Careers and Jobs in Chemistry: Biochemists

Home | Using Industrial Hydraulics |

Applications of Computer-Aided Manufacturing

FAST FACTS

  • School Subjects: Biology, Chemistry
  • Personal Skills: Mechanical/manipulative Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Primarily indoors, Primarily one location
  • Minimum Education Level: Bachelor’s degree
  • Salary Range: $31,258 to $76,320 to $129, 510+
  • Certification or Licensing: Required for certain positions
  • Outlook: About as fast as the average
  • DOT: 041
  • GOE: 02.03.03
  • NOC: 2112
  • O*NET-SOC: 19-1021.00, 19-1021.01

OVERVIEW

Biochemists explore the tiny world of the cell, study how illnesses develop, and search for ways to improve life on earth. Through studying the chemical makeup of living organisms, biochemists strive to understand the dynamics of life, from the secrets of cell-to-cell communication to the chemical changes in our brains that give us memories. Biochemists examine the chemical combinations and reactions involved in such functions as growth, metabolism, reproduction, and heredity. They also study the effect of environment on living tissue. If cancer is to be cured, the earth’s pollution cleaned up, or the aging process slowed, it will be biochemists and molecular biologists who will lead the way.

HISTORY

Biochemistry is a fairly new science, even though the concept of biochemistry is said to have its roots in the discovery of the fermentation process thousands of years ago. In fact, the basic steps used to make wine from grapes were the same in ancient times as they are today. However, the rather unchanging methods used for alcohol fermentation do not nearly reflect the revolutionary changes that have occurred throughout recent history in our knowledge of cell composition, growth, and function. Robert Hooke, an English scientist, first described and named cells in 1665, when he looked at a slice of bark from an oak tree under a microscope with a magnifying power of 30x. Hooke never realized the significance of his discovery, however, because he thought the tiny boxes or “cells” he saw were unique to the bark. Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutchman who lived in Hooke’s time, discovered the existence of single-celled organisms by observing them in pond water and in animal blood and sperm. He used grains of sand that he had polished into magnifying glasses as powerful as 300x to see this invisible world. In 1839, nearly two centuries after Hooke’s and Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries, two German biologists, Matthias Schleiden and Theodor Schwann, correctly concluded that all living things consisted of cells. This theory was later expanded to include the idea that all cells come from other cells, and that the ability of cells to divide to form new cells is the basis for all reproduction, growth, and repair of many-celled organisms, like humans.

Over the past decades, a powerful instrument called the electron microscope has revealed the complex structure of cells. Every cell, at some state in its life, contains deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the genetic material that directs the cell’s many activities. Biochemists have widened their scope to include the study of protein molecules and chromosomes, the building blocks of life itself. Biology and chemistry have always been allied sciences, and the exploration of cells and their molecular components, carried out by biochemists and other biological scientists, has revealed much about life. Watson and Crick’s breakthrough discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 touched off a flurry of scientific activity that led to a better and better understanding of DNA chemistry and the genetic code. These discoveries eventually made it possible to manipulate DNA, enabling genetic engineers to transplant foreign genes into microorganisms to produce such valuable products as human insulin, which occurred in 1982.

Today, the field of biochemistry crosses over into many other sciences, as biochemists have become involved in genetics, nutrition, psychology, fertility, agriculture, and more. The new biotechnology is revolutionizing the pharmaceutical industry. Much of this work is done by biochemists and molecular biologists because this technology involves understanding the complex chemistry of life.

THE JOB

Depending on their education level and area of specialty, biochemists can do many types of work for a variety of employers. For instance, a biochemist could do basic research for a federal government agency or for individual states with laboratories that employ skilled persons to analyze food, drug, air, water, waste, or animal tissue samples. A biochemist might work for a drug company as part of a basic research team searching for the cause of diseases or conduct applied research to develop drugs to cure disease. A biochemist might work in a biotechnology company focusing on the environment, energy, human health care, agriculture, or animal health. There, he or she might do research or quality control, or work on manufacturing / production or information systems. Another possibility is for the biochemist to specialize in an additional area, such as law, business, or journalism, and use his or her biochemistry or molecular biology background for a career that combines science with regulatory affairs, management, writing, or teaching.

