Guide to Biochemistry Careers
Biochemistry is the study of the chemical processes that take place in living organisms. This broad definition of biochemistry means that the job of a biochemist can encompass a wide range of scientific topics, including stem cell research, genetic research, immunology, pharmacology, forensics, cancer research, environmental science and food science. The research efforts of biochemists have the potential to result in dramatic medical or scientific breakthroughs.
A biochemist’s job duties may include examining the body’s immune response to germs and allergens, or determining the effectiveness of drugs in treating a wide array of afflictions. But biochemists enjoy a wide-ranging career path with many possibilities – for instance, other biochemists work in the commercial food or agricultural fields looking for ways to improve products and crops.
The diverse applications of biochemistry means that career options are nearly endless and still unfolding. As technologies and discoveries advance in this exciting field of study, the range and variety of research topics only expands.
In general, biochemists work in a laboratory or an office, conducting experiments and analyzing results, but research environment varies by the job.
A large portion of research takes place in academic settings, in which the biochemist usually holds a PhD and has started to do independent research after holding a postdoctoral position. An academic environment involves training undergraduate and graduate students and hiring postdoctoral researchers and technicians to conduct the research. Biochemists choose a research topic based on their own interests. Funding usually comes from grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or other agencies. The schedule is often set by the scientist and varies depending on the person and the research topic.
By contrast, a biochemist working for a biotech or pharmaceutical company often has the opportunity to work in teams on research projects (wherein they report to a supervisor). Or alternately, they are assigned individual tasks in modern, well-equipped laboratories. The work schedule is generally regular (40-hour weeks) with occasional opportunities for overtime when a project deadline is approaching.
In addition, biochemists can opt for a teaching route that does not involve research; they find these positions at the high school or the university level. As teachers, biochemists put in hours outside of the classroom to be well prepared for their students. As with any career in science, a biochemist who wants to stay current on developments in the field will subscribe to a variety of online or print journals and attend conferences and seminars.
There are plenty of job openings for biochemists interested in carrying out applied research for private companies in health and beauty care, chemical manufacturing, food and drink production, medical instruments and pharmaceutical development. Private companies such as these often have positions for biochemists without advanced degrees.
Many biochemical research projects are funded by federal government funds through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the NIH. Biochemists can seek positions within these agencies, but availability of positions depends on the level of federal funding. Other settings in which biochemists can seek employment include hospitals, public health laboratories, cancer research institutes, environmental pollution control and public health offices.
Many biochemists discover their passion for science and begin their academic training in high school by taking advanced placement courses in biology, chemistry, calculus and physics. With an undergraduate bachelor’s degree, a biochemist can qualify for positions such as research assistant, inspector or technical sales representative. Therefore, a bachelor’s degree at minimum is required for entry-level positions.
Biochemists who go on to obtain a master’s degree qualify for most positions in commercial industries, such as food inspection or product development, as well as for jobs in the private sector in marketing, sales or administration. To get accepted into a master’s program, the selection committees are usually looking for students with a strong history of laboratory experience and excellent professor or supervisor recommendations.
A PhD in biochemistry or chemistry is necessary to lead or participate in serious research projects. At this level, candidates declare a sub-specialty and complete original research in order to meet the doctoral-level standards of the academy. Graduate students in a PhD program typically take five to seven years to complete their PhD. This happens under the close supervision of a senior mentor or principal investigator, along with the guidance of a committee of several other senior scientists.
Pursuing a PhD is a serious commitment that requires undivided attention in order to complete the significant workload, which includes both classes and research in the lab. Often, students also have to teach undergraduates at some point during their graduate career, which is both time-consuming and rewarding. PhD students are not allowed to hold any other job while in a PhD program. Thankfully, most programs offer financial aid for those pursuing PhDs, which helps to lessen the financial burden. This includes free tuition and a monthly stipend for living expenses. The amount varies depending on the institution.
The most important training in biochemistry focuses on laboratory skills, safety procedures and the proper use of equipment. Correct handling of samples and specimens is critical to ensure the validity of the results obtained during research. Lab training usually begins in college and carries on through the master’s and PhD programs. Each institution has its own policy on how training should be conducted and what courses are required. As technology and equipment evolve, biochemists continue to train in proper techniques throughout their careers. Another aspect of their training involves reading comprehension, writing and critical thinking, which are important because a biochemist must be able to communicate research findings effectively both orally and in writing.
Licensing and/or Certification
Colleges and universities offering biochemistry degrees may obtain curricular and degree approval from the American Chemical Society (ASC) and many employers consider this certification from the ACS a great advantage in prospective hires. There are no state or federal requirements for licensing to work as a pure biochemist, unless the job itself carries a certification requirement.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
First and foremost, an aptitude for mathematics and an interest in the biological or chemical sciences are essential. Without a passion for these, maintaining a job as a biochemist is difficult. In addition, because research in biochemistry relies on computers and medical technologies, an extensive understanding of computer science and software is very helpful, but not necessary. Often these are skills that are attained during the job training. Advanced level researchers must know how to design plausible experiments, which may include designing and building the necessary technical tools and equipment. Attention to detail, the ability to work with a team and good communication skills are also important qualities for a biochemist.
Opportunities for Advancement
Biochemistry careers offer many possibilities – basic or applied research, hands-on lab work, teaching or administration in public or private sector industries. There are jobs available for all levels of academic training, and the demand for biochemists continues to grow. Many college graduates begin their careers as lab technicians or assistant researchers to master key skills and gain experience so they can pursue a post-graduate degree. It generally takes a doctorate to lead a research team or to direct a laboratory for private or governmental agencies.
Most biochemists employed by academic institutions are instructors or researchers. In this setting, advancement follows the administrative or management pathways of the institution. If successful, there is opportunity to become a self-employed consultant. Advancement in the private sector largely depends upon successful publication in journals as well as becoming established as an expert in a sub-specialty.
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Salary and Job Outlook
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The average annual salary for biochemists with a PhD is $91,960 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those entering the field with a bachelor's degree, average wages will be closer to $48,500, though these averages vary by geographic location. Wages for biochemists range from around $44,220 (the median of the bottom 10% of wage earners) to $149,130 and higher. Positions in pharmaceutical manufacturing or scientific research and development generally pay higher salaries than positions at universities and colleges, where the average annual salary is $68,990.
Many industries are scrambling to incorporate biotechnology into their research, development and marketing strategies in order to be more competitive. Likewise, public and private healthcare agencies and pharmaceutical companies are utilizing advances in scientific and technical knowledge in their pursuit of more effective therapies and treatments. Environmental safety is also a growing public and private concern. This is all good news for biochemists.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that between 2012 and 2022 there will be a 19% growth in jobs for biochemists, which is faster than the average growth of all occupations. Teaching positions at the college or university level and opportunities to secure the funding to conduct independent, basic scientific research have become increasingly competitive, due to budgetary restraints in a tight economy.