Biochemistry is a complex and fascinating field, and its importance to modern living can not be understated. A Biochemistry degree will give you a thorough understanding of the natural world that we live in, which can prepare you for a number of careers. Whether you’re still in high school, about to graduate from high school, or right out of college, you might be asking yourself what exactly you can do with a biochemistry degree. After all, these degrees aren’t exactly for the faint of heart and many other students don’t understand them. You could handle the hard work that comes with earning a degree in a hard science, but after you get that bachelor’s degree what are you going to do with it?
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A biochemist’s job duties may include examining the body’s immune response to germs and allergens, or determining the effectiveness of drugs in treating a wide array of afflictions. But biochemists enjoy a wide-ranging career path with many possibilities – for instance, other biochemists work in the commercial food or agricultural fields looking for ways to improve products and crops.
The diverse applications of biochemistry means that career options are nearly endless and still unfolding. As technologies and discoveries advance in this exciting field of study, the range and variety of research topics only expands.
The average annual salary for biochemists with a PhD is $94,340 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those entering the field with a bachelor’s degree, average wages will be closer to $45,000, though these averages vary by geographic location. Wages for biochemists range from around $45,000 (the median of the bottom 10% of wage earners) to $158,410 (the median of the top 10% of earners). Positions in pharmaceutical manufacturing or scientific research and development generally pay higher salaries than positions at universities and colleges, where the average annual salary is $62,070.
Many industries are scrambling to incorporate biotechnology into their research, development and marketing strategies in order to be more competitive. Likewise, public and private healthcare agencies and pharmaceutical companies are utilizing advances in scientific and technical knowledge in their pursuit of more effective therapies and treatments. Environmental safety is also a growing public and private concern. This is all good news for biochemists.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that between 2014 and 2024 there will be an 8% growth in jobs for biochemists, which is about as fast as the average growth of all occupations. Teaching positions at the college or university level and opportunities to secure the funding to conduct independent, basic scientific research have become increasingly competitive, due to budgetary restraints in a tight economy.
1Starting in high school.
Many biochemists discover their passion for science and begin their academic training in high school by taking advanced placement courses in biology, chemistry, calculus and physics. An aptitude for mathematics and an interest in the biological or chemical sciences are essential for success in biochemistry. Without a passion for these, maintaining a job as a biochemist is difficult.
2Earn a bachelor’s degree.
With an undergraduate bachelor’s degree, a biochemist can qualify for positions such as research assistant, inspector or technical sales representative. Therefore, a bachelor’s degree at minimum is required for entry-level positions
3Decide whether you want to pursue a master’s or doctoral degree.
Biochemists who go on to obtain a master’s degree qualify for most positions in commercial industries, such as food inspection or product development, as well as for jobs in the private sector in marketing, sales or administration. To get accepted into a master’s program, the selection committees are usually looking for students with a strong history of laboratory experience and excellent professor or supervisor recommendations.
A PhD in biochemistry or chemistry is necessary to lead or participate in serious research projects. At this level, candidates declare a sub-specialty and complete original research in order to meet the doctoral-level standards of the academy. Graduate students in a PhD program typically take five to seven years to complete their PhD. This happens under the close supervision of a senior mentor or principal investigator, along with the guidance of a committee of several other senior scientists.
Pursuing a PhD is a serious commitment that requires undivided attention in order to complete the significant workload, which includes both classes and research in the lab. Often, students also have to teach undergraduates at some point during their graduate career, which is both time-consuming and rewarding. PhD students are not allowed to hold any other job while in a PhD program. Thankfully, most programs offer financial aid for those pursuing PhDs, which helps to lessen the financial burden. This includes free tuition and a monthly stipend for living expenses. The amount varies depending on the institution.
Colleges and universities offering biochemistry degrees may obtain curricular and degree approval from the American Chemical Society (ASC) and many employers consider this certification from the ACS a great advantage in prospective hires. There are no state or federal requirements for licensing to work as a pure biochemist, unless the job itself carries a certification requirement.