Ph.D. scientists who enter the highest levels of academic life combine teaching and research. In addition to teaching in university classrooms and laboratories, they also do basic research designed to increase biochemistry and molecular biology knowledge. As Ph.D. scientists, these professionals could also work for an industry or government laboratory doing basic research or research and development (R&D). The problems studied, research styles, and type of organization vary widely across different laboratories. The Ph.D. scientist may lead a research group or be part of a small team of Ph.D. researchers. Other Ph.D. scientists might opt for administrative positions. In government, for example, these scientists might lead programs concerned with the safety of new devices, food, drugs, or pesticides and other chemicals. Or they might influence which projects will get federal funding.

Generally, biochemists employed in the United States work in one of three major fields: medicine, nutrition, or agriculture. In medicine, biochemists mass-produce life-saving chemicals usually found only in minuscule amounts in the body. Some of these chemicals have helped diabetics and heart attack victims for years. Biochemists employed in the field of medicine might work to identify chemical changes in organs or cells that signal the development of such diseases as cancer, diabetes, or schizophrenia. Or they may look for chemical explanations for why certain people develop muscular dystrophy or become obese. While studying chemical makeup and changes in these situations, biochemists may work to discover a treatment or a prevention for a disease. For instance, biochemists discovering how certain diseases such as AIDS and cancer escape detection by the immune system are also devising ways to enhance immunity to fight these diseases. Biochemists are also finding out the chemical basis of fertility and how to improve the success of in vitro fertilization to help couples have children or to preserve endangered species.

Biochemists in the pharmaceutical industry design, develop, and evaluate drugs, antibiotics, diagnostic kits, and other medical devices. They may search out ways to produce antibiotics, hormones, enzymes, or other drug components, or they may do quality control on the way in which drugs and dosages are made and determined.

In the field of nutrition, biochemists examine the effects of food on the body. For example, they might study the relationship between diet and diabetes. Biochemists doing this study could look at the nutrition content of certain foods eaten by people with diabetes and study how these foods affect the functioning of the pancreas and other organs. Biochemists in the nutrition field also look at vitamin and mineral deficiencies and how they affect the human body. They examine these deficiencies in relation to body performance, and they may study anything from how the liver is affected by a lack of vitamin B to the effects of poor nutrition on the ability to learn.

Biochemists involved in agriculture undertake studies to discover more efficient methods of crop cultivation, storage, and pest control. For example, they might create genetically engineered crops that are more resistant to frost, drought, spoilage, disease, and pests. They might focus on helping to create fruit trees that produce more fruit by studying the biochemical composition of the plant and determining how to alter or select for this desirable trait. Biochemists may study the chemical composition of insects to determine better and more efficient methods of controlling the pest population and the damage they do to crops. Or they could work on programming bacteria to clean up the environment by “eating” toxic chemicals.

About seven out of 10 biochemists are engaged in basic research, often for a university medical school or nonprofit organization, such as a foundation or research institute. The remaining 30 percent do applied research, using the discoveries of basic research to solve practical problems or develop products. For example, a biochemist working in basic research may make a discovery about how a living organism forms hormones. This discovery will lead to a scientist doing applied research, making hormones in the laboratory, and eventually to mass production. Discoveries made in DNA research have led to techniques for identifying criminals from a single strand of hair or a tiny blood stain left at the scene of a crime. The distinction between basic and applied research is one of degree, however; biochemists often engage in both types of work.

Biochemistry requires skillful use of a wide range of sophisticated analytical equipment and application of newly discovered techniques requiring special instruments or new chemical reagents. Sometimes, biochemists themselves must invent and test new instruments if existing methods and equipment do not meet their needs.

