Biochemists and Biophysicists

Summary

biochemists and biophysicists image
Biochemists and biophysicists use electron microscopes to study the chemical and physical properties of cells.
Quick Facts: Biochemists and Biophysicists
2012 Median Pay $81,480 per year
$39.17 per hour
Entry-Level Education Doctoral or professional degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2012 29,200
Job Outlook, 2012-22 19% (Faster than average)
Employment Change, 2012-22 5,400

What Biochemists and Biophysicists Do

Biochemists and biophysicists study the chemical and physical principles of living things and of biological processes, such as cell development, growth, and heredity.

Work Environment

Biochemists and biophysicists typically work in laboratories and offices to conduct experiments and analyze the results. Most work full time.

How to Become a Biochemist or Biophysicist

Biochemists and biophysicists need a Ph.D. to work in independent research and development. Most Ph.D. holders begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions. Bachelor’s and master’s degree holders qualify for some entry-level positions in biochemistry and biophysics.

Pay

The median annual wage for biochemists and biophysicists was $81,480 in May 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of biochemists and biophysicists is projected to grow 19 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. More biochemists and biophysicists will be needed to use the knowledge they have gained from basic research to develop biological products and processes that improve our lives.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of biochemists and biophysicists with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about biochemists and biophysicists by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Biochemists and Biophysicists Do About this section

Biochemists and biophysicists
Biochemists and biophysicists play a key role in developing new medicines to fight diseases such as cancer.

Biochemists and biophysicists study the chemical and physical principles of living things and of biological processes, such as cell development, growth, and heredity.

Duties

Biochemists and biophysicists typically do the following:

  • Plan and conduct complex projects in basic and applied research
  • Manage laboratory teams and monitor the quality of their work
  • Isolate, analyze, and synthesize proteins, enzymes, DNA, and other molecules
  • Research the effects of substances, such as drugs, hormones, and food on tissues and biological processes
  • Prepare technical reports, research papers, and recommendations based on their research
  • Present research findings to scientists, engineers, and other colleagues

Biochemists and biophysicists use advanced technologies, such as electron microscopes and lasers to conduct scientific experiments and analysis. They also use computer modeling software to determine the three-dimensional structures of proteins and other molecules. Biochemists and biophysicists involved in biotechnology research use chemical enzymes to synthesize recombinant DNA.  

Biochemists and biophysicists work in basic and applied research. Basic research is conducted without any immediately known application; the goal is to expand human knowledge. Applied research is directed toward solving a particular problem.

Biochemists involved in basic research may study the genetic mutations in organisms that lead to cancer and other diseases. Others study the evolution of plants and animals, to understand how genetic traits are carried through successive generations.

Biophysicists may conduct basic research to learn how nerve cells communicate or how proteins work. Biochemists and biophysicists who conduct basic research typically must submit written grant proposals to colleges and universities, private foundations, and the federal government, to get the money they need for their research.

Biochemists and biophysicists who conduct applied research attempt to develop products and processes that improve our lives. For example, in medicine, biochemists and biophysicists develop tests used to detect diseases, genetic disorders, and other illnesses. They also develop new drugs and medications, such as those used to treat cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.

Applied research in biochemistry and biophysics has many uses outside of medicine. In agriculture, biochemists and biophysicists research ways to genetically engineer crops that are resistant to drought, disease, insects, and other afflictions. Biochemists and biophysicists also investigate alternative fuels, such as biofuels—renewable energy sources from plants. In addition, they develop ways to protect the environment and clean up pollution.

Large amounts of data are generated by biochemists, biophysicists, and others who work in biological research. Specialists called bioinformaticians use their knowledge of statistics, mathematics, and computer science to analyze these data. Bioinformaticians often work to create a theoretical framework intended to combine large amounts of data into meaningful theories. They mine large data sets for correlations that might suggest relationships or explain biological phenomena.

Many people with a biochemistry background become professors and teachers. For more information, see the profile on postsecondary teachers.

Work Environment About this section

Biochemists and biophysicists
Most biochemists and biophysicists work in laboratories.

Biochemists and biophysicists held about 29,200 jobs in 2012. The industries employing the most biochemists and biophysicists in 2012 were as follows:

Research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences47%
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private17
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing14
Drugs and druggists' sundries merchant wholesalers2
Testing laboratories2

Biochemists and biophysicists typically work in laboratories and offices, to conduct experiments and analyze the results. Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow safety procedures to avoid contamination.

Most biochemists and biophysicists work on teams. Research projects are often interdisciplinary; and biochemists and biophysicists frequently work with experts in other fields, such as physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering.

Some biotech companies might need researchers to help sell their products. These technologies can be very complex, and having an expert explain them to potential customers might be necessary. This may be more common in smaller companies, where workers often fulfill multiple roles, such as working in research and in sales. Working in sales may require significant amounts of travel. For more information on sales representatives, see the profile on wholesale and manufacturing sales representatives.

