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Jobs Outlook: Medical Scientists




Employment of medical scientists is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2012. Despite projected rapid job growth for medical scientists, doctoral degree holders can expect to face considerable competition for basic research positions. The Federal Government funds much basic research and development, including many areas of medical research. Recent budget increases at the National Institutes of Health have led to large increases in Federal basic research and development expenditures, with the number of grants awarded to researchers growing in number and dollar amount. At the same time, the number of newly trained medical scientists has continued to increase at least as fast as employment opportunities, so both new and established scientists have experienced greater difficulty winning and renewing research grants. If the number of advanced degrees awarded continues to grow unabated, as expected, this competitive situation is likely to persist.

Medical scientists enjoyed rapid gains in employment between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, in part reflecting increased staffing requirements in new biotechnology companies. Employment growth should slow somewhat as increases in the number of new biotechnology firms slow and existing firms merge or are absorbed into larger ones. However, much of the basic medical research done in recent years has resulted in new knowledge, including the isolation and identification of new genes. Medical scientists will be needed to take this knowledge to the next stage, which is understanding how certain genes function within an entire organism, so that gene therapies can be developed to treat diseases. Even pharmaceutical and other firms not solely engaged in biotechnology are expected to increasingly use biotechnology techniques, thus creating employment for medical scientists.

Expected expansion in research related to health issues such as AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease also should result in employment growth. Although medical scientists greatly contributed to developing many vaccines and antibiotics, more medical research will be required to better understand these and other epidemics and to improve human health.

Opportunities in epidemiology also should be highly competitive, as the number of available positions remains limited. However, an increasing focus on monitoring patients at hospitals and healthcare centers to ensure positive patient outcomes will contribute to job growth. In addition, a heightened awareness of bioterrorism and infectious diseases such as West Nile Virus or SARS should also spur demand for these workers. As hospitals enhance their infection control programs, many will seek to boost the quality and quantity of their staff. Besides job openings due to employment growth, additional openings will result as workers leave the labor force or transfer to other occupations. Because employment of epidemiologists is somewhat tied to the healthcare industry, industry conditions will influence occupational demand.

Medical scientists and some epidemiologists are less likely to lose their jobs during recessions than are those in many other occupations because they are employed on long-term research projects. However, a recession could influence the amount of money allocated to new research and development efforts, particularly in areas of risky or innovative medical research. A recession also could limit the possibility of extension or renewal of existing projects.