Clinical Lab Science vs. Clinical Research

While they may operate in similar settings, clinical laboratory science, and clinical research are two vastly different fields of medicine.

Clinical laboratory scientists, sometimes called medical laboratory scientists, specialize in laboratory information and services that inform the diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of medical conditions. They may perform tests, interpret results, or develop entirely new laboratory tests and processes.

Prospective clinical laboratory scientists often pursue undergraduate degrees in clinical laboratory science (or a related field) at institutions accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS), and then sit for a certification exam through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP).

On the other hand, clinical researchers use scientific investigation methods to study human health and illness and answer specific questions about medicine and behavior. They may design or administer studies investigating a particular disease or evaluate a new drug’s effectiveness and impact.

Clinical researchers often attain graduate-level education through doctoral degrees in medicine or philosophy (MD or PhD). According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many pursue both due to increased job opportunities and higher starting salaries. Further certification through a professional society such as the Association for Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) can distinguish a clinical researcher further in a field that is expected to grow almost twice as fast as the average for all occupations, according to the BLS.

Clinical laboratory science and clinical research take a scientific and investigative approach to answering medical questions. Still, each involves different methodological approaches, institutional certifications, work responsibilities, and educational requirements. When choosing between the two fields of study, it is essential to dig into the details to determine precisely what separates them.

For those considering a career in either field, here is a side-by-side chart comparing and contrasting the disciplines of clinical lab science and clinical research, including career requirements and educational programs.

Clinical Lab Science Clinical Research

Clinical laboratory science uses laboratory information and services to help diagnose, monitor, and treat disease.

Clinical research uses scientific investigation to study the health and illness of people and answer questions about medicine and behavior.

Requirements to Join Career

Clinical laboratory scientists typically complete a bachelor’s degree in clinical laboratory science, medical technology, biomedical science, or medical laboratory science—ideally from an institution accredited by the NAACLS. Clinical laboratory scientists may also complete their undergraduate degree in general life science but may be required to obtain additional certification or training.

In addition to coursework, prospective clinical laboratory scientists will usually perform clinical rotations to gain a hands-on understanding of the profession. National certification, as well as state licensure, is often a prerequisite for a career in the field.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in a life science field, clinical researchers generally complete a graduate-level education as an MD or PhD—and some researchers pursue both to have more job opportunities and higher starting salaries.

Graduate-level study often includes coursework, clinical rotations, laboratory experience, and independent research studies. Professionals who administer medical services or perform medical procedures on human patients must be licensed as physicians and adhere to individual state licensure requirements.

Typical Responsibilities
  • Performing laboratory tests that aid in the diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of patients
  • Assuring the quality of blood for transfusions
  • Providing physicians with information on the validity and significance of laboratory test results
  • Supervising other laboratory personnel
  • Evaluating new test procedures
  • Designing and conducting studies to investigate disease and methods of treatment
  • Standardizing drug potency, doses, and methods for mass manufacturing
  • Developing new studies that can improve health outcomes
  • Writing research grant proposals and applying for funding from public and private sector sources
Work Environments
  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Commercial and government laboratories
  • Academic medical centers
  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Pharmaceutical laboratories
  • Research institutes
  • Academic medical centers
Licensing & Certification

After obtaining a degree in clinical laboratory science, graduates may be eligible to take a national certification examination through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). This medical laboratory science (MLS) credential is almost always a prerequisite for a position in the field and may provide improved job opportunities and higher starting salaries.

In addition to national certification, several states require a further state-specific license to practice.

Clinical researchers may take exams through the Association for Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) that lead to certification as a project manager, clinical research associate, clinical research coordinator, principal investigator, or a standardized certified professional.

Those transitioning into the clinical research field may enroll in a certificate program offered by an academic institution. These programs are often eight to 12 units in length. All researchers who provide medical services to human subjects in the course of a study must be licensed as physicians.

Featured Undergraduate Programs
Featured Graduate Programs
The Bottom Line

Clinical laboratory scientists are healthcare detectives. Though they often work in laboratory settings, their work is directly related to specific patients and their health outcomes—it is estimated that data certified by clinical lab scientists drive up to 70 percent of physician treatment plans. Clinical laboratory scientists are presented with medical puzzles daily, using various tools and knowledge to solve them.

While other areas of the medical profession can require more than ten years of schooling, most clinical laboratory scientists may begin working shortly after completing an undergraduate degree and earning professional certification.

Clinical researchers are the explorers of the medical world. They tackle questions that have not been addressed and do so rigorously and scientifically. This is a profession for curious and patient scientists committed to the long-term view of solving medical mysteries.

Clinical research often involves a long and careful process that can take years to complete. Still, to those who have the dedication and stamina, clinical research offers the opportunity to save human lives, chart the unknown, and change the limits of what is medically possible.

Matt Zbrog
Matt Zbrog Writer

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about emerging topics in medical technology, particularly the modernization of the medical laboratory and the network effects of both health data management and health IT. In consultation with professors, practitioners, and professional associations, his writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best. For, he’s interviewed leaders and subject matter experts at the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).