Biochemists must also be patient, methodical, and careful in their laboratory procedures.

Books to Read: Chemistry Experiments

  • Ebbing, Darrell D. Experiments In General Chemistry. 8th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.
  • Garland, Carl W.,Joseph W. Nibler, and David P. Shoemaker. Experiments in Physical Chemistry. 7th ed. New York: McGraw Science/Engineering/Math, 2006.
  • Herr, Norman, and James Cunningham. Hands-On Chemistry Activities with Real-Life Applications: Easy-to-Use Labs and Demonstrations for Grades 8-12. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
  • Murov, Steven, and Brian Stedjee. Experiments and Exercises in Basic Chemistry. 6th ed. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2003.
  • Rohrig, Brian. 150 Captivating Chemistry Experiments Using Household Substances. Rev. ed. Plain City, Ohio: FizzBang Science, 2002.
  • 150 More Captivating Chemistry Experiments Using House hold Substances. Plain City, Ohio: FizzBang Science, 2002.

REQUIREMENTS

Although they usually specialize in one of many areas in the field, biochemists and molecular biologists should also be familiar with several scientific disciplines, including chemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer science. High school classes can provide the foundation for getting this knowledge, while four years of college expands it, and postgraduate work directs students to explore specific areas more deeply. The following describes possible strategies at each level and includes a community college option.

High School

If you have an interest in biochemistry as a high school student, you should take at least one year each of biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Introductory calculus is also a good idea. Because scientists must clearly and accurately communicate their results verbally and in writing, English courses that emphasize writing skills are strongly recommended. Many colleges and universities also require several years of a foreign language, a useful skill today, as scientists frequently exchange information with researchers from other countries.

Postsecondary Training

Some colleges have their own special requirements for admission, so you should do a little research and take any special courses you need for the college that interests you. Also, check the catalogs of colleges and universities to see if they offer a program in biochemistry or related sciences. Some schools award a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, and nearly all colleges and universities offer a major in biology or chemistry.

To best prepare yourself for a career in biochemistry or molecular biology, you should start by earning a bachelor’s degree in either of these two areas. Even if your college does not offer a specific pro gram in biochemistry or molecular biology, you can get comparable training by doing one of two things: (1) working toward a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and taking courses in biology, molecular genetics, and biochemistry, including a biochemistry laboratory class, or (2) earning a bachelor’s degree in biology, but taking more chemistry, mathematics, and physics courses than the biology major may require, and also choosing a biochemistry course that has lab work with it.

It really doesn’t matter if you earn a bachelor of science (B.S.) or a bachelor of arts (B.A.) degree; some schools offer both. It is more important to choose your courses thoughtfully and to get advice in your freshman year from a faculty member who knows about the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Many careers in biochemistry, especially those that involve teaching at a college or directing scientific research at a university, a government laboratory, or a commercial company, require at least a master’s degree and prefer a doctorate or Ph.D. degree. Most students enter graduate programs with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, or in chemistry or biology with supplementary courses. Because bio chemistry and molecular biology are so broad-based, you can enter their graduate programs from such diverse fields as physics, psychology, nutrition, microbiology, or engineering. Graduate schools prefer students with laboratory or research experience.

However you get there, a graduate education program is intense. A master’s degree requires about a year of course work and often a research project as well. For a Ph.D. degree, full-time course work can last up to two years, followed by one or more special test exams. But the most important part of Ph.D. training is the requirement for all students to conduct an extensive research project leading to significant new scientific findings. Most students work under a faculty member’s direction. This training is vital, as it will help you develop the skills to frame scientific questions and discover ways to answer them. It will also teach you important laboratory skills useful in tackling other biochemical problems. Most students complete a Ph.D. program in four or five years.


Chemistry students in a lab perform an experiment that determines the weight of a product of a chemical reaction.

