Becoming a Biochemist: Salary Information & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a career in biochemistry? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a biochemist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career in Biochemistry

Biochemists perform scientific research in the food production, pharmaceutical and alternative energy industries. Take a look at the pros and cons below to see if this career is a potential fit for you.

Pros of Being a Biochemist
Higher-than-average job growth (19%) predicted from 2012-2022*
Competitive average wage (around $92,000 as of May 2014)*
Can lead your own research projects*
Regular lab and office hours*

Cons of Being a Biochemist
Generally requires a doctoral degree, which takes 4-6 years of graduate schooling*
Work may involve dangerous equipment and substances*
Strong competition for permanent positions and research funding*
May require relocation (most job opportunities were found in the Northeast and California)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Info

Job Description & Duties

Biochemistry involves the study of the chemical properties of the substances needed for biological processes, such as breathing and growth. As a biochemist, you would use specialized equipment, including microscopes, lasers, and other machines, to perform experiments and research on particular substances and their relationships with living organisms, either to expand knowledge in a field or to find a specific application for a substance. For instance, you might work to develop a cure for an illness or a weather-resistant crop. Areas of research in biochemistry include food production, medicine, pharmacology, alternative energy and biotechnology.

You may find employment in laboratories, research and development departments at industrial corporations, universities and other research-oriented organizations. Research is usually conducted in team settings, where a biochemist with more seniority, experience, or expertise can serve as lead researcher of a project, so it's important that you work well with others. Though your work schedule may be influenced by the demands of a project or a specific experiment, your office or laboratory hours are usually set on a regular, full-time schedule. Since some of the substances and equipment you use can be dangerous, you must take many safety precautions during your experiments and research.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

According to the BLS, the field of biochemistry (along with biophysics) was expected to grow faster than the average from 2012-2022, mostly due to the expansion of the biotechnology and alternative energy industries. Nonetheless, given the specialized nature of the field, this growth was projected to translate to only about 5,400 jobs during that time period. The BLS reported that biochemists and biophysicists made an average annual salary of approximately $92,000 as of May 2014, with most jobs localized in the research and development industry.

Career Skills and Requirements

If you're interested in biochemistry, you should have a solid understanding of math and science - not only of biology and chemistry, but also their relation to other scientific fields, such as physics, medicine and engineering. As an undergraduate student, your courses should focus heavily on chemistry and biology, covering topics such as genetics, biological systems, advanced mathematics, and organic chemistry.

A graduate degree is usually required by most employers in this field, with a Ph.D. being the norm for biochemist and researcher positions, according to BLS reports. Holding a master's degree may allow you to find work as a research assistant. Since graduate programs can be very competitive, earning a bachelor's degree in biochemistry, biology or chemistry may not only improve your admission chances but also might be a requirement for enrollment in a graduate program. Some graduate programs allow you to either specialize in an area of biochemistry (like drug development) or earn another degree simultaneously (such as an MBA). You should also be skilled at problem solving, critical thinking and project management.

What Employers Are Looking For

Aside from formal education requirements, employers often seek biochemists who already have expertise in their specific field. Some employers also specify the type of equipment and processes the biochemist needs to be familiar with. Here are some examples of job postings from May 2012.

  • A pharmaceutical company in Boston, MA, is seeking an associate biochemist familiar with histology and immunology to assist with laboratory activities. The candidate must also be familiar with digital imaging technologies, earn at least a bachelor's degree in a related field and hold more than three years of experience.
  • A biotechnology company in California is looking for a full-time, temporary biochemist to work in the research and development of diagnostic technologies. Duties include designing, testing and reporting on experiments.
  • A biotechnology company in St. Louis, MO, wants a biochemist with knowledge of statistical software, project management and root cause analysis. The main focus of the position would be to troubleshoot issues used in the manufacturing of diagnostic substances. Candidates must hold at least a master's degree in biochemistry.

How to Maximize your Skills

Given the limited nature of research funding and positions, the biochemistry field can be very competitive, whether it be for entry-level or more senior jobs. According to BLS reports, extensive laboratory experience and internships can give you the best chances of finding employment. Having articles and research results published by scholarly journals during or after your formal education can also increase your employment prospects. Taking additional classes in related fields, such as biotechnology or pharmaceuticals, can make you even more marketable to potential employers.

Other Careers to Consider

If you're interested in chemistry but would like to apply your knowledge rather than conduct research, you could consider becoming a chemical engineer. Chemical engineering focuses more on the concrete applications of known chemical processes; for instance, a chemical engineer may develop a new way to turn oil into a more efficient fuel or may ensure that a current manufacturing process complies with safety and environmental regulations. The BLS anticipated that chemical engineering jobs would only increase six percent from 2010-2020, although the average salary for this career was around $99,000 as of May 2011, which was $10,000 more than biochemists.

If becoming a biochemist requires too many educational requirements for you, consider a career as a biological technician. Biological technicians typically hold a bachelor's degree in biology or a related field, which would take only about four years to complete. As a biological technician, you may still be involved with research by assisting with experiments and taking care of different laboratory duties that lead researchers prefer not to handle. The BLS recommended that you accrue plenty of laboratory experience during your undergraduate studies in order to improve your job prospects after graduating. The BLS projected that the demand for biological technicians would increase by 14% from 2010-2020, which was average. As of May 2011, the BLS reported that biological technicians made a mean yearly wage of around $42,000.

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