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Medical Scientists

Medical Scientists are driving some of the world’s most fascinating and influential research. Whether in a governmental position working for the Federal Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, or for a private pharmaceutical company, these positions have the potential to drastically alter the face of medicine.

So what exactly do medical scientists do, and where do they work? Although positions vary somewhat, almost all jobs place candidates in a laboratory environment. Approximately 35% of professionals work in scientific research and development positions. A quarter work in educational institutions. The next quarter, roughly, are divided between pharmaceutical companies and hospitals. That is to say, professionals may choose either public, private, clinical, or research groups in which to pursue their interests.

Professionals often work collaboratively in teams to produce relevant research that is organized by senior team members. After education and training, medical scientists often work their way up into leading positions, if they have drive, determination, and creativity. In addition to these talents, medical scientists benefit from exceptional capacities in decision-making, communication, organization, and problem-solving. Communication is becoming increasingly important, as multidisciplinary efforts are becoming increasingly prevalent.

Perhaps most fundamentally, medical scientists must be able to ask the right questions. Sometimes, as was pointed out in a 2011 article published by The Atlantic, they must know how to ask the wrong questions in order to make their company look good when their results are published. In either case, they must be adept at considering the big picture and understanding where answers may be found, especially if those answers have not yet been revealed. One of the primary tools of researchers is the clinical study. For these, scientists and clinicians work together, at least to the extent that a physician agrees to try out a new drug, therapy, or treatment proposed by the scientist.

Clinicians who also conduct research are becoming increasingly rare, as pointed out by Andrew Schafer for Science. For practitioners, research jargon is being developed too quickly. For researchers, medical technology is progressing too rapidly. Thus, it is important for prospective medical students to choose either research or clinical work as early as possible.

In order to practice, medical scientists undergo a significant amount of education and training. They can either choose to undergo a PhD program, or attend a combination MD-PhD program. Education is extensive, long, and arduous, taking about 6-7 years for joint programs. These culminate in a doctoral research project that is presented to a committee. Over the course of their education, medical scientists attempt to develop unique, creative research projects, a trend that promotes success throughout their careers.

In the recent past, there has been some skepticism levied at researchers, which has added the perception of greed to what was once considered a noble profession. Pharmaceutical researchers, in particular, are blamed for conducting biased research, a claim that may be true in some cases, but is certainly not true in all. Marty Nemko, writing for U.S. News and World Report, revealed some of the reality of medical science careers, which includes the extremely long work weeks (60-70 hours). In addition, his article is disenchanting, because he claims that most scientists join the field with the goal to completely revolutionize healthcare with a discovery, when achievements at that level are exceedingly rare. He compares internationally renowned discoveries to the probability of winning the lottery.

On the other hand, there is also a fairly large payoff. Even if a researcher does not gain fame, he/she is likely to obtain a decently sized fortune. The average income for medical researchers was $76,700 per year in 2010, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Moreover, the field was projected to grow by 36% by 2020. This rate is well above the national average and implicates a great deal of job security and potentially higher income through 2020. Considering the rapid expansion of healthcare, it is likely that job growth will continue, if not at the same pace, then at least more quickly than in other fields. It may not be the dream job that everyone wants. Medical science requires hard work to enter and harder work to maintain. Regardless, it does bring significant rewards and stability.

Additional Resources:
General Description and Statistics – From the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook

Medical Research Scholars Program – Offered to the best and brightest MD-PhD students as part of medical training

Summer Research Opportunities – List for graduate students from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Medical Scientist Training Program – Offered by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences – A curated list of institutions participating in the National Institute of Health Accreditation Program – If interested in working for federal programs, this is the list to use

Research Scientist in Pharmacokinetics – A sample job description of a highly sought-after Mayo Clinic position

Description of Career Paths – Available from the American Physician Scientists Association