If you like practical laboratory work and are fascinated by the way living organisms function at their most basic level, biochemistry could be the career for you.
Advances in biochemistry have had a massive impact on our lives. Can you imagine a world without antibiotics, vaccines or even DNA fingerprinting? Biochemistry is a broad area of work incorporating aspects of a range of science subjects.
If you want to explore biochemistry as a career, in this article we’ll answer some key questions you may have. As well as giving you an idea about the work you could do, we’ll examine the skills you need, how you can enter a career in biochemistry and where it might lead.
What does biochemistry involve?
Biochemists study the chemical processes inside cells and how cells communicate with each other.
The work of biochemists is important in a whole range of areas, from working out what’s wrong with our health to improving the food we grow and eat, and from producing new medicines to working on environmental issues.
You could find yourself at the forefront of innovations – perhaps investigating ways in which DNA can be modified to treat genetic disorders – or researching new techniques, such as cryogenic-electron microscopy, which enables molecules to be frozen without damage.
As a biochemist, your day-to-day tasks will vary depending on the sector in which you work, your employer and exact job role.
Most biochemists have responsible positions within laboratories and your work may involve:
- Designing and overseeing scientific experiments
- Developing new tests and analytical techniques
- Making observations and recording results
- Analysing complex data; sophisticated technology, software and mathematical modelling methods are used
- Quality assurance
- Writing reports and scientific articles
- Giving presentations on findings
- Bidding for research funds
- Training laboratory staff
The more routine aspects of the work, such as preparing tissue samples and checking results, are often performed by laboratory assistants or technicians.
To understand more about the work of biochemists, it’s useful to look at the settings in which they are employed …
Where could I work as a biochemist?
Clinical biochemists analyse blood, urine and other body fluids, and tissues. By measuring the concentration of substances they can help detect disease and provide information to support patient treatment plans. They also provide specialist advise to doctors on the use of tests.
Most clinical biochemists work within NHS hospital clinical biochemistry/chemical pathology laboratories, but they may also work in operating theatres and clinics, and some work in public health.
Industrial biochemists are involved in developing new products and looking at better ways of producing them safely and to the required quality standards.
There are opportunities in a range of industries but most notably in food and drink production (where they may help extend the shelf-life of foodstuffs, for instance), brewing, agribusiness (such as improving pesticides or developing pest-resistant crops), biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
Opportunities can be found in universities, government departments and research institutes. Funding for research comes from various sources including the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council.
Biochemists can work in forensic science services or laboratories concerned with veterinary science.
Another area of work is environmental biochemistry; you might be employed by a consultancy, or a public or charitable body and be involved in environmental monitoring, such as assessing the impact of pollution on wildlife.
Some biochemists teach at universities, often alongside conducting research.
Would I suit a career in biochemistry?
To work in biochemistry, along with ability in science and practical laboratory skills, you need patience, the ability to concentrate, and a methodical, analytical and logical approach to your work. Excellent problem-solving skills are also required and you need to be comfortable using technology, as much of the work involves using computers.
Although you may perform certain tasks independently, multi-disciplinary teamwork is often a feature of careers in biochemistry, so you must be able to get on well with others and communicate clearly when speaking as well as in writing.
Some jobs in biochemistry involve working with infectious microorganisms and hazardous substances. You have to be a responsible worker and prepared to wear protective clothing and equipment when necessary. Certain jobs involve working with laboratory animals, so this may be a consideration when you are looking for opportunities.
How do I get into Biochemistry?
There are different routes into biochemistry, but most people start their journey by taking a degree in biochemistry or medical biochemistry. Other degree subjects, such as in a biological science, biotechnology or biochemistry combined with another subject, may also be suitable.
Top Tip: Gaining work experience will help when it comes to applying for jobs after graduation. You could consider a sandwich degree course – where you spend a year in employment – or finding vacation work. There are also schemes, such as the Year in Industry and the Biochemical Society’s Summer Vacation Studentships for undergraduates.