Work Schedules

Most biochemists and biophysicists work full time and keep regular hours. Some positions may require longer hours.

How to Become a Biochemist or Biophysicist About this section

Biochemists and biophysicists
Biochemists and biophysicists need a Ph.D. to work in independent research and development positions.

Biochemists and biophysicists need a Ph.D. to work in independent research and development positions. Most Ph.D. holders begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions. Bachelor’s and master’s degree holders are qualified for some entry-level positions in biochemistry and biophysics.  

Education

Most Ph.D. holders in biochemistry and biophysics have bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry or a related field, such as biology, chemistry, physics, or engineering. High school students can prepare for college by taking classes related to the natural and physical sciences.

Students in bachelor’s degree programs in biochemistry or a related field typically take courses in mathematics, physics, and computer science in addition to courses in the biological sciences. Courses in mathematics and computer science are important for biochemists and biophysicists, who must be able to do complex data analysis. Most bachelor's degree programs include required laboratory coursework. Additional laboratory coursework is excellent preparation for graduate school or for getting an entry-level position in industry. Students can gain valuable laboratory experience by working for a university’s laboratories and occasionally through internships with prospective employers, such as pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturers.

Ph.D. programs typically include advanced coursework in topics such as toxicology, genetics, and proteomics (the study of proteins). Graduate students also spend a lot of time conducting laboratory research. Study at the master’s level is generally considered good preparation for those interested in doing hands-on laboratory work. Ph.D. level studies provide additional training in research project planning and execution.

Training

Most biochemistry and biophysics Ph.D. holders begin their careers in temporary postdoctoral research positions. During their postdoctoral appointments, they work with experienced scientists, as they continue to learn about their specialties or develop a broader understanding of related areas of research.

Postdoctoral positions frequently offer the opportunity to publish research findings. A solid record of published research is essential to get a permanent position doing basic research, especially for those seeking a permanent college or university faculty position.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Biochemists and biophysicists must be able to conduct scientific experiments and analyses with accuracy and precision.

Communication skills. Biochemists and biophysicists have to write and publish reports and research papers, give presentations of their findings, and communicate with team members.

Critical-thinking skills. Biochemists and biophysicists draw conclusions from experimental results through sound reasoning and judgment.

Interpersonal skills. Biochemists and biophysicists typically work on research teams and need to work well with others toward a common goal. Many serve as team leaders and must be able to motivate and direct other team members.

Math skills. Biochemists and biophysicists regularly use complex equations and formulas in their work; and they need a broad understanding of mathematics, including calculus and statistics.

Perseverance. Biochemists and biophysicists need to be thorough in their research and in their approach to problems. Scientific research involves substantial trial and error, and biochemists and biophysicists must not become discouraged in their work.

Problem-solving skills. Biochemists and biophysicists use scientific experiments and analysis to find solutions to complex scientific problems.

Advancement

Some biochemists and biophysicists become natural sciences managers. Those who pursue management careers spend much of their time on administrative tasks, such as preparing budgets and schedules.

Pay About this section

Biochemists and Biophysicists

Median annual wages, May 2012

Biochemists and biophysicists

$81,480

Life, physical, and social science occupations

$60,100

Total, all occupations

$34,750

 

The median annual wage for biochemists and biophysicists was $81,480 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,430, and the top 10 percent earned more than $147,350.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for biochemists and biophysicists in the top five industries in which these scientists worked were as follows:

Drugs and druggists' sundries merchant wholesalers$103,390
Research and development in the physical, engineering,
and life sciences
86,530
Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing82,490
Testing laboratories74,230
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state,
local, and private
52,990

Most biochemists and biophysicists work full time and keep regular hours. Some positions require longer hours.

Job Outlook About this section

Biochemists and Biophysicists

Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Biochemists and biophysicists

19%

Total, all occupations

11%

Life, physical, and social science occupations

10%

 

Employment of biochemists and biophysicists is projected to grow 19 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast growth will result in only about 5,400 new jobs over the 10-year period. More biochemists and biophysicists are expected to be needed to do basic research that increases scientific knowledge and to research and develop biological products and processes that improve our lives. However, budgetary concerns may limit the ability for researchers to find funding for basic research.

The aging baby-boom population and the demand for lifesaving new drugs and procedures to cure and to prevent disease likely will drive demand for biochemists and biophysicists involved in biomedical research. For example, biochemists will be needed to conduct genetic research and to develop new medicines and treatments that are used to fight genetic disorders and diseases such as cancer. They also will be needed to develop new tests used to detect diseases and other illnesses. Currently, there is a trend of smaller companies doing biomedical research, rather than the large pharmaceutical companies. This helps the larger companies avoid risks and costs.

