Becoming a Biomedical Scientist

04543_6_2 University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University Bridge/RISE students and professors: Standing left to right C. Russell Middaugh, PhD; Marigold Linton, PhD; Jason Rexwood, Claude M. Laird, PhD. Seated: Talia Martin.

Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor’s degree enables people to get jobs in testing and inspection or in the sale of medicine and biomedical equipment and supplies. Additionally, many people with bachelor degrees work as technologists and technicians in laboratories in hospitals, universities, government facilities, and industry.

Master's Degree

A master’s degree in the biomedical sciences is sufficient for some jobs in applied research or product development and for jobs in management, inspection, sales, and service.


Typically a PhD is required for independent research. A PhD qualifies scientists to do research on basic life processes and diseases. PhD scientists can be involved in designing studies that involve patients, and they can analyze and interpret the results of these experiments. However, in order to excise tissue, perform other invasive procedures, or administer drug and other therapies to human patients, biomedical scientists must have a medical degree in addition to their PhD.

Typically, doctoral students only take classes the first one or two years of their graduate education. The rest of the time the students usually devote themselves to identifying a research project, finding a mentor and a lab, and doing their research, while also participating in research seminars. To earn their PhD, students must write up their research, defend it in front of an academic committee, and publish it. On average, graduate students take 5 years to earn their PhD. However, many students need more time.

Postdoctoral Work

Before new PhD scientists move into permanent positions, they are expected to spend several years in postdoctoral positions that typically include research and some teaching. Postdoctoral work provides opportunities for young scientists to develop more capabilities and begin research projects that can launch their careers. Research is more independent than in graduate school. “Postdocs” don’t have to write a thesis or attend classes. They are expected to develop their own research directions in the context of the lab in which they are working. Often postdocs are required to raise their own salary. Fellowships are available.

Broad background

Many people still get their degree in a single field, but with the recognition of the complexity of cells and human disease, a growing number of scientists argue that successful scientists need to make use of knowledge, technologies, and strategies that go beyond the boundaries of scientific fields, as defined by traditional university departments. They say that students need exposure to a wider breadth and depth of knowledge and experience and so urge students to consider interdisciplinary degrees.

PhD Clinicians

Many students who want to pursue careers in the health professions earn undergraduate or even graduate level degrees in the biomedical sciences before going to one of the schools in the health professions. In a growing number of schools, medical students who want to be both a medical doctor and a research scientist can pursue the combined MD/PhD programs in biomedical science.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is the late Roy Thomas, Ojibwa (1949-2004).