COLLEGE COMPASS -- Occupational Overview

Biological and Medical Scientists

Nature of the Work

Biological and medical scientists study living organisms and their relationship to their environment. Most specialize in some area of biology such as zoology (the study of animals) or microbiology (the study of microscopic organisms).

Many biological scientists and virtually all medical scientists work in research and development. Some conduct basic research to increase knowledge of living organisms. Others, in applied research, use knowledge provided by basic research to develop new medicines, increase crop yields, and improve the environment. Biological and medical scientists who conduct research usually work in laboratories and use electron microscopes, computers, thermal cyclers, or a wide variety of other equipment. Some may conduct experiments on laboratory animals or greenhouse plants. For some kinds of biological scientists, a good deal of research is performed outside of laboratories. For example, a botanist may do research in tropical rain forests to see what plants grow there, or an ecologist may study how a forest area recovers after a fire.

Some biological and medical scientists work in management or administration. They may plan and administer programs for testing foods and drugs, for example, or direct activities at zoos or botanical gardens. Some biological scientists work as consultants to business firms or to government, while others test and inspect foods, drugs, and other products or write for technical publications. Some work in sales and service jobs for companies manufacturing chemicals or other technical products. (See the statement on manufacturers' and wholesale sales representatives elsewhere in the Handbook.)

In recent years, advances in basic biological knowledge, especially at the genetic level, have spurred the field of biotechnology. Biological and medical scientists using this technology manipulate the genetic material of animals or plants, attempting to make organisms more productive or disease resistant. The first application of this technology has been in the medical and pharmaceutical areas. Many substances not previously available in large quantities are starting to be produced by biotechnological means; some may be useful in treating cancer and other diseases. Advances in biotechnology have opened up research opportunities in almost all areas of biology, including commercial applications in agriculture and the food and chemical industries.

Most biological scientists who come under the broad category of biologist are further classified by the type of organism they study or by the specific activity they perform, although recent advances in the understanding of basic life processes at the molecular and cellular level have blurred some traditional classifications.

Aquatic biologists study plants and animals living in water. Marine biologists study salt water organisms and limnologists study fresh water organisms. Marine biologists are sometimes called oceanographers, but oceanography usually refers to the study of the physical characteristics of oceans and the ocean floor. (See the statement on geologists and geophysicists elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Biochemists study the chemical composition of living things. They try to understand the complex chemical combinations and reactions involved in metabolism, reproduction, growth, and heredity. Much of the work in biotechnology is done by biochemists and molecular biologists because this technology involves understanding the complex chemistry of life.

Botanists study plants and their environment. Some study all aspects of plant life; others specialize in areas such as identification and classification of plants, the structure and function of plant parts, the biochemistry of plant processes, or the causes and cures of plant diseases.

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. Other microbiologists may specialize in environmental, food, agricultural, or industrial microbiology, virology (the study of viruses), or immunology (the study of mechanisms that fight infections). Many microbiologists are using biotechnology to advance knowledge of cell reproduction and human disease.

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. Physiologists may specialize in functions such as growth, reproduction, photosynthesis, respiration, or movement, or in the physiology of a certain area or system of the organism.

Zoologists study animals their origin, behavior, diseases, and life processes. Some experiment with live animals in controlled or natural surroundings while others dissect dead animals to study their structure. Zoologists are usually identified by the animal group studied ornithologists (birds), mammalogists (mammals), herpetologists (reptiles), and ichthyologists (fish).

Ecologists study the relationship among organisms and between organisms and their environments and the effects of influences such as population size, pollutants, rainfall, temperature, and altitude.

Agricultural scientists, who may also be classified as biological scientists, are included in a separate statement elsewhere in the Handbook.

Biological scientists who do biomedical research are usually called medical scientistsMedical scientists working on basic research into normal biological systems often do so in order to understand the causes of and to discover treatment for disease and other health problems. Medical scientists may try to identify the kinds of changes in a cell, chromosome, or even gene that signal the development of medical problems, such as different types of cancer. After identifying structures of or changes in organisms that provide clues to health problems, medical scientists may then work on the treatment of problems. For example, a medical scientist involved in cancer research might try to formulate a combination of drugs which will lessen the effects of the disease. Medical scientists who have a medical degree might then administer the drugs to patients in clinical trials, monitor their reactions, and observe the results. (Medical scientists who do not have a medical degree normally collaborate with a medical doctor who deals directly with patients.) The medical scientist might then Return to the laboratory to examine the results and, if necessary, adjust the dosage levels to reduce negative side effects or to try to induce even better results. In addition to using basic research to develop treatments for health problems, medical scientists attempt to discover ways to prevent health problems from developing, such as affirming the link between smoking and increased risk of lung cancer, or alcoholism and liver disease.

Research biological scientists use a variety of sophisticated laboratory equipment, such as scanning electron microscopes.

Working Conditions

Biological and medical scientists generally work regular hours in offices or laboratories and usually are not exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Some work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory, so strict safety procedures must be followed to avoid contamination. Medical scientists also spend time working in clinics and hospitals administering drugs and treatments to patients in clinical trials. Many biological scientists such as botanists, ecologists, and zoologists take field trips which involve strenuous physical activity and primitive living conditions.


