Medical researchers study diseases and other physical conditions that affect humans in order to improve treatment options or lessen the incidence of some diseases. Through medical research, new vaccines, treatment protocols and medicines are developed, and links between certain behaviors and diseases are identified. Medical researchers work for research labs at hospitals and universities, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies. They require extensive graduate level education, but usually have greater job stability than those in other occupations because they are generally at work on long-term research projects.
Medical researchers’ duties usually vary based from project to project. They are usually engaged in the examination of biological systems to determine the factors that lead to disease and other physical conditions. By uncovering the cause of disease, medical researchers are able to formulate treatment plans and drug therapies. They usually test these therapies by conducting clinical trials where they administer drugs or other treatments to patients and monitor their responses. To determine the results, medical researchers take blood samples, remove tissue specimens, and perform other clinical tests and procedures. Medical researchers use clinical trial results to make adjustments to treatment protocols and drug dosages that lessen side effects or increase effectiveness. In addition, medical researchers may write technical articles about their research or teach students at colleges and universities.
Most medical researchers have a minimum of a doctoral degree in a biological science. Some choose to pursue a medical degree instead, though they do not become licensed physicians. Others obtain both a doctoral and medical degree. Those who are interested in a medical research career usually begin by earning a bachelor’s degree in a biological science. In addition to science classes, their course load typically includes math, physics, engineering, computer science and composition. After earning a bachelor’s degree, students may then enter a doctoral program in a biological science, which usually requires six years of full-time study. They may choose to enter a dual doctoral and medical degree program, which allows students to earn both degrees in seven to eight years. Graduate programs provide students with both the clinical skills necessary to interact with patients and the research skills to conduct scientific inquiry in the lab. Most medical researchers also complete postdoctoral work in a lab setting to gain experience with laboratory techniques and procedures.
Medical researchers work in research laboratories. They may conduct large clinical trials or monitor individual patients. Some researchers may be required to work with toxic substances or infectious specimens, so they must follow safety protocol and wear protective gear, such as face masks and latex gloves. Medical researchers usually work regular office hours, but they may put in overtime as well. Certain clinical trials may also require them to work irregular hours, such as late nights or early mornings.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wages of medical researchers and scientists were $72,590 as of May 2008. The highest 10 percent were paid more than $134,770, while the lowest 10 percent were paid less than $39,870. The middle 50 percent were paid between $51,640 and $101,290. Drug and druggists’ merchant wholesalers paid medical researchers the highest salaries, with the median annual wages in that field totaling $90,640.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment for medical researchers and scientists will grow by 40 percent between 2008 and 2018, which is a much faster rate than the average for all occupations. As research into diseases like AIDS and cancer continues to expand, opportunities will be plentiful for those in the field. Prospects will be best for researchers who have both a doctoral and medical degree.