epidemiologists

19-1042 119,200 140,000 17 20,800 Get data

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