Clinical Chemistry as a Career
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Partnerships in Healthcare: Does This Sound Like You?

What Is a Clinical Chemist?

A clinical chemist is a person who uses chemistry to evaluate patient health. S/he may evaluate blood, study DNA, examine tissue, or study cells. S/he may be a research scientist or a developer of diagnostic products. Clinical chemists have traditionally worked in laboratories, but they also work in academic environments or in industry.

Clinical chemists research and develop laboratory procedures that help physicians make earlier, more precise diagnoses and tailor therapy for patients. As technology develops—in "hot" areas like molecular biology or transplant medicine, for example—clinical chemists apply their knowledge to develop practical applications of these advances. Automation is changing laboratory and hospital operations. For example, robots may transport patient specimens to the laboratory, or tests may be done at the patient's bedside. Increased automation has caused jobs to shift, closing some doors but opening others: consulting with physicians and other healthcare providers, researching and developing new diagnostic products, establishing standards for new products, developing instrument systems for diagnostics manufacturers, working with clinicians to test new products, and monitoring new products for the FDA. 

Your Questions Answered

Where would I find job opportunities?
Assistants, technicians, technologists, specialists, physicians, and doctoral scientists can work in hospital or clinical laboratories, in research, in manufacturing (industry), in pharmaceutical companies, in commercial reference laboratories, in academic laboratories, and in special places such as research foundations for specific diseases like cystic fibrosis, diabetes, or muscular dystrophy. Opportunities also exist in government regulatory agencies—for example, OSHA, the CDC, and the FDA.

A plus: work options are flexible. Many labs are open 24 hours and need people to cover all shifts, part-time or full-time. This is good news for people trying to balance work, family, and other commitments.

How do you prepare for this career?
Begin in high school by taking science and math courses. Skill in using computers is a plus. To open the widest doors, consider an academic degree (B.S., M.S., M.D., or Ph.D.) and advanced training.

Your academic preparation will include courses in chemistry, mathematics, statistics, and the life sciences such as anatomy and physiology. You can supplement academic studies by getting experience. Take advantage of summer fellowships, internships, or practicum programs to get the experience you need. Your community hospital or nearby college or university laboratory may have internship programs in place or might consider one just for you.

I've been thinking of going to medical school, but now clinical chemistry also sounds appealing. How do I keep my options open?
Take courses in science, math, and statistics. Add a few business courses in the event you manage a laboratory or run your own practice. Supplement your academic studies by getting practical experience through internships.

What if I like the work I could do in clinical chemistry but I don't necessarily want to go through all the schooling? Can I still work in this field?
You can still work in other capacities. See the chart, " How Far Do You Want to Go? ".

Health care issues are always in the news, no one knows how they will be resolved, and everyone's worried. How do I know this career will still be there for me when I graduate?
Sick or healthy, people will always need medical information quickly, easily, cheaply. A new growth area, for example, is the use of "kits" in the home or at the hospital bedside, such as those for pregnancy detection or glucose (diabetes) monitoring. Clinical chemists may educate consumers or consult with physician offices on what the results mean and what the patient (whether ill or healthy) should do next.

Other growth areas will appear. For example, the number of consumer groups who have special needs is increasing. These groups will continue to require new and different tests beyond what we provide today. New concerns (such as environmental toxins and the spread of new diseases) will heighten the demand for additional testing. We will always need solutions; we will always need new methods for faster, more accurate, more precise, and more sensitive testing that is also less expensive.

What about safety? Am I going to catch a life-threatening disease, like AIDS or hepatitis?
All laboratories practice what are called "universal precautions." These are standards for safety designed to safeguard the health and lives of laboratory workers. Following these procedures—for example, using latex gloves to perform laboratory tests, wipe blood spills, and perform pipetting—protects you from potentially life-threatening diseases.

This sounds like a great career. But I want to know more about other positions in healthcare before I decide. Where can I get information on other health-related careers?
You can "custom design" your path in the clinical chemistry field by deciding what levels of education, training, and salary meet your needs (see chart, " How Far Do You Want to Go? ").

You can also contact other healthcare organizations for information, such as the American Society for Microbiology, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science, or the American Society for Clinical Pathologists. Visit your library and find the Encyclopedia of Associations , which lists organizations by subject (agriculture, education, science and technology, etc.). Contact these organizations for information on health careers.  

Other Names for a Clinical Chemist

 Problem Solver and Consultant

  • solves technical problems and human resource issues
  • gets test results faster
  • enforces standards that make the work environment safe for employees
  • follows procedures without taking shortcuts
  • explains tests results to physicians or responds to their complaints


  • instructs students, residents, and medical staff
  • keeps up-to-date on current trends and information

Financial Manager

  • prepares budgets
  • purchases new equipment or reagents
  • plans sales growth
  • evaluates market strategies


  • evaluates new technologies to improve quality and reduce processing time and labor
  • invents new tests
  • applies previous knowledge to new situations

Salesperson (Industry)

  • sells test kits and instrumentation to laboratories
  • identifies customer needs and develops products to meet those needs

Thinker, Philosopher

  • changes and grows as the environment evolves
  • wants to contribute to the world through patient healthcare
  • asks how does this work, can it work better, can it also do something else?
  • likes to consider all possibilities
  • knows the world is wider than the laboratory     

How Far Do You Want To Go?