Areas of research and development in biotechnology other than health are expected to provide employment growth for biochemists and biophysicists. Greater demand for clean energy should increase the need for biochemists that research and develop alternative energy sources, such as biofuels. A growing population and rising food prices are expected to fuel the development of genetically engineered crops and livestock that provide greater yields and require fewer resources. Efforts to discover new and improved ways to clean up and preserve the environment will increase demand for biochemists and biophysicists, as well.

As the amount of biological data continues to grow and computer analytical techniques and software continue to become more sophisticated, the number of dedicated bioinformaticians should also continue to grow. This specialty is relatively new but is growing in importance and complexity.

Job Prospects

Biochemists and biophysicists involved in basic research should expect strong competition for permanent research and faculty positions at colleges and universities. Biochemists and biophysicists with postdoctoral experience who have had research articles published in scientific journals should have the best prospects for these positions. Many biochemists and biophysicists work through multiple postdoctoral appointments before getting a permanent position in academia. 

A large portion of basic research in biochemistry and biophysics is dependent on funding from the federal government through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Therefore, federal budgetary decisions will have a large impact on job prospects in basic research from year to year. Typically, there is strong competition among biochemists and biophysicists for research funding.

Most applied research projects that involve biochemists and biophysicists require the expertise of scientists in multiple fields, such as microbiology, medicine, and chemistry. Biochemists and biophysicists who have a broad understanding of molecular biology and its relationship to other disciplines should have the best job opportunities.

Those who gain laboratory experience through coursework or employment during their undergraduate studies will be the best prepared and have the best chances to gain employment or to enter graduate level programs.

Employment projections data for biochemists and biophysicists, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Biochemists and biophysicists

19-1021 29,200 34,600 19 5,400 [XLS]

Similar Occupations About this section

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of biochemists and biophysicists.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION Help 2012 MEDIAN PAY Help
Agricultural and food scientists

Agricultural and Food Scientists

Agricultural and food scientists work to ensure that agricultural establishments are productive and food is safe.

See How to Become One $58,610
Biological technicians

Biological Technicians

Biological technicians help biological and medical scientists conduct laboratory tests and experiments.

Bachelor’s degree $39,750
Biomedical engineers

Biomedical Engineers

Biomedical engineers analyze and design solutions to problems in biology and medicine, with the goal of improving the quality and effectiveness of patient care.

Bachelor’s degree $86,960
Chemists and materials scientists

Chemists and Materials Scientists

Chemists and materials scientists study substances at the atomic and molecular levels and the ways in which substances react with each other. They use their knowledge to develop new and improved products and to test the quality of manufactured goods.

Bachelor’s degree $73,060
Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are public health professionals who investigate patterns and causes of disease and injury in humans. They seek to reduce the risk and occurrence of negative health outcomes through research, community education, and health policy.

Master’s degree $65,270
Medical scientists

Medical Scientists

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

Doctoral or professional degree $76,980
Microbiologists

Microbiologists

Microbiologists study microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, algae, fungi, and some types of parasites. They try to understand how these organisms live, grow, and interact with their environments.

Bachelor’s degree $66,260
Natural sciences managers

Natural Sciences Managers

Natural sciences managers supervise the work of scientists, including chemists, physicists, and biologists. They direct activities related to research and development, and coordinate activities such as testing, quality control, and production.

Bachelor’s degree $115,730
Physicians and surgeons

Physicians and Surgeons

Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses. Physicians examine patients; take medical histories; prescribe medications; and order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests. They counsel patients on diet, hygiene, and preventive healthcare. Surgeons operate on patients to treat injuries, such as broken bones; diseases, such as cancerous tumors; and deformities, such as cleft palates.

Doctoral or professional degree This wage is equal to or greater than $187,200 per year.
Physicists and astronomers

Physicists and Astronomers

Physicists and astronomers study the ways in which various forms of matter and energy interact. Theoretical physicists and astronomers may study the nature of time or the origin of the universe. Physicists and astronomers in applied fields may develop new military technologies or new sources of energy, or monitor space debris that could endanger satellites.

Doctoral or professional degree $106,360
Postsecondary teachers

Postsecondary Teachers

Postsecondary teachers instruct students in a wide variety of academic and vocational subjects beyond the high school level. They also conduct research and publish scholarly papers and books.

See How to Become One $68,970
Zoologists and wildlife biologists

Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists

Zoologists and wildlife biologists study animals and other wildlife and how they interact with their ecosystems. They study the physical characteristics of animals, animal behaviors, and the impacts humans have on wildlife and natural habitats.

Bachelor’s degree $57,710
Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Biochemists and Biophysicists,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/biochemists-and-biophysicists.htm (visited December 21, 2014).

Publish Date: Wednesday, January 8, 2014