Guide to Biochemistry Careers
Biochemistry, the study of chemical processes that take place in living organisms, is a broad field that offers a wide range of career options. Biochemists can pursue stem cell or genetic research that has the potential to result in dramatic medical or scientific breakthroughs. Some biochemists study the body’s immune response to germs and allergens or the effectiveness of drugs in treating a wide array of afflictions. Other biochemists work in the commercial food or agricultural field looking for ways to improve products and crops. The many and diverse applications of biochemistry include pharmacology, genetics, immunology, bioinformatics, environmental science, forensics, toxicological studies and food science. The career options are nearly endless, and still unfolding, as new applications for this exciting field of study continue to evolve.
Biochemists often have the opportunity to work in teams on research projects (where they report to a supervisor), or they are assigned individual tasks in modern, well-equipped labs. The work schedule is generally regular (40-hour weeks) with occasional opportunities for overtime when a project deadline is approaching. Biochemists who opt for the teaching route, whether at the high school or university level, put in hours outside the classroom to be well prepared for their students. As with any career in science, biochemists who want 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. Even those without advanced degrees should also be able to find employment in these sectors.
The federal government funds many biochemical research projects through the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health. Positions for biochemists within these agencies will depend on levels of federal funding. Other settings in which biochemists will find employment include hospitals, public health laboratories, cancer research institutes, environmental pollution control and public health offices.
Many biochemists discover their passion for chemistry and begin their academic training in high school by taking advanced placement courses in biology, chemistry, calculus and physics. An undergraduate bachelor’s degree will qualify the graduate for positions such as research assistant, inspector or technical sales representative.
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. Robust lab experience and professor recommendations greatly aid applications for entry into master’s programs and some institutions even require them.
A PhD in biochemistry or chemistry is necessary to lead or participate in serious research projects. At this level, a sub-specialty is declared and original research is completed to meet doctoral-level standards of the academy. This generally takes two to three years under the close supervision of a senior biochemist.
The most important training in biochemistry focuses on laboratory skills—safety procedures and the proper use of equipment. The correct handling of samples and specimens is critical to ensure the validity of results obtained in research. Internships that teach these skills begin in college and carry on through master’s programs. The National Academy of Clinical Biochemistry published the Laboratory Medicine Practice Guidelines (LMPG) with standards of operation for clinical biochemists.
Licensing and/or Certification
Colleges and universities offering biochemistry degrees may obtain curricular and degree approval from the American Chemical Society. Many employers consider this certification from ACS a great advantage in prospective hires. There is no state or federal requirement for licensing to work as a pure biochemist, unless the job itself carries a certification requirement, such as a radiologist technician.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
An aptitude for mathematics and interest in the biological or chemical sciences is essential. Because research relies on computers and medical technologies, an extensive understanding of computer science and software is very helpful. 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 excellent qualifications 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 should continue to grow. Many college graduates begin their careers as lab technicians or assistant researchers to master skills and get experience so they can pursue a post-graduate degree online or part time. 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.
The average annual salary for biochemists is $79,390 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Wages for biochemists range from $43,050 to $142,420. Those in administrative or managerial positions earned the highest salaries, followed by scientific research and development. Positions at universities and colleges paid an average annual salary of $62,480.
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.
Over the next decade, the government predicts a 31% growth in jobs for biochemists. Teaching positions at the college or university level and the chances of securing the funding to conduct independent basic science research are expected to become increasingly competitive due to budgetary restraints in a tight economy.