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Biological and medical scientists

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Biological and medical scientists study living organisms and their relationship to their environment. They research problems dealing with life processes.

Many biological scientists and virtually all medical scientists work in research and development. Some conduct basic research to advance knowledge of living organisms, including viruses, bacteria and other infectious agents. Biological and medical scientists mostly work independently in private industry, university or government laboratories, often exploring new areas of research or expanding on specialized research started in graduate school.

Many biological and medical scientists are involved in biotechnology -- isolating and manipulating the genetic material of animals or plants, attempting to make organisms more productive or resistant to disease. This work continues to lead to the discovery of the genes associated with specific diseases and inherited traits, such as certain types of cancer or obesity. These advances in biotechnology have opened up research opportunities in almost all areas of biology, including commercial applications in agriculture, environmental remediation and the food and chemical industries.

Most biological scientists who come under the category of biologist are further classified by the type of organism they study or by the specific activity they perform.

Aquatic biologists study plants and animals living in water. Marine biologists study salt-water organisms and limnologists study fresh water organisms. Botanists study plants and their environment.

Biochemists study the chemical composition of living things. Biochemists and molecular biologists do most of their work in biotechnology.

Microbiologists investigate the growth and characteristics of microscopic organisms such as bacteria, algae or fungi. Medical microbiologists study the relationship between organisms and disease or the effect of antibiotics on microorganisms.

Physiologists study life functions of plants and animals, both in the whole organism and at the cellular or molecular level, under normal and abnormal conditions.

Zoologists and wildlife biologists study animals and wildlife.

Ecologists study the relationships among organisms and between organisms and their environments.

Soil scientists study soil characteristics, map soil types and investigate responses of soil to determine its capabilities and productivity.

Medical scientists — biological scientists who do biomedical research — work on basic research into normal biological systems to understand the causes of and to discover treatment for disease and other health problems.

Biological and medical scientists usually work regular hours and usually are not exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Those who depend on grant money to support their research may be under pressure to meet deadlines and to conform to rigid grant-writing specifications when preparing proposals to seek new or extended funding.

Training and qualifications

For biological scientists, the Ph.D. degree usually is necessary for independent research and for advancement to administrative positions. A master's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research or product development and for jobs in management, inspection, sales and service. The bachelor's degree is adequate for some non-research jobs. Some may work as research assistants. Others become biological technicians, medical laboratory technologists or, with courses in education, high school biology teachers. Many with a bachelor's degree in biology enter medical, dental, veterinary or other health profession schools.

In addition to required courses in chemistry and biology, undergraduate biological science majors usually study allied disciplines such as mathematics, physics and computer science.

Biological 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 management or administrative positions, should possess strong business and communication skills and be familiar with regulatory issues and marketing and management techniques. Those doing field research in remote areas must have physical stamina.

Job outlook

Despite prospects of faster-than-average job growth for biological and medical scientists though 2010, doctoral degree holders can expect to face considerable competition for basic research positions. Recent federal budget tightening has led to smaller increases in basic research and development grants, although the number of grants awarded to researchers remains fairly constant. At the same time, the number of newly trained scientists has continued to increase at a steady rate. Additionally, applied research positions in private industry may become more difficult to obtain if more scientists seek jobs in private industry.

Opportunities for those with a bachelor's or master's degree in biological science are expected to be better. The number of science-related jobs in sales, marketing and research management, for which non-Ph.D.s usually qualify, are expected to be more plentiful than independent research positions.


Biological and medical scientists held about 138,000 jobs in 2000; about half were biological scientists. Four in 10 biological scientists were employed by various levels of government.

Median annual earnings of biological scientists were $49,239 in 2000. Median annual earnings of medical scientists were $57,196 in 2000, with epidemiologists earning $48,390 and medical scientists, except epidemiologists, earning $57,810. Median annual earnings of medical scientists were $54,260 in research and testing laboratories and $41,010 in hospitals in 1999.

Related links

For information on careers in the biological sciences:

American Institute of Biological Sciences, Suite 200, 1444 I St. NW, Washington, DC 20005

For information on careers in physiology:

American Physiological Society, Education Office, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814.

For information on careers in biochemistry or biological sciences:

Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814.

For a brochure entitled Is a Career in the Pharmaceutical Sciences Right for Me?, contact:

American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS), 2107 Wilson Blvd., Suite #700, Arlington, VA 22201.

For information on careers in microbiology:

American Society for Microbiology, Office of Education and Training-Career Information, 1325 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20005.

Information on obtaining a biological or medical scientist position with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through a telephone-based system. Consult your telephone directory under U.S. Government for a local number or call (912) 757-3000; Federal Relay Service: (800) 877-8339. The first number is not toll free. Information also is available from the OPM Internet site.

Adapted from the Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Handbook.