Certification or Licensing

Biochemists who wish to work in a hospital may need certification by a national certifying board such as the American Board of Clinical Chemistry.

Other Requirements

A scientist never stops learning, even when formal education has ended. This is particularly true for biochemists and molecular biologists because constant breakthroughs and technology advances make for a constantly changing work environment. That is why most Ph.D.’s go for more research experience (postdoctoral research) before they enter the workplace. As a “postdoc,” you would not take course work, earn a degree, or teach; you would likely work full time on a high-level research project in the laboratory of an established scientist. Typically, this postdoctoral period lasts two to three years, during which time you would get a salary or be supported by a fellowship. Though not essential for many industry research jobs, postdoctoral research is generally expected of those wishing to become professors. Also, because biochemistry and medicine are such allies, some Ph.D. recipients also earn their medical degrees, or M.D.’s, as a physician does. This is to get the broadest possible base for a career in medical research.

EXPLORING

The analytical, specialized nature of most biochemistry makes it unlikely that you will gain much exposure to it before college. Many high school chemistry and biology courses, however, allow students to work with laboratory tools and techniques that will give them a valuable background before college. In some cases, high school students can take advantage of opportunities to train as laboratory technicians by taking courses at a community college. You might also want to contact local colleges, universities, or laboratories to set up interviews with biochemists to learn as much as you can about the field. In addition, reading science and medical magazines will help you to stay current with recent breakthroughs in the biochemistry field.

EMPLOYERS

Government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels employ more than 50 percent of all biological scientists. At such agencies these scientists may do basic research and analyze food, drug, air, water, waste, or animal tissue samples. Biochemists also work for university medical schools or nonprofit organizations, such as a foundation or research institute, doing basic research. Drug companies employ biochemists to search for the causes of diseases or develop drugs to cure them. Biochemists work in quality control, research, manufacturing/production, or information systems at bio technology companies that concentrate on the environment, energy, human health care, agriculture, or animal health. Universities hire biochemists to teach in combination with doing research.

STARTING OUT

A bachelor’s degree in biochemistry or molecular biology can help you get into medical, dental, veterinary, law, or business school. It can also be a stepping-stone to a career in many different but related fields: biotechnology, toxicology, biomedical engineering, clinical chemistry, plant pathology, animal science, or other fields. Biochemists fresh from a college undergraduate program can take advantage of opportunities to get valuable on-the-job experience in a biochemistry or molecular biology laboratory. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, both federal government agencies, sponsor research programs for undergraduates. Groups who can particularly benefit from these programs include women, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and students with disabilities. Your college or university may also offer senior research projects that provide hands-on experience.

Another way to improve your chances of getting a job is to spend an additional year at a university with training programs for specialized laboratory techniques. Researchers and companies like these “certificate programs” because they teach valuable skills related to cell culture, genetic engineering, recombinant DNA technology, biotechnology, in vitro cell biology, protein engineering, or DNA sequencing and synthesis. In some universities, you can work toward a bachelor’s degree and a certificate at the same time.

Biochemists with a bachelor’s degree usually begin work in industry or government as research assistants doing testing and analysis. In the drug industry, for example, you might analyze the ingredients of a product to verify and maintain its quality. Biochemists with a master’s degree may enter the field in management, marketing, or sales positions, whereas those with a doctorate usually go into basic or applied research. Many Ph.D. graduates work at colleges and universities where the emphasis is on teaching.

ADVANCEMENT

The more education you have, the greater your reward potential. Biochemists with a graduate degree have more opportunities for advancement than those with only an undergraduate degree. It is not uncommon for students to go back to graduate school after working for a while in a job that required a lesser degree. Some graduate students become research or teaching assistants in colleges and universi ties, qualifying for professorships when they receive their advanced degrees. Having a doctorate allows you to design research initiatives and direct others in carrying out experiments. Experienced biochemists with doctorates can move up to high-level administrative positions and supervise entire research programs. Other highly qualified biochemists who prefer to devote themselves to research often become leaders in a particular aspect of their profession.

