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Physician Scientist

According to Webster's II New College Dictionary, a physician is "a natural philosopher, a person skilled in physic, or the art of healing; one duly authorized to prescribe remedies for, and treat, diseases; a doctor of medicine." A scientist is one who is "learned in the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena." The combination of these definitions precisely describes a physician scientist.

A physician scientist typically has two very different aspects to his or her career. All of the traditional duties of a physician are performed, including caring for patients. The usual responsibilities of conducting rounds in the hospital and treating patients in clinic are also carried out. The physician may be a generalist who sees all types of illnesses, or a specialist whose practice focuses on a certain organ system. An example would be a nephrologist or renal doctor, who cares for people with kidney diseases. In addition to these conventional medical duties, however, the physician scientist typically maintains a laboratory, designs experiments, and supervises a staff of technicians who carry them out.

There are commonalities between both careers. They both characteristically take a great deal of self-motivation, and both require a commitment to continuing education in order to stay abreast of advances in science and medicine. And both the physician and the scientist are responsible for other individuals. Patients rely on the physician for honesty and competent care; technicians rely on the scientist for supervision, support, and employment. In either capacity, the physician scientist may also be required to teach students. The physician uses the knowledge of his or her particular field to enhance his science career and vice versa.

To pursue a career as physician scientist, a candidate completes college, medical school, and a residency program, as is required to earn a medical degree. He or she may then subspecialize in a field by completing a fellowship program. From college to the conclusion of such a fellowship takes at least thirteen to fifteen years. The physician scientist may or may not have a Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) specifically as a scientist. Such training characteristically includes approximately five years of graduate school and usually some postdoctoral training as well. Occasionally, physician scientists may replace such formal education with "on-the-job" training in the laboratory, but in such cases they supplement the scientific skills and knowledge they developed in medical school with courses and mentorship from a senior scientist.

The physician scientist may work in a number of different environments, including hospitals, universities, the government, or industry. Because physician scientists do not usually see as many patients in a year as a typical doctor, they are usually salaried, and their salaries are usually covered by grants. Thus, for physician scientists who are employed in a hospital affiliated with an academic institution, part of their income may be based on the number of patients in their care, or how many months of the year they perform rounds in the hospital. To secure grants, physician scientists submit applications to a number of organizations, including the government, charities, and private companies. Their applications provide a description of the proposed research, the questions they want to ask and answer with their research, and how they plan to find these answers (their experimental plan). Alternatively, a physician scientist may work for a private research company such as a pharmaceutical firm. The salary range for physician scientists is from approximately $70,000 to more than $200,000, depending on experience and productivity. Productivity is usually measured by how much grant funding has been obtained, how many scientific papers have been published, and recognition by peers. In the industrial sector, productivity will also be measured by how much the research has contributed to successfully bringing products to market.

The combination of physician and scientist results in a very exciting career choice. The physician scientist has the pleasure of taking care of patients and potentially having a direct impact on their future health by the discovery of an important clue to their illness. This is sometimes referred to as conducting science "from-bedside-to-bench-to-bedside." It also provides variety, because the physician scientist is not only able to practice medicine in a very concrete clinical way, but can also think through a variety of more abstract issues, extending his or her intellect in very different directions.

Michelle P. Winn


Coombs, Robert H., D. Scott May, and Gary W. Small, eds. Inside Doctoring: Stages and Outcomes in the Professional Development of Physicians. Westport, CT: Green-wood Publishing Group, 1986.

National Academy Press. Careers in Science and Engineering : A Student Planning Guide to Grad School and Beyond. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1996.

Internet Resource

The National Academy of Sciences. lt;http://www4.nationalacademies.org/nas/nashome.nsf>.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 3