Medical scientists conduct research aimed at improving overall human health. They often use clinical trials and other investigative methods to reach their findings.
Medical scientists typically do the following:
- Conduct studies that investigate human diseases and methods of preventive care and treatment of diseases
- Develop instruments for medical applications
- 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
- Work with health departments, industry personnel, and physicians to develop programs that improve health outcomes
- Apply for funding from government agencies and private funding sources, by writing research grant proposals
- Follow procedures to avoid contamination and maintain safety
Many medical scientists, especially in universities, work with little supervision, forming their own hypotheses and developing experiments, accordingly. 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, or combination of drugs, or other medical intervention works. Without knowing which group they are in, patients in a drug-related clinical trial either receive the trial drug or they receive 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 the patients in the clinical trial, to see how the trial drug performed. They compare the results to the control group that took the placebo and analyze the attributes of the participants. Publishing the findings is a very important final step in the process.
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 the 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. The following are examples of types of medical scientists:
Cancer researchers research ways to prevent and cure cancers. They may specialize in one or more types of cancer.
Clinical and medical informaticians develop new ways to use large data sets. They look for explanations of health outcomes through the statistical analysis of existing data.
Clinical pharmacologists research, develop, and test existing and new drugs. They investigate the full effects drugs have on human health. Their interests may range from understanding specific molecules to the effects drugs have on large populations.
Gerontologists study the changes that people go through as they get older. Medical scientists who specialize in this field seek to understand the biology of aging and investigate ways to improve the quality of our later years.
Immunochemists investigate the reactions and effects various chemicals and drugs have on the human immune system.
Neuroscientists study the brain and nervous system.
Pharmacologists develop and research the effects of medicines.
Research histologists have a specific skill set that is used to research human tissue. They study how tissue grows, heals, and dies, and may investigate grafting techniques that can help people who have experienced serious injury.
Serologists research the serums, such as blood and saliva, found in the human body. Applied serologists often work in forensic science. For more information on forensic science, see the profile on forensic science technicians.
Toxicologists research the harmful effects of drugs, household chemicals, and other potentially poisonous substances. They may ensure the safety of drugs by investigating safe dosage limits.
Medical scientists held about 103,100 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most medical scientists in 2012 were as follows:
|Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences||34%|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state||21|
|General medical and surgical hospitals; private||10|
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||8|
|Offices of physicians||4|
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 need a Ph.D. from an accredited postsecondary institution. Some medical scientists get a medical degree instead of a Ph.D., but prefer doing research to practicing as a physician. It is helpful for medical scientists to have both a Ph.D. and a medical degree.
Students planning careers as medical scientists typically pursue a bachelor's degree in biology, chemistry, or a related field. Undergraduate students benefit from taking a broad range of classes including life and physical sciences, mathematics, and disciplines that focus on developing communication skills. The importance of grant writing and publishing research findings makes writing skills essential.
After students have completed undergraduate studies, students 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.), and Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). While Ph.D. studies focus on research methods, such as project design, 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 place additional emphasis on 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 thesis that the candidate presents before a committee of professors. Students typically begin to specialize in one particular field, such as gerontology, neurology, or cancers, in this phase of their studies.
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 also may be required to participate in residency programs, as they will have to meet the same requirements that physicians and surgeons have to fulfill.
Medical scientists often continue their education with postdoctoral work. Postdoctoral work provides valuable lab experience, including experience in specific processes and techniques such as gene splicing, which 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, gene therapy, or otherwise practice medicine on patients in clinical trials, or in a private practice, need a license to practice as a physician.
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 $76,980 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,340, and the top 10 percent earned more than $146,650.
In May 2012, the median annual wages for medical scientists in the top five industries employing these scientists were as follows:
|Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing||$92,940|
|Research and development in the physical, engineering,
and life sciences
|Offices of physicians||77,180|
|General medical and surgical hospitals; private||71,840|
|Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state||53,740|
Most medical scientists work full time.
Employment of medical scientists is projected to grow 13 percent between 2012 and 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
An increased reliance on pharmaceuticals, greater affluence that allows for more spending on medicine—along with a larger and aging population, and a greater understanding of biological processes are all factors that are expected to increase demand for medical scientists. In addition, new discoveries should open frontiers in research that will require the services of medical scientists.
Employment of medical scientists should grow, as a result of expanded research related to illnesses such as AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. Research into treatment problems, such as antibiotic resistance, also should spur growth. Moreover, higher population density and the increasing frequency of international travel will aid the spread of existing diseases and possibly 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. Large budget increases at the National Institutes of Health in the early part of the 2000s led to increases in federal basic research and development spending, with research grants growing in both number and dollar amount. However, increases in spending have slowed substantially in recent years. Going forward, the level of federal funding will continue to impact competition for winning and renewing research grants.
For more information about some research specialties and opportunities within specialist fields for medical scientists, visit