EARNINGS

According to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, beginning salaries in 2005 for graduates with bachelor’s degrees in biological science averaged $31,258 per year.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that biochemists and bio physicists earned average annual incomes of $76,320 in 2006. Salaries ranged from less than $40,820 to more than $129,510 per year.

Colleges and universities also employ many biochemists as professors and researchers. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that postsecondary chemistry teachers earned salaries that ranged from less than $36,160 to more than $116,910 in 2006. College biology teachers had earnings that ranged from less than $37,620 to more than $101,780.

Biochemists who work for universities, the government, or industry all tend to receive good benefits packages, such as health and life insurance, pension plans, and paid vacation and sick leave. Those employed as university faculty operate on the academic calendar, which means that they can get summer and winter breaks from teaching classes.

WORK ENVIRONMENT

Biochemists generally work in clean, quiet, and well-lighted laboratories where physical labor is minimal. They must, however, take the proper precautions in handling chemicals and organic substances that could be dangerous or cause illness. They may work with plants and animals; their tissues, cells, and products; and with yeast and bacteria.

Biochemists in industry generally work a 40-hour week, although they, like their counterparts in research, often put in many extra hours. They must be ready to spend a considerable amount of time keeping up with current literature, for example. Many biochemists occasionally travel to attend meetings or conferences. Those in research write papers for presentation at meetings or for publication in scientific journals.

Individuals interested in biochemistry must have the patience to work for long periods on a project without necessarily getting the desired results. Biochemistry is often a team affair, requiring an ability to work well and cooperate with others. Successful biochemists are continually learning and increasing their skills.

OUTLOOK

Employment for biological scientists, including biochemists, is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, as the number of trained scientists has increased faster than available funding. Competition will be strong for basic research positions, and candidates with more education and the experience it brings will be more likely to find the positions they want. Employment is available in health-related fields, where the emphasis is on finding cures for such diseases as cancer, muscular dystrophy, AIDS, and Alzheimer’s. Additional jobs will be created to produce genetically engineered drugs and other products in the new and rapidly expanding field of genetic engineering. In this area, the outlook is best for biochemists with advanced degrees who can conduct genetic and cellular research. A caveat exists, however. Employment growth may slow somewhat as the number of new bio technology firms slows and existing firms merge. Biochemists with bachelor’s degrees who have difficulty entering their chosen career field may find openings as technicians or technologists or may choose to transfer their skills to other biological science fields.

It is estimated that over the next decade, 68 percent of those entering the workforce will be women and members of other minority groups. The federal government, recognizing this situation, offers a variety of special programs (through the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health) to bring women, minorities, and persons with disabilities into the field.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For a copy of Partnerships in Health Care, a brochure discussing clinical laboratory careers, and other information, contact:

American Association for Clinical Chemistry

1850 K Street, NW, Suite 625

Washington, DC 20006-2213

Tel: 800-892-1400

http://www.aacc.org

For general information about chemistry careers and approved education programs, contact:

American Chemical Society

1155 16th Street, NW

Washington, DC 20036-4801

Tel: 800-227-5558

http://www.chemistry.org

For information on careers in the biological sciences, contact:

American Institute of Biological Sciences

1444 I Street, NW, Suite 200

Washington, DC 20005-6535

Tel: 202-628-1500

Email: admin@aibs.org

http://www.aibs.org

For information on educational programs, contact:

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Education Information

9650 Rockville Pike

Bethesda, MD 20814-3996

Tel: 301-634-7145

Email: asbmb@asbmb.org

http://www.asbmb.org

For career resources, contact:

American Society for Investigative Pathology

9650 Rockville Pike

Bethesda, MD 20814-3993

Tel: 301-634-7130

Email: asip@asip.org

http://www.asip.org

Prev: Agricultural Scientists

Next: Chemical Engineers

Home     top of page