This table can help you customize your training and education to reach your desired career goal in the clinical chemistry field.




Medical Technologist

Chemistry Supervisor/Specialist

Scientist/ Laboratory Director

What Would You Do?

Perform routine tests

Participate in continuing education activities

Perform routine tests (perform quality control or special tests with supervision)

Participate in continuing education activities

Perform routine tests for service and/or research

Develop new test methods under supervision of doctoral-level staff

Perform quality control tests

Participate in and deliver continuing education

Become group or team leader

Become section or shift supervisor

Perform daily quality control

Manage a clinical chemistry laboratory

Teach technicians, medical technology students, medical students and residents

Direct and manage operations

Consult with physicians regarding interpretation of test results

In industry or other settings, lead research teams

Teach health professionals

Where Would You Work?

Hospital laboratory or clinic

Industry, for companies that manufacture test kits, equipment, or test materials (reagents)

Commercial or reference laboratories

Doctor's office

Hospital laboratory or clinic

Industry, for companies that manufacture test kits, equipment, or test materials (reagents)

Commercial or reference laboratories

Some physicians' office laboratories

Pharmaceutical companies

Hospital laboratory or clinic

Manufacturing (industry)

Commercial or reference laboratories

Pharmaceutical companies

Hospital laboratory or clinic

Manufacturing (industry)

Commercial or reference laboratories

Pharmaceutical companies

Hospital laboratory or clinic

Medical school/

Teaching hospital


Commercial or reference laboratory

Pharmaceutical companies

Government: NASA; regulatory agencies such as OSHA or the FDA

Research foundations for specific diseases

What Schooling Do You Need?

Vocational school or associate degree

Vocational school or associate degree


4-yr. college degree (B.S.) in science


Master's degree (M.S.)


Doctoral degree or postdoctoral studies

Board certification recommended

What Special Skills Will Help Ensure Success?

Good eye-hand coordination; manual dexterity; attention to detail; experience with computers

Good eye-hand coordination; manual dexterity; attention to detail; experience with computers

Good thinking skills, manual dexterity, attention to detail; problem-solving abilities to detect human and machine error and to resolve problems

Good thinking skills; problem-solving and supervisory abilities; for management, good communication skills, understanding of budgets and cost accounting; organization, to manage projects and evaluate them

Ability to integrate attention to detail with "big picture" analytical skills for method evaluation, instrument selection, long-range planning; good communication and thinking skills; leadership; some teaching skills

 *Lisa Pallatroni (senior associate editor) and Pasquale Buttitta (research analyst), " MLO's national salary survey: Compensation and respondent profiles ," MLO, July 1999: Suppl: 17-20.

Your "Typical" Day
You are a member of the healthcare team.

In Clinics or Hospitals
You'll see "inside the body" by using a drop of blood or a sliver of tissue as a window to the body's health or disease. You'll identify drugs, hormones, even certain tumors, by how they react to specific antibodies. You may use a strand of hair to determine drug use or saliva to detect HIV (the virus responsible for AIDS). Your tools will range from simple test tubes to complex computerized instruments.

The physician will decide which tests to run, often basing the decision on information you provide about how specific, sensitive, and reliable the test is. In larger medical centers, you may conduct research or set up testing protocols. Your ultimate goal is providing services that help healthcare workers diagnose and treat patients. You'll provide information to help physicians follow the course of therapy to ensure the patient's recovery. You will always communicate information to the physician that will be crucial in managing a patient's health or disease.

In Industry
You may develop tests or test methods that make tests better, cheaper, or more effective. You may invent instruments that process tests better. You may do research, conduct patient studies, or test an assay's reliability. You may also train the sales staff in the product's or instrument's features, operations, and benefits, so that your sales staff can convey accurate and timely information to the laboratories purchasing your products and services.

In Government
You might run laboratories that study epidemics or identify toxic agents in the environment. You might serve on a panel that develops guidelines for highly specialized activities, such as laboratory inspections or even the space program. You may interact with chemists in other countries to get new data about how diet affects health or whether new tests can predict disease before any disease symptoms emerge.

In Any Setting
You might teach medical or medical technology students. You might write about your discoveries or your achievements in professional journals. You might be asked to speak at scientific meetings, or be an expert witness in civil or criminal court. You may be involved in designing your own laboratory, interviewing, hiring, and training your workers, or setting up and running a quality control program.

Your typical day will never by typical, will always be interesting, will challenge you to be a scientist, manager, business person, and technology guru—all rolled into one caring human being who happens to like chemistry.

On the Horizon: Change and More Change
The field of clinical chemistry is undergoing dramatic change, and for those who can take on the challenge, holds a broad spectrum of possibilities.

Clinical chemistry is an equal opportunity employer—M.D. or Ph.D., medical technologist or technician—you advance on the strength of your training, dedication, and initiative. We need good scientists, good managers, good executives, and good directors who have a solid background in molecular diagnostics and speak a common language—chemistry. We need people willing to be full partners in healthcare delivery. Studying for a career in clinical chemistry is a great place to start. How far you go is in your hands.

Interested in finding out which schools offer clinical chemistry training programs?
The Graduate and Post-Doctoral Training Directory includes faculty, program description, positions available, salary, and application procedures.