A Ph.D. in a biological science is the minimum education required for most
prospective medical scientists. However, some medical scientists also earn
medical degrees in order to perform clinical work. A period of postdoctoral work
in the laboratory of a senior researcher is becoming increasingly common for
Education and training. 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
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
Licensure. Medical scientists who
administer drug or gene therapy to human patients, or who otherwise interact
medically with patientsódrawing blood, excising tissue, or performing other
invasive proceduresómust 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.
Other qualifications. 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. 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.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,
Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition
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