Laboratory Scientist: How Do I Start a Career in Laboratory Science?

Laboratory science is generally a component of various types of science programs. Continue reading for an overview of some majors, as well as career and salary info for some career options for graduates.

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Starting a career as a laboratory scientist, regardless of discipline often starts with formal education, but opportunities for advancement within the field are available as well. You can learn about laboratory scientist positions from three different disciplines, salaries and career opportunities.

Essential Information

Laboratory scientists apply their understanding of scientific principles to develop and improve new and existing products and processes. A bachelor's degree is the minimum education required to become a laboratory scientist. Depending on their major, laboratory scientists may be employed as biochemists and biophysicists, chemists or food scientists, among many other fields.

Career Titles Biochemist or Biophysicist Chemist Food Scientist
Required Education Bachelor's degree; Ph.D. for research jobs Bachelor's degree; Ph.D. for research jobs Bachelor's degree
Certification N/A N/A Voluntary
Job Growth (2014-2024)* 8% 3% 3% (for all food scientists and technologists)
Median Salary (2015)* $82,150 $71,260 $65,840 (for all food scientists and technologists)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Options

Laboratory scientists may work for private companies, academic institutions and government agencies. Depending on their positions, they may plan research projects, conduct experiments and report their findings. Laboratory scientists may also specialize in a field, ranging from food science to botany to chemistry.

Biochemist or Biophysicist

These scientists apply the principles of chemistry and physics to the study of living things. Topics of study for biochemists and biophysicists include DNA, cell development, genetic mutations, heredity and protein structures. Job openings for these types of laboratory scientists were expected to increase by 8% from 2014-2024, and they earned a median annual salary of $82,150 in 2015, per the BLS.

Chemist

Chemists study the physical properties of materials and substances, aiming to figure out their molecular composition. Reactions between different substances and materials are another area of study for chemists. From 2014-2024, job openings for chemists should see slower-than-average 3% growth. Chemists earned a median annual salary of $71,260 in 2015, according to the BLS.

Food Scientists

Food scientists are laboratory scientists who apply the principles of chemistry to study and improve food products. They analyze food for contaminants, research new sources of food and find new ways to process mass quantities of food. According to the BLS, food scientists (along with technologists) should see 3% job growth from 2014-2024, and their median salary in 2015 was $65,840.

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Undergraduate Education

The minimum educational requirement for a laboratory scientist is generally an undergraduate degree. Students may consider majoring in biology, chemistry, microbiology or another science-related field. During their first few years, students may take general education courses, as well as core classes in subjects like biochemistry, mathematics and physics.

Once students have committed to a major, they may then begin take more specialized classes. For example, students majoring in food science may take courses in food microbiology, analysis and technology, while those majoring in physics may concentrate on thermodynamics, mechanics and optics.

Programs generally require students to complete laboratory courses in which students can become familiarized with setting up, operating and maintaining laboratory equipment. These courses also help students to gain experience with monitoring experiments, making observations and analyzing results.

Advanced Degrees

Some positions may require a master's or doctoral degree in a specific field, such as agricultural science or microbiology. Advanced degrees may take 2-4 years to complete and may require a research project, thesis or dissertation.

Certifications

Aspiring laboratory scientists may enter the workforce as lab technologists, technicians or in another capacity. In order to advance, employees may consider earning voluntary certifications from nationally recognized organizations, such as the Institute of Food Technologists. Professional certifications help job applicants to demonstrate their skill in a field or subspecialty. To earn a certification, candidates may need to meet educational and work experience requirements. Qualified candidates are then generally required to pass a certification exam.

Aspiring laboratory scientists can start down their career path through a formal undergraduate degree that corresponds with their field of interest. However, many post graduate students or persons already in the workforce can begin their careers as laboratory scientists by participating in continuing education opportunities and other professional certifications.

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