How Do I Become a Biomedical Scientist - Education & Experience
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Biomedical scientists use scientific research to improve human health. They design studies to test and develop new treatment plans, analyze medical data to investigate pathogens and chronic diseases, and develop social programs that can improve outcomes in population health. This is the science of medicine and to practice it, biomedical scientists need to be highly educated and supremely dedicated.
While the old school way of thinking used to prescribe biomedical scientists a linear pathway through school to positions in academic research, that’s not necessarily still the case. Between 2005 and 2009, some 100,000 doctoral degrees were awarded but only 16,000 new professor positions were created, according to a study published by the National Institutes of Health. But that apparent oversupply isn’t as grim as it looks: data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests a 13 percent increase in jobs for biomedical scientists over a ten-year horizon.
Biomedical scientists can work in several sectors outside of academia and many choose to pursue work in the faster-paced field of industry. But everything comes with tradeoffs. Since they’re under the direction of a specific corporate agenda, biomedical scientists who work as industry researchers generally have less intellectual freedom than their academic counterparts but they are better paid. On the other hand, biomedical scientists who work in academia may have intellectual freedom, but they can be constrained by grant funding, publication quotas, and teaching requirements.
Some biomedical scientists put themselves in a different category altogether by pursuing a medical degree alongside their research education, opening up the possibility of private practice and physician-related duties. It’s also becoming more common for biomedical scientists to seek employment in nontraditional roles: someone educated as a biomedical scientist may now apply their knowledge in fields like consulting, public policy, and patent law.
If you get educated as a biomedical scientist, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll ever struggle to find employment, but the path you choose for your education will help determine which sector of biomedical science you end up in. If you want to plan ahead and see your options, read on for a step-by-step guide to becoming a biomedical scientist.
Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Biomedical Scientist
Step 1A: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
After graduating from high school, an aspiring biomedical scientist needs to earn a bachelor’s degree. At this stage, practically any major related to the life sciences is suitable: biology, chemistry, or biomedical engineering are all possibilities. Admissions requirements for undergraduate programs vary from school to school but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater); SAT and/or ACT scores; letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.
Arizona State University offers a BS in biological sciences with a concentration in biomedical sciences. The curriculum is designed for students who wish to pursue either medical school or biomedical research careers in academic, clinical, and industry settings. Core classes cover topics such as conceptual approaches to biology; statistics for life science; advanced principles of biochemistry; developmental biology; genetics; and organic chemistry. Students may also apply for an accelerated program which allows them to complete both a BS and MS in five years instead of six. The standard four-year BS program consists of 120 credits, with tuition for non-residents at $28,800 per year.
The University of Iowa has a selective and challenging BS in biomedical sciences program. As a collaboration between the biochemistry, biology, chemistry, and microbiology departments, the program is designed to prepare students for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), as well as for biomedical research at the graduate level and beyond. The curriculum covers areas such as biology; biochemistry; microbiology; physics; human physiology; psychology; and statistics. Students are also encouraged to participate in the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates (ICRU) and to apply for research scholarships. The program can be completed in four years and non-resident tuition is approximately $31,264 per year.
Step 1B: Gain Early Work and Research Experience (Optional, Timeline Varies)
While earning a bachelor’s degree, many aspiring biomedical scientists gain some early work and research experience. While not a requirement, internships and laboratory assistantships can dramatically boost one’s applied skills and one’s academic applications. Working in a research capacity under the supervision of dedicated biomedical scientists can be a rich education in and of itself and it can also help direct one’s education towards a specific niche of biomedical science.
Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree (Optional, One to Three Years)
After earning their bachelor’s degree, some aspiring biomedical scientists opt to earn a master’s degree. While it’s not a requirement to practice biomedical science, a master’s degree can give graduates the opportunity to sharpen their expertise and enhance their applications for PhD or dual-degree programs. Furthermore, it’s possible at this stage to pair one’s master’s degree with a master’s in another field (e.g., public health, business administration) to widen one’s career options down the road.
