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What Medical Scientists Do

Medical scientists conduct research aimed at improving overall human health. They often use clinical trials and other investigative methods to reach their findings.


Medical scientists typically do the following:

Many medical scientists, especially in universities, work with little supervision, forming their own hypotheses and developing experiments accordingly. In addition, they often lead teams, technicians, and, sometimes, students who do support tasks. For example, a medical scientist working in a university laboratory may have undergraduate assistants take measurements and observations for the scientist’s research.

Medical scientists study biological systems to understand the causes of diseases and other health problems. For example, medical scientists who do cancer research might put together a combination of drugs that could slow the progress of the disease. They would then study that combination in a clinical trial. Physicians may work with the medical scientists to try the new combination with patients who are willing to participate in the study.

In a clinical trial, patients agree to help find out if a particular drug, or combination of drugs, or other medical intervention works. Without knowing which group they are in, patients in a drug-related clinical trial either receive the trial drug or receive a placebo, a drug that looks like the trial drug but does not have the special ingredients.

Medical scientists analyze the data from all the patients in the clinical trial to see if the trial drug did better than the placebo, for whom it worked better, and to answer other research questions. They then write up and report their findings.

Medical scientists do research both to develop new treatments and to try to prevent health problems. For example, they may study the link between smoking and lung cancer or between alcoholism and liver disease.

Medical scientists who work in private industry usually have less freedom to choose their research topics. Although they may not have the pressure of writing grant proposals to get money for their research, they may have to explain their research plans to nonscientist managers or executives.

Many medical scientists work in the federal government, in research universities, or in private industry.

In the federal government, medical scientists conduct research on human diseases and on exploratory methods of solving medical problems. They spend most of their time carrying out clinical trials or developing experiments on nonhuman subjects. Medical scientists eventually present their findings in medical journals or other publications.

In universities, medical scientists do research and investigate new medicinal methods of improving health. They also write grants, to organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), to secure steady funding for their research.

In addition to doing research, medical scientists in universities and in government who are also medical doctors may see patients, particularly those participating in clinical trials.  

In private industry, medical scientists focus on the development of products such as pharmaceutical drugs and medical instruments. Companies place strong emphasis on the development of products, a process that they hope will culminate with approval from a government agency, often the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The approval process can take several years and be very costly, so private companies typically emphasize development over research.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition