Education and Training: Doctoral degree
Salary: Median—$68,950 per year
Employment Outlook: Good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Biochemists are scientists who study the chemistry of living things. Their work includes studying the complex chemical combinations and reactions involved in metabolism, reproduction, growth, and heredity.
Some biochemists do basic research that expands scientific knowledge about the chemistry of living things. Others do applied research—that is, they work to create new products or to solve practical problems. In the field of medicine, for example, biochemists doing basic research may study the ways hormones are formed. Biochemists doing applied research may use the basic findings about hormone formation to develop synthetic hormones that can be produced on a large scale.
Biochemists working in medicine are sometimes called molecular biologists. They study bacteria, viruses, and other organisms to better understand the chemical basis of life. They also determine the effects of chemicals on medical problems such as cancer, aging, or obesity.
Biochemists in nutrition analyze food products to measure their vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates, and minerals. They research the effects of freezing or cooking and compute the caloric value of foods.
About half of all biochemists work for colleges and universities, where they teach or do research. Many are employed by private firms such as breweries, drug companies, petroleum producers, and manufacturers. Others work for nonprofit research centers or government agencies. A few biochemists are self-employed consultants who advise government or industry.
Although their jobs may differ widely, almost all biochemists do laboratory research at least some of the time. They plan research projects to test theories or to develop new products or processes. They are often assisted by laboratory technicians or research assistants. Biochemists perform a number of tasks, such as weighing chemicals, filtering liquids, distilling ingredients, and growing cultures of microorganisms. They use a variety of tools and instruments, including test tubes, beakers, flasks, electron microscopes, centrifuges, and spectrophotometers. Sometimes they make use of radioactive isotopes. Biochemists must use exact scientific methods in their work. They are often aided by computerized data. Biochemists generally write up their findings for scientific journals and report them before groups of scientists.
Education and Training Requirements
High school students interested in biochemistry should take chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, English, and a foreign language. By participating in science clubs, science fairs, and summer programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation, secondary school students can get experience in science-related work. You usually need a doctoral degree to become a biochemist. You should major in biochemistry, biology, or chemistry as an undergraduate and continue with specialized training in biochemistry in graduate school. Individuals with bachelor's degrees are sometimes hired as research assistants or technicians. They often do routine testing and analysis, but their opportunities for advancement are limited. People who have earned master's degrees in biochemistry are qualified for more responsible jobs in applied research and for some teaching jobs. You usually need a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) to teach and do research at a university or to move into a management or administration job. It generally takes four years to earn a bachelor's degree and another one or two years to receive a master's degree. You need to spend an additional three or four years for a doctoral degree. To keep up with new developments in the field, you should continue to read and study throughout your career.
Some biochemists get a doctoral degree in biochemistry after they have completed medical school and received the degree of doctor of medicine (M.D.). Medical training is needed by scientists who want to do certain kinds of research involving human beings.
Getting the Job
Your professors and college placement service are probably the best sources for jobs in biochemistry. Recruiters from industry sometimes visit colleges to interview candidates. In addition, professional journals, newspaper classifieds, and Internet job banks often list openings for biochemists. You can also apply directly to research centers, private firms, and government agencies that hire biochemists. You may need to pass a civil service exam to get a government job.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
There are several ways for biochemists to advance, especially those with doctoral degrees. They can become supervisors of other biochemists or directors of research in laboratories run by universities, the government, or private industry. They can become professors and combine research and teaching. They can also advance to positions as executives in private companies or as higher administrators in colleges and universities. For many biochemists, the highest form of achievement is being recognized as an authority by others in the field. This recognition generally comes after they have done a great deal of research and have published the results of that research in scientific journals.
Employment of biological scientists in general is projected to grow about as fast as average for all occupations from 2004 to 2014, as biotechnological research and development continues to drive job growth. Biochemists do most of their work in biotechnology, so the job market for them through 2014 should be good. However, the federal government has recently tightened its budget and reduced the number of grants awarded to researchers. At the same time, the number of advanced degrees awarded has continued to increase. As a result, there will be considerable competition for research positions. Colleges and universities will add only a few positions each year.
Opportunities for those with bachelor's or master's degrees in biochemistry are expected to be better than the opportunities for those with doctoral degrees. Jobs will be plentiful in private industry, large hospitals, and medical centers. There will be a great number of sales-related positions in sales, marketing, and research management. Some recent advances in biochemistry have commercial applications, particularly in the expanding genetic engineering field. Increased public awareness and interest in preserving the environment and finding cures for such diseases as AIDS, cancer, heart disease, and arthritis are also likely to provide the stimulus for increased spending by private pharmaceutical and new biotechnology companies.
Biochemists generally work in well-lighted and well-equipped laboratories. Sometimes they spend time in offices and classrooms as well. The basic workweek is usually forty hours long. Hours are sometimes flexible, and they often total more than forty hours a week. Sometimes biochemists must work in rotating shifts if a project needs to be monitored around the clock. Biochemists also need to spend time reading and studying to keep up with other scientists' findings that are related to their own work.
Where to Go for More Information
American Chemical Society
1155 Sixteenth St. NW
Washington, DC 20036
American Institute of Biological Sciences
1444 I St. NW, Ste. 200
Washington, DC 20005
American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
9650 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20814-3996
Because biochemists work in a field that requires precision, they need to be careful and patient workers who can use scientific methods and equipment. They must be inquisitive as well as persistent. Often experiments are carried out over long periods of time. Biochemists should be imaginative and independent workers who can devise and carry out projects on their own. They also need the ability to work as part of a scientific team when a cooperative approach seems more useful for solving a research problem. The ability to communicate their ideas, orally and in writing, is also essential for biochemists.
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings depend on the education and experience of the biochemist as well as the location and type of job. The median annual income of biochemists was $68,950 in 2004. Benefits generally include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.
A biochemist is a scientist primarily concerned with the chemistry of biological processes. The four main branches of biochemistry are: a) nucleic acids, b) proteins , c) carbohydrates , and d) lipids . Most biochemists will generally specialize in one of these areas. The training and scientific focus of a biochemist is what distinguishes him or her from others in related disciplines (molecular genetics, cell biology, analytic chemistry, and biophysics). Biochemists deal chiefly with scientific research of specific biochemical structures, interactions, or reactions. Two specific examples of research biochemists are enzymologists, who study catalytic proteins, and analytical biochemists, who may, for example, develop new DNA separation technologies.
Minimal training for a technician-level position in biochemistry generally requires a B.S. in biochemistry or chemistry, while those wishing more professional autonomy should attain a graduate degree. Ph.D.-level biochemists achieve the greatest autonomy. Before attaining their first independent position they will usually undergo additional training after completion of their in Ph.D., a postdoctoral position.
Biochemists work in the biopharmaceutical and agricultural biotechnology industries, academia, clinical laboratories, and a variety of regulatory and military posts in government.
see also Biotechnology; Carbohydrates; DNA; Lipids; Pharmacologist
Michael L. Gleason
American Chemical Society: ChemCenter. <http://www.acs.org/servlet/ACSHomePage>.