There are many exciting career paths available to students with an interest in STEM subjects, including biochemistry jobs. Biochemistry is a life science that explores the makeup and processes of living organisms. It has implications for a range of fields. In fact, you will find biochemists working in fields as varied as agriculture, medical science, education, pharmacology, food science and even the criminal justice and cosmetics fields.
As you can see, biochemistry careers cover a diverse spectrum of possibilities. This means that biochemistry majors are sure to find a career path that suits their unique blend of interests and talents. Explore this in-depth career guide to learn more about becoming a biochemist or other biochemistry professional.
What Is Biochemistry?
As the name suggests, biochemistry is the branch of science that intersects chemistry and biology. It is the study of the chemical processes of living things. A biochemist is a scientist who studies organisms at the cellular and molecular levels, examining the components of cells, how cells communicate with each other and what reactions can take place at the cellular level.
Biochemists have been responsible for some of the most exciting scientific discoveries in the modern era, such as the link between lack of iodine and the development of goiters, and the discovery of enzymes. More recently, biochemists are leading the way with major breakthroughs in gene editing. In short, biochemistry jobs hold exciting implications for multiple fields, from healthcare to agriculture to environmental science and beyond.
What Do Biochemists Do?
All biochemists study the properties and processes of living things. For example, they may study the development of cells, the pathophysiology of diseases and influences of genetics. However, the specific job duties will vary depending on their particular specialty, employer and current project.
Some of the typical responsibilities for biochemistry jobs can include the following:
- Isolate and analyze molecules, including proteins, fats and DNA
- Plan and execute experiments to research the effects of substances like nutrients, hormones and drugs on tissues
- Write technical reports and academic journal submissions on findings
- Stay on top of the latest research in biochemistry by reviewing academic journals and attending scientific conferences
- Explain scientific findings to other professionals within the organization
- Write grant applications to obtain funding for research projects
- Manage and supervise teams of laboratory technicians or assistants
Much of the work of a biochemist can be boiled down into three main stages: plan a research project, execute the research project and analyze the findings. They may conduct applied research, which is intended to produce solutions for a specific problem. Biochemists may conduct basic research, which simply adds to the body of knowledge in the field but does not necessarily lend itself to an immediate or obvious application.
Although basic research isn’t intended for immediate application, it can have a major impact on human health or other aspects of society. For example, a scientist may make a breakthrough discovery about the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s disease. Another scientist may build on that research by conducting applied research to find a new potential drug for Alzheimer’s.
Human health is a major consideration for many biochemists, but it certainly isn’t the only one. For example, some biochemists focus on researching alternative fuels to reduce carbon emissions, while others look for more effective ways of removing pollution from the environment.
Becoming a Biochemistry Major
If biochemistry careers appeal to you, your first step is to become a biochemistry major. Look for a degree program that is aligned with the standards of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). During the course of your studies, you will learn critical thinking and communication skills, as well as scientific principles.
Although the specific curriculum will vary from one degree program to the next, you can generally expect to study topics such as the following:
- Microbial cell structures, functions, genetics and pathologies
- The principles of heredity and variation, with a look at gene mapping, DNA repair and molecular change
- Pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics principles and the processes of drug actions
- Advanced principles in biochemistry, including cellular signal transduction mechanisms and metabolic pathway interrelationships
- Techniques and technologies for sample analysis, including high-pressure liquid chromatography and mass spectroscopy
Generally, a biochemistry major studies biology, chemistry, microbiology, physics and mathematics as well as biochemistry. You will likely have an opportunity to take electives as well. It’s a good idea to take some computer science courses, as biochemists must often use complex computer programs for their work.
Earning a Graduate-Level Biochemistry Degree
Scientists such as biochemists must earn a doctoral degree after completing their undergraduate work. It can take four to six years to complete a PhD in biochemistry. You will begin your doctoral work by taking advanced classes in your field and then passing the comprehensive exams.
Once you’ve passed your exams, you will become a doctoral candidate, rather than a doctoral student, and you will have the status of “all but dissertation” (ABD). The next step is to complete your dissertation, which is a lengthy paper that describes the original research you have conducted. You’ll complete your research under the direction of your doctoral committee, headed by your dissertation advisor.
After successfully earning your PhD in biochemistry, you will likely need to secure a postdoctoral research position at a university or lab. Postdocs typically hold their positions for two to three years, during which they work under the supervision of experienced scientists. After completing your postdoctoral research, you’ll be ready to pursue an independent position as a biochemist.
Exploring Biochemistry Careers
Many biochemists work in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing. Their employers are pharmaceutical companies that hire them to research and develop new drugs to treat human or veterinary illnesses. In this capacity, biochemists must determine not only whether a particular drug is an effective treatment, but also whether it’s reasonably safe.
