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Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement    

A Ph.D. in a biological science is the minimum education required for most prospective medical scientists, except epidemiologists. However, some medical scientists pursue medical degrees to perform clinical work. Epidemiologists typically need at least a masters degree in public health, but some work requires a Ph.D. or medical degree. A period of postdoctoral work in the laboratory of a senior researcher is becoming increasingly common for medical scientists.

Education and training. A Ph.D. typically qualifies people to research basic life processes or particular medical problems and to analyze the results of experiments. Some medical scientists obtain a medical degree instead of a Ph.D., but some do not become licensed physicians because they prefer research to clinical practice. It is particularly helpful for medical scientists to earn both a Ph.D. and a medical degree.

Students planning careers as medical scientists should have a bachelors degree in a biological science. In addition to required courses in chemistry and biology, undergraduates should study allied disciplines, such as mathematics, engineering, physics, and computer science, or courses in their field of interest. Once they have completed undergraduate studies, they can then select a specialty for their advanced degree, such as cytology, bioinformatics, genomics, or pathology.

The minimum educational requirement for epidemiologists is a masters degree from a school of public health. Some jobs may require a Ph.D. or medical degree, depending on the work performed. Epidemiologists who work in hospitals and health care centers often must have a medical degree with specific training in infectious diseases. Some employees in research epidemiology positions are required to be licensed physicians because they must administer drugs in clinical trials.

Few students select epidemiology for undergraduate study. Undergraduates, nonetheless, should study biological sciences and should have a solid background in chemistry, mathematics, and computer science. Once a student is prepared for graduate studies, he or she can choose a specialty within epidemiology. For example, those interested in studying environmental epidemiology should focus on environmental coursework, such as water pollution, air pollution, pesticide use, toxicology, and molecular biology. Other specialties include occupational epidemiology, infection processes, infection control precautions, surveillance methodology, and outbreak investigation. Some epidemiologists begin their careers in other health care occupations, such as registered nurse or medical technologist.

In addition to formal education, medical scientists usually spend some time in a postdoctoral position before they apply for permanent jobs. Postdoctoral work provides valuable laboratory experience, including experience in specific processes and techniques such as gene splicing, which is transferable to other research projects. In some institutions, the postdoctoral position can lead to a permanent job.

Licensure. Medical scientists who administer drug or gene therapy to human patients, or who otherwise interact medically with patients ¯drawing blood, excising tissue, or performing other invasive procedures ¯must be licensed physicians. To be licensed, physicians must graduate from an accredited medical school, pass a licensing examination, and complete 1 to 7 years of graduate medical education.

Epidemiologists who perform laboratory tests often require the knowledge and expertise of a licensed physician to administer drugs to patients in clinical trials. Epidemiologists who are not physicians frequently work closely with one.

Other qualifications. Medical scientists should be able to work independently or as part of a team and be able to communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing. Those in private industry, especially those who aspire to consulting and administrative positions, should possess strong communication skills so that they can provide instruction and advice to physicians and other health care professionals.

Certification and advancement. The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology offers continuing education courses and certification programs in infection prevention and control and applied epidemiology. To become certified as an infection control professional, applicants must pass an examination. Certification can be an advantage for those seeking advancement in this rapidly evolving field.

Advancement among medical scientists usually takes the form of greater independence in their work, larger budgets, or tenure in university positions. Others choose to move into managerial positions and become natural science managers.  Those who pursue management careers spend more time preparing budgets and schedules.

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