Medical research is a fascinating and extremely important field. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear to almost every member of the general public that medical researchers perform a vital job, and it was impressive to see how quickly medical scientists were able to develop the various COVID-19 vaccines.
The job of a medical researcher is quite varied. Depending on which project they are working on at a particular time, and how far into the project implementation they are, a medical researcher’s day in the lab might involve seeking and applying for funding opportunities, preparing research plans to submit to an ethics board, designing or running lab tests, interpreting data, writing up their findings or producing graphics.
Furthermore, medical researchers also spend a lot of their time presenting papers at conferences, teaching or supervising students, writing books, and, occasionally, talking to journalists about their research.
Here are three career pathways into medical research:
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1. If you have a Biology degree
If you were good at Biology in high school, you might have entered college with the intention of majoring in Biology or Biomedical Sciences, even without a specific career path in mind. After all, there are plenty of career options open to Biology graduates! However, if—some time between declaring your major in your sophomore year and now—you decided that you would like to become a medical researcher, you will need to continue your education by gaining a PhD in either Biomedical Sciences, Biology, or a related discipline.
In many fields, such as literature or history, doing a PhD involves spending a lot of time alone reading books and journal articles. As a PhD student in the biomedical sciences world, however, you will spend a large portion of your time working in research labs.
With the help of your supervisor, you will choose several labs to apply to, and will work in each of the ones that accept you for several months at a time—this is known as ‘lab rotations’. After you have done a few rotations, you will choose your ‘thesis lab’, which is the lab where you will work for the remainder of your PhD.
Once you have gained your PhD, it is time to start applying for research fellowships in your field. If you are struggling to get ‘regular’ research fellowships, you could consider applying for a postdoctoral fellowship, or postdoc, which is a temporary position that will allow you to expand your research in the field you studied during your PhD. Some universities give all their successful PhD students a secure place on a postdoc, so this is something to bear in mind when choosing your PhD program.
2. If you are a doctor
If you have an MD and have been practicing as a physician, making a career move into medical research is a logical next step. You might think that you will need to go back to university and earn a PhD, and indeed that is the route that some physicians will take in order to secure research positions—after all, a PhD is all about research, whereas your MD is likely to have focused on applying existing knowledge to clinical situations.
However, it is possible to enter the medical research world with ‘just’ an MD and no PhD. You might have performed research during your undergraduate studies, and that will stand you in good stead with potential employers, especially if you can get your supervisor for that project to give you a reference.
If you have no research experience, take every opportunity you can to attend conferences. If you work in a teaching hospital or in another clinical setting that also performs research, ask if you can shadow the researchers, even informally—this will make all the difference when it comes to applying for research fellowships.
If you are a college student considering going to medical school and you think you might also be interested in becoming a researcher one day, keep in mind that you can apply for a combined MD-PhD program. This is a dual graduate degree, which combines the clinical experience typical of an MD with the research normally conducted during a PhD.
MD-PhD programs typically last seven to nine years, which is a huge commitment, but if you know that you want to work both in clinical practice and in medical research, then this is probably the best option for you.
3. If you are a nurse
Medical research is not a job usually associated with nurses. However, if you have been working as a nurse and would now like to become a researcher, you will be pleased to know that this is perfectly possible! The job of a nurse researcher is an established and respected position within the medical research community, and in many ways, it is equivalent to that of a research doctor.
To become a nurse researcher, you will normally need to complete a PhD in Nursing. Like any other PhD in the biomedical sciences, a Nursing PhD will involve a mixture of supervised research in a lab and classes in statistics, research design, grant writing, and more. Some Nursing PhD programs offer specializations in areas such as:
- nursing education
- interdisciplinary health
- community health
Please note that a PhD in Nursing is different from a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. While both are ‘terminal degrees’, which means that they constitute the highest types of academic qualification available to nurses, DNP nursing leadership courses prepare students for nurse manager and nurse director roles, whereas PhDs in Nursing are designed to train nurse researchers and lecturers.
Once you have gained your PhD, your career path will look similar to the one described above for other PhD graduates. Nurse researchers sometimes work as clinical research monitors or as research assistants prior to gaining their PhD, or between finishing their PhD and winning their first research fellowship. Another option open to those with a PhD in Nursing is to become lecturers in a nursing program.
Alex is fascinated with “understanding” people. It’s actually what drives everything he does. He believes in a thoughtful exploration of how you shape your thoughts, experience of the world.