You could even find some biochemists in marketing positions. These highly qualified salespeople specialize in selling biochemical products and medical equipment to hospitals and clinics. Their in-depth knowledge in the field allows these biochemists to accurately explain the company’s products to the customers.
Other biochemists work in agriculture for companies that sell products like seeds, pesticides and fertilizer. They may work on genetic engineering projects to create disease-resistant crops, for example, or they may study the effects of pesticide exposure on human health.
Other biochemistry careers to consider are found in the cosmetics and energy industries. For instance, biochemists may evaluate the safety of cosmetics by studying whether the products adversely affect humans. In the energy industry, biochemists may work for oil and gas companies with the goal of developing alternative fuels or finding more effective oil spill cleanup methods.
After gaining some on-the-job experience, some biochemists decide to return to academia. With a PhD and experience, they are well qualified to teach the next generation of aspiring scientists. Often, a university post blends together teaching and research.
Biochemistry Jobs That Don’t Require a PhD
Although most scientists do need a PhD, there are some biochemistry jobs that don’t require an advanced degree. Some students elect to stop their education after earning a bachelor’s degree and settle into one of these rewarding career opportunities. Others may work at an entry-level biochemistry job while also working toward earning a doctoral degree that would allow them to pursue higher-level opportunities as a biochemist.
If you’re passionate about both science and language, you might consider combining your two interests into one career. Science writers are highly skilled professionals who know how to analyze scientific findings and write about them in a way that is accessible and appealing to a broad audience. There are two main categories of science writers.
• Science journalists: These writers have no professional affiliation with the subject of their writing. They are independent writers who gather information from a variety of sources to create articles intended for public consumption.
• Science public information officers: This profession is a cross between science journalism and public relations. They have a professional affiliation with the subject matter since they work for the company or other organization that is conducting scientific research. It’s the job of a science public information officer to communicate the organization’s progress to the public in a way that reflects positively upon their organization.
Science public information officers are typically full-time, in-house employees. In contrast, science journalists may be full-time employees at science publications or they may freelance for a variety of publications. Science journals, magazines, blogs and websites are all examples of publications that hire freelance and in-house science writers.
Clinical Laboratory Technician or Technologist
Another career opportunity for people with a biochemistry major is that of clinical laboratory technologist or technician. These professionals typically work in hospitals, doctors’ offices or diagnostic labs. They are responsible for collecting samples of tissue or fluids and analyzing them in accordance with physician requests.
The work of a clinical lab technician or technologist plays a crucial role in the healthcare system; their work enables patients to get accurately diagnosed so that physicians can plan their treatments. These two roles are quite similar with much overlap, although there is a slight difference. A technologist will typically perform more complex tests than technicians do.
There are opportunities to specialize within the field. Consider the following possibilities:
- Immunohematology technologists: Collect blood, determine the blood type and process it
- Clinical chemistry technologists: Analyze the chemical and hormonal makeup of bodily fluids
- Cytotechnologists: Examine slides of body cells for signs of abnormalities that can indicate cancerous growths
- Immunology technologists: Specialize in immune system responses to foreign invaders
- Microbiology technologists: Study microorganisms, such as bacteria
- Histotechnicians: Prepare tissue samples for pathologists by cutting and staining the tissue
A bachelor’s degree in biochemistry is typically sufficient to pursue these biochemistry jobs. However, some states do require clinical lab technicians and technologists to obtain licensure. Some employers in states that don’t require licensure may still prefer their employees to obtain it.
Forensic Science Technician
If you have a passion for both biochemistry and criminal justice, you might consider pursuing a career as a forensic science technician. These professionals collect evidence at crime scenes and then analyze it in a laboratory. Their job duties generally include the following:
- Analyze crime scenes, taking photos, making sketches and recording findings
- Collect evidence, including weapons, suspicious substances, bodily fluids and fingerprints
- Perform laboratory tests on evidence samples to determine their chemical and biological makeup
- Liaise with other forensic professionals, such as toxicologists
There is the potential to specialize within the field. Some professionals specialize in evidence collection, and they may be called “criminalists” or “crime scene investigators.” Others specialize in laboratory analysis.
Some forensic science technicians who specialize in lab analysis may further subspecialize in a particular type of crime or aspect of a criminal investigation. For example, digital forensic analysts specialize in computer crimes. Other specialties include ballistics and DNA analysis.
A bachelor’s degree in natural science, such as biochemistry, is typically all that’s required to enter this field. New technicians are often paired with veteran technicians to receive on-the-job training before they are cleared to work cases independently.
As you begin planning for your future career, consider the College of Science, Engineering and Technology which offers a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology degree program to students who intend on pursuing 21st-century biochemistry jobs. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to explore our supportive, Christian learning community.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.