It is no accident that today's average human life expectancy has increased to 78 years from 50 years since 1912. Humans are living longer, healthier lives thanks to discoveries like penicillin to treat bacterial infections and vaccines to prevent deadly diseases like diphtheria, tuberculosis and tetanus. The development of diagnostic tools, like the electrocardiogram, and life-saving devices, such as the pacemaker and artificial heart, also deserve credit for today's lifespan longevity.
The individuals responsible for researching and developing these and other medical breakthroughs are regarded in history books as pioneers who changed the course of humanity. As long as incurable diseases exist, humans will eagerly await the arrival of new discoveries uncovered by a modern-day hero: the Medical Scientist.
In stark contrast to a growing trend known as the four-year career, research scientists conform to a rigid career path that begins with a required course of academic study and culminates in a professional tenure that often spans their entire career. Scientifically minded individuals seriously considering a career as a medical scientist, or anyone interested in working as a professional researcher, should first understand the occupational requirements of this profession.
Education that Leads to Opportunities
Most research scientists earn a Ph.D. in one of the biological sciences, such as biochemistry, genetics, pharmacology, neuroscience, or biomedical engineering. Laboratory research careers exist for Ph.D. graduates, but the best opportunities are most commonly available to scientists holding both a Ph.D. and M.D. With these dual credentials, researchers can work directly with patients during clinical trials and qualify to receive funding for research projects.
Most M.D.-Ph.D. graduates will settle into careers that make use of their interests in both patient care and research, and there are two predominant career paths from which scientists typically choose.
Career Path 1: Independent Research
Most often, medical scientists work independently in university, hospital, or government labs, where they can explore new areas of research or expand on projects they began in graduate school. They conduct biomedical research to advance knowledge of life processes and of other living organisms that affect human health, including viruses, bacteria, and other infectious agents.
Independent research scientists typically need to submit grant proposals to the federal government's National Institutes of Health (NIH) to obtain funding for their research. According to the NIH, "Funding is available to researchers whose proposals are determined to be financially feasible and to have the potential to advance new ideas or processes that benefit human health." This reliance on grant money often requires scientists to adhere to strict deadlines and rigid grant-writing specifications while seeking to obtain or extend funding.
Career Path 2: Pharmaceutical or Biotechnical Research
Medical scientists also pursue careers conducting research for private pharmaceutical or biotechnical companies, where they use their knowledge and skills to develop new drugs and medical treatments. While scientists in this setting usually have little autonomy to choose the emphasis of their research, the employer indefinitely funds their projects of focus so long as it remains profitable.
Pharmaceutical/biotechnical research scientists are typically expected to work on marketable treatments that meet the business goals of their employer. Medical scientists in private industry may be required to explain their research plans or results to nonscientists who are in a position to reject or approve their ideas, potentially for business reasons rather than scientific merit.
M.D.-Ph.D. physician-scientists will devote as much of their weekly work schedules as possible to conducting research. Some researchers will divide time between research, clinical service, teaching, and administrative activities. Over time, many senior scientists ascend to significant leadership roles in their field, reflecting their broad experience in health care and research.
A number of medical breakthroughs remain to be discovered, and medical scientists continue to work diligently on treatments for diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. But in order for medical discoveries to develop into safe, practical methods of treatment, extensive research and testing must first be conducted, which can sometimes span decades. The vaccine for tetanus, for example, was studied and perfected for nearly 40 years before it was approved. The work of today will need to be carried forward to future generations of persistent researchers.
If you have experience working in the field of medical science, what advice can you offer to individuals considering a career as a professional researcher?