Biochemistry is the study of the chemistry of living things. Biochemists study the most basic of life processes, identify and analyse biological processes and problems, and then develop and apply appropriate techniques to investigate them.
They work in:
Industry - pharmaceutical, food, brewing, biotechnology and agrochemical companies all employ biochemists to develop new products and to monitor the production, quality control and safety of existing ones.
Medicine - including in hospitals, public health laboratories and medical research institutes, as well as the pharmaceutical industry. Biochemists provide a diagnostic service, carrying out tests on blood, urine and other body fluids, alongside researching the underlying causes of disease and methods of treatment. Clinical biochemists advise doctors on appropriate treatment as a result of their testing.
Agriculture and the environment - biochemists working in agriculture have been responsible for developments such as pest-resistant crops and improvements in crop yields. They also monitor the environment.
Education - their combined knowledge of biology and chemistry means biochemists are well suited to teaching in schools and colleges. There are also opportunities for more advanced teaching, usually associated with research, in universities and medical, dental and veterinary schools.
Biochemists design and conduct experiments, make observations, and then write up their work in reports and scientific papers that may be presented at scientific meetings or conferences, or published in scientific journals. Working as a biochemist involves using complex, sophisticated and sensitive equipment and procedures.
Most clinical biochemists work 37.5 hours a week, Monday to Friday. Some evening and weekend work may be required. Academics and research scientists in industry may work longer hours. Biochemists working in hospitals and industry may do on-call work.
Biochemists work in laboratories. They may work with hazardous substances or micro-organisms that can cause infectious diseases. Some samples may be unpleasant to work with. The work can involve sitting or standing at a bench or piece of equipment for long periods of time.
Most biochemists wear some form of protective clothing, both to protect themselves and to prevent contamination of samples or equipment. Depending on the work, this may include coats, gloves, masks, eye protection or even all-over sealed protective suits.
Starting salaries may be around £24,000 a year.
There are 550 bioscience companies in the UK. They employ more than 40,000 people, many of whom are biochemists. There is a large demand for scientists and job prospects are good.
Employment opportunities may be found on the websites of the various professional bodies and specialist recruitment agencies. They are also found in New Scientist (and on the website www.newscientistjobs.com).
Biochemistry staff are employed at all levels. Entrants range from school leavers to experienced researchers with PhDs. It is possible to work in a biochemistry laboratory as a technician or as a healthcare scientist support worker.
Applicants usually need at least four GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including science, maths and English, or equivalent qualifications.
Technicians may study for NVQ's/SVQ's at Levels 2 to 4 in Laboratory and Associated Technical Activities, or relevant HNC's/HND's and degrees.
However, a degree is essential for most biochemistry jobs.
Biochemistry degree courses, or degrees with a major biochemistry component, are offered by universities throughout the UK. Entry is usually with a minimum of two A levels/three or four H grades, including chemistry. Increasingly, graduates also need to gain relevant work experience before applying for their first job.
In order to work as a registered clinical biochemist (in the NHS, for example), an approved postgraduate qualification is required in order to register with the Health Professions Council.
Many universities offer sandwich courses that give students the opportunity to spend a year working in industry. As biochemistry is a research-based discipline, many graduates continue into postgraduate study.
Graduates with a relevant degree can apply for trainee clinical biochemist positions in the NHS. They study towards a Masters degree and membership of the Royal College of Pathologists. They must successfully complete this traineeship to get registered status with the Health Professions Council as a clinical scientist in order to continue to work in the clinical sector.
All biochemists and staff working in support roles are given regular on-the-job training to learn new experimental techniques and keep up to date with their specialist area, IT developments, and health and safety regulations.
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As biochemists progress, they may take on supervisory and management responsibilities. They may move away from laboratory science altogether.
Biochemists may need to relocate to progress in their careers. Postgraduate level qualifications can be extremely helpful for career advancement. For example, gaining a PhD could lead to a lecturing career in higher education or a non-clinical commercial career.
The Association for Clinical Biochemistry (ACB),
130-132 Tooley Street, London SE1 2TU
Tel: 020 7403 8001
The Association of Medical Laboratory Assistants,
12 Coldbath Square, London EC1R 5HL
Tel: 020 7713 8050
Institute of Biomedical Science,
12 Coldbath Square, London EC1R 5HL
Tel: 020 7713 0214
NHS Careers, PO Box 2311, Bristol BS2 2ZX
Tel: 0845 606 0655
Royal College of Pathologists,
2 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AF
Tel: 020 7451 6700
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.