Medical scientists conduct research to better the quality of overall human health. They often use clinical trials and other investigative methods to reach their findings.

What Do Medical Scientists Do?

  • Design and conduct studies that investigate both human diseases and methods to prevent and treat them
  • Prepare and analyze medical samples and data to investigate causes and treatment of toxicity, pathogens, or chronic diseases
  • Standardize drug potency, doses, and methods to allow for the mass manufacturing and distribution of drugs and medicinal compounds
  • Create and test medical devices
  • Develop programs that improve health outcomes, in partnership with health departments, industry personnel, and physicians
  • Write research grant proposals and apply for funding from government agencies and private funding sources
  • Follow procedures to avoid contamination and maintain safety

Many medical scientists form hypotheses and develop experiments, with little supervision.

Fighting Disease

They often lead teams of technicians and, sometimes, students, who perform support tasks.

For example, a medical scientist working in a university laboratory may have undergraduate assistants take measurements and make observations for the scientist’s research.

Medical scientists study the causes of diseases and other health problems. A cancer researcher might put together a combination of drugs that could slow cancer’s progress.

Testing Drugs

A clinical trial may be done to test the drugs. A medical scientist may work with licensed physicians to test the new combination on patients who are willing to participate in the study.

In a clinical trial, patients agree to help determine if a particular drug, a combination of drugs, or some other medical intervention works.

Without knowing which group they are in, patients in a drug-related clinical trial receive either the trial drug or a placebo—a pill or injection that looks like the trial drug but does not actually contain the drug.

Analyze Data

Medical scientists analyze the data from all of the patients in the clinical trial, to see how the trial drug performed.

They compare the results with those obtained from the control group that took the placebo, and they analyze the attributes of the participants.

After they complete their analysis, medical scientists may write about and publish their findings.

Where Medical Scientists Work

Medical scientists held about 127,180 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of medical scientists were as follows:

Industry Employment 
Scientific Research and Development Services 47,220
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools 25,130
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals 20,590
Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing 9,880
Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories 4,080

Medical scientists usually work in offices and laboratories.

Is Being a Medical Scientist Safe?

Yes, this job is safe for the most part. They spend most of their time studying data and reports.

Medical scientists sometimes work with dangerous biological samples and chemicals, but they take precautions that ensure a safe environment.

Work Schedules

Most medical scientists work full time.

Medical scientists typically have a Ph.D., usually in biology or a related life science. Some medical scientists get a medical degree instead of, or in addition to, a Ph.D.

How to Become a Medical Scientist

Students planning careers as medical scientists generally pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, or a related field.

Undergraduate students benefit from taking a broad range of classes, including life sciences, physical sciences, and math.

Students also typically take courses that develop communication and writing skills, because they must learn to write grants effectively and publish their research findings.

How Many Years Does it Take to Become a Medical Scientist?

After students have completed their 4-year degree, and a 3-year masters degree, they enter Ph.D. programs. It can take up to 10 years for someone with a high school diploma to become a medical scientist. That time nearly doubles if you add a residency and or fellowship.

Dual-degree programs are available that pair a Ph.D. with a range of specialized medical degrees.

A few degree programs that are commonly paired with Ph.D. studies are Medical Doctor (M.D.), Doctor of Dental Surgery (D.D.S.), Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.), Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.), and advanced nursing degrees.

Being a Medical Scientist vs Being a Doctor

Whereas Ph.D. studies focus on research methods, such as project design and data interpretation, students in dual-degree programs learn both the clinical skills needed to be a physician and the research skills needed to be a scientist.

Graduate programs emphasize both laboratory work and original research.

These programs offer prospective medical scientists the opportunity to develop their experiments and, sometimes, to supervise undergraduates.

Ph.D. programs culminate in a dissertation that the candidate presents before a committee of professors. Students may specialize in a particular field, such as gerontology, neurology, or cancer.

Both Can Go to Medical School

Those who go to medical school spend most of the first 2 years in labs and classrooms, taking courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, psychology, microbiology, pathology, medical ethics, and medical law.

They also learn how to record medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses.

They may be required to participate in residency programs, meeting the same requirements that physicians and surgeons have to fulfill.

Postdoctoral Work

Medical scientists often continue their education with postdoctoral work. This provides additional and more independent lab experience, including experience in specific processes and techniques, such as gene splicing. Often, that experience is transferable to other research projects.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Medical scientists primarily conduct research and typically do not need licenses or certifications.