4Grow your career.
Biochemistry careers offer many possibilities – basic or applied research, hands-on lab work, teaching or administration in public or private sector industries. There are jobs available for all levels of academic training, and the demand for biochemists continues to grow. Many college graduates begin their careers as lab technicians or assistant researchers to master key skills and gain experience so they can pursue a post-graduate degree. It generally takes a doctorate to lead a research team or to direct a laboratory for private or governmental agencies.
Most biochemists employed by academic institutions are instructors or researchers. In this setting, advancement follows the administrative or management pathways of the institution. If successful, there is opportunity to become a self-employed consultant. Advancement in the private sector largely depends upon successful publication in journals as well as becoming established as an expert in a sub-specialty.
The first step to becoming a biochemist is to earn a bachelor’s degree. This can be in biochemistry or in a closely related discipline like biology or bioengineering.
Holding a bachelor’s degree will qualify you for many entry-level positions in product development, quality control, chemical manufacturing, sales, and research. You’ll also need a bachelor’s degree in order to apply graduate school (master’s and doctoral programs).
Bachelor’s degree programs in biochemistry can be found at many 4-year universities. Some students complete their general education requirements at a 2-year college, and then transfer to a larger college to take their biochemistry core courses.
When choosing an undergraduate biochemistry program, look for one that will allow you to get some hands-on laboratory and research experience. If you plan to go on to graduate school, ask where recent alumni have been accepted. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) provides voluntary accreditation for biochemistry bachelor’s programs.
Bachelor’s-level biochemistry programs combine general education courses in English and the humanities with major courses in chemistry, physics, and biology. Typical areas of study include:
A sequence of courses that introduces the chemical properties and behavior of proteins, nucleic acids, fats, and carbohydrates.
Examine how matter behaves and reacts at the molecular and atomic levels.
Learn techniques to measure and analyze the composition and structure of matter.
A class sequence focused on the properties of matter related to heat, electromagnetism, mechanics, and atomic structure.
As an undergraduate biochemistry student, it’s important to gain laboratory and research experience. This will help you land jobs after graduation and will also strengthen your graduate school application.
An increasing number of colleges are incorporating research into their biochemistry bachelor’s programs. You can also find research opportunities in industry, the government, and university laboratories. The American Chemical Society maintains a list of summer research programs and internships on its website.
A master’s degree can be a stepping-stone to a doctoral or professional degree (for example, medicine and dentistry). It’s also helpful if you want to perform more complex job tasks as a biochemist or move into a management position.
Most master’s degree programs in biochemistry are located at larger universities. Some things to look for when evaluating a program include:
- Laboratory and research facilities
- Research opportunities for master’s-level students
- Faculty research interests
- Which employers have hired recent alumni?
- Where have recent alumni been accepted as Ph.D. candidates?
In order to get into a master’s degree program, you’ll usually need a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry or a closely related science. However, some programs accept candidates with business or law degrees.
Most master’s programs in biochemistry blend coursework with research and scholarly activities. Some subjects you can study at the master’s level:
Survey the process of developing, producing, and marketing biochemical products and processes, including pharmaceuticals.
Understand how complex biological systems like genomic and protein sequences can be analyzed, mapped, and compared.
Learn how cells organize and function at the cellular and molecular levels.
Study how cancer starts, progresses, and responds to treatments.
Many master’s students also complete a research project or thesis under the direction of an advisor or mentor.
You’ll need to earn a doctoral degree (PhD) in order to become a principal research investigator, work on most major research studies, lead product development for industry, or become a professor. Many academic biochemists begin their careers as postdoctoral fellows working alongside mentor scientists at research universities.
PhD programs in biochemistry are generally found at large research universities or within medical schools. You’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree in the field for admission. Many PhD candidates enter their programs with master’s or professional degrees.
Doctoral candidates in biochemistry usually take some coursework early in the program. Some courses are required, but you’ll also have an opportunity to choose topics related to your research. Examples of doctoral level biochemistry courses include:
Study the development of the human genome across the lifespan, from embryology to geriatrics.
