Becoming a Physiologist: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a physiology career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a physiologist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Being a Physiologist

Physiologists are biological scientists who study the functions of various living organisms, and they can tailor their careers to meet their needs and preferences. Check out the lists of pros and cons to see if a career as a physiologist might be right for you.

PROS of Becoming a Physiologist
Overall job security despite economic hardships*
Above-average wages (median annual wage around $74,720 in May 2014)*
Various specialty options in the field (exercise, cardiac, plant etc.)*
Various career options as well, including lab research, field research and teaching*

CONS of Becoming a Physiologist
A Ph.D. is required for many research positions*
Researchers can work odd hours*
Many jobs are dependent on grant money (only 1 in 4 long-term research grants are approved)*
May have to meet strict deadlines*

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

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

A physiologist is a type of biological scientist, and many work in academic institutions. In this career, your work consists of researching and analyzing the life functions of cells, organisms, animals, plants and people. You generally focus on understanding how something grows, reproduces or moves. The goal of your work would be to develop a better understanding of the life forms you study and discover cures for diseases, improve the way of life or create new products. Typically, the research you do can be applied or basic. Applied research is done to solve a particular problem, while basic research enhances the overall knowledge of biological organisms, systems and functions.

As a physiologist, your work might be done mainly in a laboratory, or you could travel to several locations to conduct research. Traveling can mean working in remote places without modern comforts. Some specialties focus on working with humans, animals or other living things outside of a lab. In most cases, you'll present your findings in an academic setting or write up reports to be read by other professionals in the field. While you could come in contact with harmful substances or dangerous situations during your work, problems can be avoided through the use of safety equipment and by following safety regulations.

Popular Career Options

The field of physiology is broad, giving you the freedom to work in a particular area of interest. If you're most interested in plants, you could work as a plant physiologist and study topics such as plant reproduction, crop management or the effects of soil type on plant growth. Exercise physiology is a completely different option that allows you to work more with people. In this career, you might help design exercise plans for patients who need to improve their cardiovascular health, increase muscle strength or build endurance as part of recovery from a disease, illness or injury.

Additionally, there are medical physiologists who embark on detailed studies of human body systems; animal physiologists, who work with a number of different types of animals; and pathophysiologists, who concentrate on the manifestation of disease. Currently, the study of genetic effects on cells is a hot topic within physiology.

Job Growth and Salary Info

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't have employment projections specific to this field, it does provide data for various types of biological scientists combined, a broad group that includes physiologists. These scientists could expect little or no change in employment from 2012-2022, per the BLS.

In May 2014, the BLS reported that various types of biological scientists, including physiologists, earned a median annual salary of $74,720. According to the Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology, the American Association of Medical Colleges reported that doctoral physiology professors earned a median salary of $158,000 in 2013.

Education Requirements and Career Skills

For most independent research positions, the BLS states that a Ph.D. in Physiology is required. However, positions in applied research, management and inspection, as well as some teaching positions, could require only a bachelor's or master's degree. You'll need to participate in continuing education to stay current with changes and developments in the field.

Some of the most valuable skills a physiologist needs are the ability to work as part of a team, excellent writing skills and the ability to conduct research. You'll also need to be aware of regulations, safety standards and laws that can affect your work. Other skills you need to have to work in this field include critical thinking, mathematics proficiency and deductive reasoning.

What Employers Are Looking For

In job postings from March 2012, employers were looking for candidates with a strong scientific and research background, expertise in their chosen field and the ability to work as part of a team. The following highlights some specific requirements of real employers:

  • A biofuel company in California was seeking a fungal physiologist to develop and improve enzyme technology. Applicants needed three years of experience in research, a Ph.D. degree, leadership abilities and a desire for maintaining a safe work environment.
  • An agricultural research organization in North Dakota was seeking someone with a Ph.D. degree in physiology, biology, nutrition or a related field. Knowledge of metabolism and human physiology was essential. The candidate would carry out research to combat obesity.
  • A Nebraska center for agricultural studies advertised for an animal physiologist who could develop an embryo culture system for swine. A Ph.D. was necessary. Additionally, familiarity animal reproduction and the proteomics biology technique was requested.
  • An Arizona university was seeking a physiology research assistant. Applicants needed a bachelor's degree and 1-2 years of experience. Work duties involve purchasing supplies, maintaining lab equipment and preparing samples for experiments.

How to Maximize Your Skills

According to the BLS, only 1 in 4 of research grants are usually approved, so you could face stiff competition in obtaining funding for long-term research projects. To help set you apart from the crowd of grant-seekers, you can apply for postdoctoral research positions upon receiving your Ph.D. degree. The experience you gain and the chance to publish your original work could prove to be invaluable in securing future research positions, as suggested by the National Institutes of Health. Also, per the BLS, applied research projects in the private sector are often easier to obtain, so you could consider seeking this type of work while you're still establishing your published research record.

Alternative Career Paths to Becoming a Physiologist

Perhaps you want a career that has a higher projected job growth, thus increasing your job opportunities. If this is the case, you might consider becoming a medical scientist. Like physiologists, these professionals also typically need a Ph.D. degree. In this career, you could discover ways to prevent disease and help people live healthier lives. According to the BLS, the projected job growth for this field was 13% from 2012-2022, and the median salary was nearly $77,000 in 2012. If you want to work directly with patients or with humans in research, you need to be aware that you must be a licensed physician to do so.

If your interests lie in studying and discovering ways to control or prevent diseases, but you don't want to commit to the lengthy education requirements, you might consider becoming an epidemiologist. You typically only need a master's degree in public health for this occupation. Laboratories or health agencies are two common places of employment. Job growth between 2012 and 2022 was projected to be 10%, and the median annual salary in 2012 was just over $65,000.

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