However, those who administer drugs or gene therapy or who otherwise practice medicine on patients in clinical trials or a private practice need a license to practice as a physician.


Medical scientists often begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions or in medical residency.

During their postdoctoral appointments, they work with experienced scientists as they continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research.

Graduates of M.D. or D.O. programs may enter a residency program in their specialty of interest. A residency usually takes place in a hospital and varies in duration, generally lasting from 3 to 7 years, depending on the specialty.

Some fellowships exist that train medical practitioners in research skills. These may take place before or after residency.

Postdoctoral positions frequently offer the opportunity to publish research findings. A solid record of published research is essential to getting a permanent college or university faculty position.

Some Doctors and Dentists Become Medical Scientists

Although it is not a requirement for entry, many medical scientists become interested in research after working as a physician or surgeon, or in another medical profession, such as dentist.

How Much Does a Medical Scientist Make?

Medical scientists made an average salary of $97,650 as of May 2019. This group does not include epidemiologists.

Half of all medical scientists made more than $87,290 and the top 10% of earners made more than $158,240 a year.

Industry Hourly Average wage Annual Average Wage
Scientific Research and Development Services $51.41$106,930
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools $37.08$77,120
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals $42.16$87,700
Pharmaceutical and Medicine Manufacturing $55.72$115,900
Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories $44.67$92,910

These are the median salaries of a medical scientist for all 50 states.

Location# Employed2019 Median
New Jersey3,300$122,940
Rhode Island430$100,650
District of Columbia530$87,730
New York8,590$87,410
North Carolina5,130$85,870
New Hampshire330$79,080
South Dakota190$76,330
West Virginia270$71,310
New Mexico500$62,340
South Carolina440$62,290
North Dakota90$55,030
Puerto Rico80$39,440

Job Outlook

Employment of medical scientists is projected to grow 8% from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations.

A larger and aging population, increased rates of several chronic conditions, and a growing reliance on pharmaceuticals are all factors that are expected to increase demand for medical scientists.

In addition, frontiers in medical research are expected to require the services of medical scientists.

Medical scientists will be needed for research related to treating diseases such as AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.

Research into treatment problems, such as resistance to antibiotics, also continue to provide opportunities for medical researchers.

In addition, a higher population density and the increasing frequency of international travel may facilitate the spread of existing diseases and give rise to new ones.

Medical scientists will continue to be needed because they contribute to the development of treatments and medicines that improve human health.

The federal government is a major source of funding for medical research. Going forward, the level of federal funding will continue to affect competition for winning and renewing research grants.

A Medical Scientist Job is a Good Fit For

O*NET Interest Results

investigative job

A medical scientist career is an investigative career with realistic and artistic as secondary interests.

Investigative jobs work with ideas, and require an extensive amount of thinking. These occupations can involve searching for facts and figuring out problems mentally.

Realistic jobs include practical, hands-on problems and solutions.

Artistic jobs work with forms, designs and patterns. They often require self-expression and the work can be done without following a clear set of rules.

Medical Scientist Personality Type

INFJ personality type

The INFJ personality type is a good match for this career because they seek a deeper meaning to their work. Medical scientists help society at large by finding new treatments and preventions for disease.

This kind of work can be quite rewarding for the INFJ who does not want a deep emotional connection to the people they work with, but who still wants to help people improve their lives.

Medical scientists use their analytical skills to provide a better quality of life to people because it’s the right thing to do.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Communication is critical because medical scientists must be able to explain their conclusions. In addition, medical scientists write grant proposals, because grants often are required to fund their research.

Critical-thinking skills. Medical scientists must use their expertise to determine the best method for solving a specific research question.

Data-analysis skills. Medical scientists use statistical techniques, so that they can properly quantify and analyze health research questions.

Decisionmaking skills. Medical scientists must determine what research questions to ask, how best to investigate the questions, and what data will best answer the questions.

Observation skills. Medical scientists conduct experiments that require precise observation of samples and other health-related data. Any mistake could lead to inconclusive or misleading results.

Work Values Fulfilled at this Job


Occupations that satisfy this work value are results-oriented and allow employees to use their strongest abilities, giving them a feeling of accomplishment.


Occupations that satisfy this work value offer advancement, the potential for leadership, and are often considered prestigious.


Occupations that satisfy this work value allow employees to work on their own and make decisions.

More Information

American Association for Cancer Research

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science

American Society for Clinical Pathology

American Society for Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics

The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics

The Gerontological Society of America

Infectious Diseases Society of America

National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Society for Neuroscience

Society of Toxicology

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