Learn how cells “communicate” with other cells by releasing chemical messages into the extracellular space.
Nucleic acid metabolism
Gain an understanding of the interactions between proteins and nucleic acid, plus techniques for studying these reactions.
Covers the mechanisms by which genes alter cell development and differentiation.
After completing your coursework and passing a round of comprehensive exams, you’ll transition to a full-time research phase that lasts 4-6 years. One of the most important milestones of the program is choosing a mentor to supervise your research project.
In order to graduate, you’ll need to write a thesis or dissertation about your research. At some schools, you must also publish your research in a peer-reviewed journal.
In addition, PhD candidates participate in journal clubs, seminars, and professional conferences. You’ll be expected to present your research often through posters and oral presentations.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Because research in biochemistry relies on computers and medical technologies, an extensive understanding of computer science and software is very helpful, but not necessary. Often these are skills that are attained during the job training.
Attention to detail, the ability to work with a team and good communication skills are all important qualities for a biochemist to be able to thrive and succeed in a lab environment.
How to Become a Biochemist: Education and Career Roadmap
what degree do you need to be a biochemist
Biochemists analyze the chemical characteristics and processes that are involved with living organisms. In this profession, you may work for governments, universities or private industries. Your day-to-day activities as a biochemists will often include working in teams conducting basic and applied research. Depending on the industry you’re in, some of your duties may involve dealing with hazardous organisms or toxins. You’ll typically be able to work a regular schedule in this field, but longer days may be necessary from time to time.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
Many careers in the biological sciences, especially in research or academia, require a doctoral degree, so a bachelor’s degree in a relevant science major is a necessary foundation for an aspiring biochemist. Schools offer concentrations in biochemistry, molecular biology, chemistry and biology. Biochemistry majors may take course topics that include organic chemistry, genetics and cells. In addition to having a strong science background, students need to develop skills in computer science, engineering and math.
- Begin to develop relevant skills. Biochemists must have strong communications skills for engaging in research and writing about complex subjects. Students should use time in undergraduate programs to sharpen speaking and writing skills with related coursework in English and the humanities.
- Work on undergraduate research projects. Some schools offer opportunities for undergraduates to work on collaborative research projects. This is a good chance to gain experience in the lab and prepare for a career in academia or research.
Step 2: Pursue a Graduate Degree
A PhD is typically required to work in this field, particularly in research or academia; however, some entry-level positions require only a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Colleges and universities have Master of Science in Biochemistry programs, and some master’s degree programs provide students with a dual concentration, such as biochemistry and biophysics. Curricula usually require graduate students to conduct individual research. Students then use this research to develop their thesis, which many schools require for graduation.
While a master’s degree may also be enough to work as a research technician, advanced research and academic faculty positions typically require applicants to hold a doctoral degree. Graduate students can find Doctor of Philosophy in Biochemistry programs. All doctoral candidates must complete a dissertation based on their original research. They may also take advanced courses that discuss metabolism, molecular biology and cell biology. PhD holders commonly begin their careers with postdoctoral research positions lasting 2-3 years.
Step 3: Gain Experience
Once earning a PhD or master’s degree, biochemists will begin to see their earning potential increase as they accrue more experience in their chosen field. Some biochemists may choose to specialize in a specific niche of their discipline. Alternatively, the advanced education required makes biochemists strong candidates for managerial or upper-tier administrative roles at their respective universities or companies.
- Concentrate on publications. Students should take the opportunity to focus on research interests and work on academic papers while in graduate programs. For academic research positions, candidates who have published research papers may improve their chances to secure employment.
- Network in the field. Potential biochemists, especially those looking for work outside of academia, would benefit from participating in as many networking opportunities as possible. One way to meet people in the science industry involves attending science-related workshops and conferences. For example, the National Institute of Health (NIH) offers a variety of career and professional development opportunities in topics such as career planning and workplace dynamics.