The work of most biochemists focuses on cells and the chemical balance of different molecular organisms, though what the job looks like on a day-to-day basis can be hard to nail down because the field is very broad. Some people work doing research, often looking to understand different genetic sequences or drawing out maps of cell structures in various organisms. Others spend their time in laboratories running experiments in hopes of curing diseases or producing useful medications. Another sector of biochemists work out in nature, collecting cell samples from animals and plants that can be used for later study or research. Despite these outward differences, however, the core work is usually similar — these professionals all seek to understand life on a molecular level, then use that understanding for some greater gain.
Most biochemists get their start at the lab bench, and some make this sort of work their career. Scientists in these settings work to isolate cells, then run tests to look for different characteristics and resiliencies. Some of these people work for companies that are engaged in large projects involving massive numbers of cells and samples, while others work in hospitals or diagnostic labs evaluating patient medical results.
No matter the subject matter, lab workers must usually learn how to operate a number of different high-tech pieces of machinery, including molecular microscopes and spectrometers; most also analyze their results with a range of different computer software programs. Following lab safety protocol and rules for working with different hazardous or infectious compounds is also usually essential.
Biochemists may also spend most of their time conducting research. People in this sector investigate how and why certain cellular processes like replication and programmed cell death occur, and observe the natural state of proteins, hormones, genes, or strands of DNA to better understand their functions. Designing tests and clinical trials is an important part of this work.
Researchers often spend considerable energy studying. They frequently read journals, academic studies, and prior research as a way of framing their understanding of new discoveries. Most of these professionals will, in turn, also publish their own findings to continue adding to the universal body of knowledge. This sort of research is very important to scientific studies and medical trials, and people with these skills are often in high demand.
Disease and Pharmaceutical Focuses
Some of the best-known biochemistry jobs are in the pharmaceutical sector. These sorts of experts use their knowledge of how cells interact and change to make medications and come up with new treatments for various diseases. They might also attempt to better understand the effects of certain foods, pollutants, and drugs on cellular tissues.
Pharmaceutical jobs for biochemists can be both research and lab-based, though in many cases they involve a lot of paperwork. Drug manufacturers in most parts of the world have a lot of work to do when it comes to getting government approval for their studies and following certain regulatory precautions, and biochemists are often in the best position to draw up applications and provide accountings of what is actually happening in labs and research centers. Applying for grant money and funding streams may also be part of the job.
Mapping and Cataloging Tasks
Not all biochemistry jobs have a defined end point like the cure of a disease or the production of some helpful medication. In some cases, the work is designed to be ongoing and to continue building upon itself over time. Experts who study evolutionary changes in cell structures fall into this category, as do those who look for ways to map the genomes of humans and other species.
Breaking Into the Field
Getting started as a biochemist usually requires a combination of education and experience. An undergraduate university education is almost always the basic starting point, as the ideas and concepts that the discipline entails are usually more complex than can be covered in shorter courses. In most places, even entry-level lab technician jobs require a degree. People who wish to advance — to become lab managers, for instance, or to design individual trials and experiments — must usually possess more, often at least a master’s degree and frequently a doctorate.
Depending on the lab or research institute in question, experience can sometimes compensate for a lack of graduate education. A person who has spent a number of years as a low-level cell cataloger, for instance, may be able to advance to a more managerial role if he or she shows particular aptitude. People who make important discoveries or publish innovative findings may also be able to build up credibility in the field that can serve as something of a proxy for more formal learning. A lot depends on the setting, the employer, and the institutional climate.
Hours and Workplace Expectations
Most biochemists must be prepared to work somewhat unpredictable hours. While those in more research-based positions tend to have some schedule regularity, those who are actually working with live organisms or studying cell changes over time may have to be available to monitor progress in evenings and on weekends as well as during the typical workday. Most scientists work on teams, which makes scheduling more manageable — members can divide the responsibility for tracking, monitoring, and analyzing — but even still, the job is not one that typically fits well to defined boundaries of time. When things look to be changing fast, experts usually want to be on hand to capitalize on anything new that can be discovered.