Biological and medical scientists held about 117,000 jobs in 1992. In addition, many biological and medical scientists held biology faculty positions in colleges and universities. (See the statement on college and university faculty elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Almost 4 in 10 nonfaculty biological scientists were employed by Federal, State, and local governments. Federal biological scientists worked mainly in the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, the Interior, and Defense, and in the National Institutes of Health. Most of the rest worked in the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, or research and testing laboratories. About one-fifth of medical scientists worked in research and testing laboratories, with most of the remainder found in hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

For biological scientists, the Ph.D. degree generally is required for college teaching, independent research, and for advancement to administrative positions. A master's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research and for jobs in management, inspection, sales, and service. The bachelor's degree is adequate for some nonresearch jobs. Some graduates with a bachelor's degree start as biological scientists in testing and inspection, or get jobs related to biological science such as technical sales or service representatives. In some cases, graduates with a bachelor's degree are able to work in a laboratory environment on their own projects, but this is unusual. Some may work as research assistants. Others become biological technicians, medical laboratory technologists or, with courses in education, high school biology teachers. (See the statements on clinical laboratory technologists and technicians; science technicians; and kindergarten, elementary, and secondary school teachers elsewhere in the Handbook.) Many with a bachelor's degree in biology enter medical, dental, veterinary, or other health profession schools. Some enter a wide range of occupations with little or no connection to biology.

Most colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees in biological science and many offer advanced degrees. Curriculums for advanced degrees often emphasize a subfield such as microbiology or botany but not all universities offer all curriculums. Advanced degree programs include classroom and field work, laboratory research, and a thesis or dissertation. Biological scientists who have advanced degrees usually begin in research or teaching. With experience, they may become managers or administrators within biology; others leave biology for nontechnical managerial, administrative, and sales jobs.

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 doing field research in remote areas must have physical stamina.

The Ph.D. degree in a biological science is the minimum education required for prospective medical scientists because the work of medical scientists is almost entirely research oriented. A Ph.D. degree qualifies one to do research on basic life processes or on particular medical problems or diseases, and to analyze and interpret the results of experiments on patients. Medical scientists who administer drug or gene therapy to human patients, or who otherwise interact medically with patients (such as drawing blood, excising tissue, or performing other invasive procedures) must have a medical degree. It is particularly helpful for medical scientists to earn both Ph.D. and medical degrees.

In addition to the formal education, medical scientists are usually expected to spend several years in a post-doctoral position before they are offered permanent jobs. Post-doctoral work provides valuable laboratory experience, including experience in specific processes and techniques (such as gene splicing) which are transferable to other research projects later on. In some institutions, the post-doctoral position can lead to a permanent position.

Job Outlook

Employment of biological and medical scientists is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Biological and medical scientists will continue to conduct genetic and biotechnological research and help develop and produce products developed by new biological methods. In addition, efforts to clean up and preserve the environment will continue to add to growth. More biological scientists will be needed to determine the environmental impact of industry and government actions and to correct past environmental problems. Expected expansion in research related to health issues, such as AIDS, cancer, and the Human Genome project, should also result in growth. However, much research and development, including many areas of medical research, is funded by the Federal Government. Anticipated budget tightening should lead to slower employment growth of biological and medical scientists in the public sector and in some private industry research laboratories as the number and amount of government grants increases more slowly than in the past.

Many persons with a bachelor's degree in biological science find jobs as science or engineering technicians or health technologists and technicians. Some become high school biology teachers, where they are usually regarded as teachers rather than biologists. Those with a doctorate in biological science may become college and university faculty. (See statements on science and engineering technicians, health technologists and technicians, high school teachers, and college and university faculty elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Biological and medical scientists are less likely to lose their jobs during recessions than those in many other occupations since most are employed on long-term research projects or in agricultural research. However, a recession could influence the amount of money allocated to new research and development efforts, particularly in areas of risky or innovative research. A recession could also limit the possibility of extension or renewal of existing projects.


Median annual earnings for biological and life scientists were about $34,500 in 1992; the middle 50 percent earned between $26,000 and $46,800. Ten percent earned less than $20,400, and 10 percent earned over $56,900. For medical scientists, median annual earnings were about $32,400; the middle 50 percent earned between $25,800 and $52,200. Ten percent earned less than $20,000, and 10 percent earned over $77,600. According to the College Placement Council, beginning salary offers in private industry in 1992 averaged $21,850 a year for bachelor's degree recipients in biological science.

In the Federal Government in 1993, general biological scientists in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions earned an average salary of $45,155; microbiologists averaged $49,440; ecologists, $44,657; physiologists, $55,326; and geneticists, $55,709.

Related Occupations

Many other occupations deal with living organisms and require a level of training similar to that of biological and medical scientists. These include the conservation occupations of forester, range manager, and soil conservationist; animal breeders, horticulturists, soil scientists, and most other agricultural scientists; and life science technicians. Many health occupations are also related to those in the biological sciences, such as medical doctors, dentists, and veterinarians.

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Reprinted with Permission of U. S. Department of Labor

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