Admissions requirements for biomedical science master’s programs vary from school to school but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater); MCAT and/or GRE scores; letters of recommendation; work and/or research experience; and a personal statement.
Tufts University offers a master’s of science in biomedical science (MBS) for pre-professional students who are looking to strengthen their academic credentials before applying to MD and PhD programs. The curriculum closely follows that of a first-year medical school student, with key courses in the following areas: anatomy, biochemistry, cell biology, medical genetics, molecular biology, pathology, and pharmacology.
Tufts also allows students the possibility to get a dual degree, pairing the MBS with a master of business administration (MBA) or master of public health (MPH), which can significantly boost one’s competitiveness in tangential roles and sectors post-graduation. The baseline MBS program consists of 33 credits and costs approximately $48,500.
The Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami offers an intensive master of science in biomedical science (MiBS) degree that is designed to be completed in under a year. The core curriculum covers foundational knowledge in areas such as biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, and physiology. Students may also choose to specialize in one of three customized tracks: medicine, research, or drug discovery. Throughout, students have access to hands-on faculty advising and mentoring when submitting applications to research placements and further schooling. The ten-month program costs approximately $43,000 in total.
Step 3A: Earn a PhD (Four to Seven Years)
After completing their early education, aspiring biomedical scientists can earn a doctoral degree in biomedical science. While some may opt for a dual degree program (see step 3B below), a PhD can prepare graduates for work in academia, research, and industry.
Admissions requirements vary from school to school, but generally include some combination of the following: an exemplary academic record (3.3 GPA or greater); GRE scores; letters of recommendation; work and/or research experience; a personal statement; and in-person interviews.
The Program in Biomedical Science (PiBS) at Boston University offers students a PhD that can be tailored to their specific research interests. Ten different departments participate in the program: biochemistry; biophysics; genetics and genomics; immunology training; microbiology; molecular and translational medicine; nutrition and metabolism; oral biology; pathology and laboratory medicine; and physiology.
In the first year, students work with a faculty advisor to develop a personalized plan of study. In addition to core courses and electives, students attend research seminars and experience three lab rotations. Participation in clinical shadowing and directed research prepares graduates for a career as a biomedical scientist. Furthermore, the program provides a host of opportunities for professional development, which can aid one’s introduction into a career pipeline.
Step 3B: Consider a Dual MD-PhD Degree (Optional, Six to Eight Years)
Some biomedical scientists opt to pair their PhD with a medical doctor (MD) degree. While PhD programs focus primarily on research methods (e.g., project design, data interpretation), dual-degree programs complement that research education with the clinical skills necessary to be a practicing physician. The two skill sets complement each other well in the field of biomedical science.
Requirements for dual-degree programs vary from school to school but often include some combination of the following: an exemplary undergraduate GPA (3.3 or greater), MCAT scores, letters of recommendation, work and/or research experience, a personal statement, and an in-person interview.
The Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Central Florida offers a rigorous, integrated MD-PhD program that allows students to complete requirements of both degrees simultaneously. Students will take medical courses during their first two years and must pass an exam at the end of year two before beginning full-time graduate studies.
During those first two years, students also must begin working on their PhD research project. While clinical clerkships (typically years three and four of medical school) may be deferred until a student has completed their PhD requirements, some level of ongoing clinical training must continue through the duration of the entire program.
In addition to the MD curriculum, the PhD adds a minimum of 72 credit-hours of study, which includes core courses, electives, laboratory rotations, and dissertation research. Students with a master’s degree may waive up to 30 credits of this requirement, with committee approval.
Step 4: Consider Postdoctoral Research Experience (Optional, Timeline Varies)
After completing their PhD, many biomedical scientists go into postdoctoral research. Gaining independent experience in running studies and publishing new areas of research can be critical in winning tenure-track positions at universities and it can also catapult one into desirable positions in the industrial sphere. In biomedical science, one question often leads to another and gaining postdoctoral research can boost one’s credentials.
Helpful Resources for Biomedical Scientists
All forms of science rely on iteration, innovation, and collaboration. If you want to listen in on some of the high-level conversations in biomedical science today, check out some of the resources below.