To start a degree course you need A levels/Highers; chemistry and/or biology are the most obvious subjects to offer, but entry requirements vary, so check with individual universities and through UCAS. An alternative qualification, such as a relevant BTEC National, may be acceptable, but you may also need an appropriate A level/Higher. If you don’t have the necessary entry qualifications, some universities offer degree courses with an extra foundation year to give you the necessary scientific base.
You’ll find useful information on the typical content of biochemistry undergraduate courses and advice on entry requirements through the Biochemical Society.
There are masters degree, PhD and other postgraduate programmes in biochemistry and related subjects. Some undergraduate courses offer the option to take an ‘integrated masters’ over an extra year of study.
For certain opportunities, especially those in research, you would be expected to have taken your studies to postgraduate level. A postgraduate programme may also be suitable if you want to specialise in a particular area of biochemistry or if you have taken a broader-based undergraduate degree.
You can find out more about postgraduate study through the Biomedical Society.
Graduate training programmes
Some employers – including the NHS (see below) – run graduate training schemes. As well as on-the-job training, you may have the opportunity to study part time or through distance learning for a postgraduate qualification.
Getting into clinical biochemistry
To work as a clinical scientist specialising in biochemistry you have to be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council having undertaken approved training.
To train through the three-year, work-based NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP), which leads to a masters degree and a Certificate of Completion through the National School of Healthcare Science, you need at least a 2:1 in a suitable subject or a relevant postgraduate qualification.
Apart from the STP, it’s possible to qualify as a clinical scientist (biochemistry) by gaining a Certificate of Attainment through the Association of Clinical Scientists or a Certificate of Equivalence through the Academy for Healthcare Science.
Top Tip: Competition for the STP is fierce. To improve your chances, arrange to visit a clinical biochemistry laboratory; some hospitals run open days. Try to get relevant laboratory/research experience, such as through a placement or paid temporary work.
Starting in a support role
There are opportunities to work in biochemistry as a laboratory assistant or technician. Apprenticeships can provide an entry and training route. Requirements vary – for some assistant roles you need a few GCSEs/Nationals (including science) as a minimum, but technician-level jobs are likely to require A levels/Highers or equivalent, such as a BTEC National or T level in science. Sometimes people with higher education qualifications start in a support role before progressing to more responsible work.
With experience in a support role, it’s possible for non-graduates to work towards gaining a degree in biochemistry part time or through distance learning, perhaps by first taking an HNC/D or foundation degree and then topping this up to an honours degree.
What opportunities are there to progress in biochemistry?
Once working in biochemistry, it’s common to develop areas of special interest. Some biochemists gain promotion to laboratory management positions or move away from laboratory work into project or general management.
The NHS offers a structured career path for clinical scientists who specialise in biochemistry. It’s possible to work towards a consultant-level post through the doctorate-level NHS Higher Specialist Scientist Training programme.
Some biochemists use their scientific knowledge to enter careers in medical sales or marketing, scientific journalism, information management or publishing, or even patent work.
Once you have the necessary experience, if you meet the required competencies you can apply for Registered Science Technician, Registered Scientist or Chartered Scientist status; find out more through the Science Council.
Joining a professional body, such as the Biochemical Society, the Institute of Biomedical Science, the Royal Society of Biology or The Association for Clinical Biochemistry & Laboratory Medicine, will keep you up to date with developments. Most of these bodies run courses, events and networking opportunities, and offer membership at different levels.
How can I find out more about careers in biochemistry?
To find out more about working in biochemistry, a good starting point is to look at the careers and education pages on the Biochemical Society website. There are also career profiles on the National Careers Service, Careers Wales and My World of Work sites. You can find out more about working in clinical biochemistry via NHS Health Careers in England, NHS Wales Careers or NHS Scotland Careers.
As you will have read, studying biochemistry can open up a wide range of career paths, but if you decide that working in science isn’t for you, the skills you will have developed by studying biochemistry will be applicable to many other graduate careers.
Debbie Steel, March 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.