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Biochemist

Kairarau Matū Koiora

Alternative titles for this job

Biochemists study the chemical structure and function of animals, plants and micro-organisms such as bacteria and viruses. They use this research to develop medical, industrial and agricultural products.

Pay

Biochemists usually earn

$35K-$75K per year

Senior biochemists with PhDs usually earn

$76K-$130K per year

Source: NZBIO, 2016.

Job opportunities

Chances of getting a job as a biochemist are average – limited for those doing fundamental research, but good for those doing applied research.

Pay

Pay for biochemists depends on their qualifications and experience.

  • Biochemists with Bachelor's degrees working at the technician level usually earn around $35,000 to $55,000 a year.
  • Those with Master's degrees usually earn around $55,000 to $75,000.
  • Senior biochemists who have PhDs may earn $76,000 to $94,000.
  • With more responsibility and experience, pay could rise to about $130,000 a year or more.

Source: NZBIO, 2016. 

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)

What you will do

Biochemists may do some or all of the following:

  • study the chemical make-up of living things including genes, proteins and molecules
  • study chemical processes such as digestion and growth
  • study the effects of foreign bodies, such as diseases or vaccines, on living things
  • develop and test new products such as medicines or ingredients
  • write scientific reports and papers for journals
  • manage laboratory teams.

Skills and knowledge

Biochemists need to have:

  • knowledge of statistics, chemistry and biology
  • knowledge of cells and organs, and the role of genes and proteins in living things
  • knowledge of chemicals, poisons and molecules, and their effects on living things
  • practical skills for performing experiments and operating scientific equipment
  • skill in researching, as well as analysing and interpreting research results
  • maths and computer skills
  • expertise in writing grant proposals and funding applications.

Biochemists working at a senior level may also need management and leadership skills.

Working conditions

Biochemists:

  • usually have flexible hours and may work evenings or overtime to meet project deadlines
  • usually work in laboratories and offices, but some may work in the field collecting samples or performing field trials
  • may travel locally and overseas to attend workshops and conferences
  • may come into contact with dangerous chemicals, diseases and body fluids, but this work is carried out in carefully controlled and well-regulated facilities.

What's the job really like?

Mike Packer

Mike Packer

Biochemist

Going green – making fuel from algae

Mike Packer's research at the Cawthron Institute in Nelson may change the way our cars are powered – he uses biochemistry and molecular biology to investigate renewable energy sources.

"I'm interested in hydrogen production from micro-algae. Algae have great potential for producing renewable energy because they grow so much faster than crops on land. The hydrogen they produce can be burnt in a fuel cell or internal combustion engine to drive cars."

Attracting funding a big part of the job

Mike's passion for this research helps him lead his team, mentor students, and interest prospective funders.

"Part of my role is to apply for money from government funding bodies, but also to apply to commercial partners for growing algae in different ways. I spend a lot of time writing grants and talking with potential investors.

"As a senior scientist, you end up managing a group of people to help you achieve your work. When you start to form your own lab, you are responsible for having many ideas, coordinating and feeding in other people's ideas, and attracting funding."

Entry requirements

To become a biochemist you need to have one of the following qualifications:

  • Bachelor of Technology majoring in biochemistry
  • Bachelor of Science
  • Bachelor of Science and Technology.

Postgraduate qualifications, such as a Master's degree or PhD, are recommended for those wanting to enter research-based positions.

Secondary education

A tertiary entrance qualification is required to enter further training. NCEA Level 3 in maths, chemistry, physics and biology are recommended.

Personal requirements

Biochemists need to be:

  • investigative and enquiring
  • self-motivated
  • observant
  • creative and innovative
  • patient and detail-oriented
  • good at problem solving
  • good at planning and organisation
  • good at writing and communicating.

Some people think of science as hardened facts, but there's an artistic side as well. You need to have the creativity to be able to join the dots. And because the research I do is curiosity driven, you've got to have the self-motivation to try.

Photo: Mike Packer

Mike Packer

Biochemist

Useful experience

Useful experience for biochemists includes:

  • work with medicines or chemicals
  • work as a science technician or medical laboratory technician
  • other laboratory work
  • experience writing reports.

Find out more about training

Royal Society of New Zealand
(04) 472 7421 - www.royalsociety.org.nz/teaching-learning/
Check out related courses

What are the chances of getting a job?

Limited opportunities for biochemists doing fundamental research

Opportunities are limited for biochemists doing basic or fundamental research, rather than research that is applied to practical areas. This is mainly because there is less funding for fundamental research.

Best outlook for applied health research  

Of the applied research areas, opportunities are best in the health sector, where biochemists are often involved in developing drugs for humans, and veterinary medicines for animals. There are also opportunities in industrial and agricultural biotechnology sectors developing biofuels, biomaterials (natural or man-made materials used for medical applications) and bioremediation (use of organisms to clean up polluted sites). 

Some biochemists have skills in applying genetic science to making new products or technologies. This is a valuable skill as genetics is a growing field.

Experience increases employment chances

Graduates can increase their chances of finding work by:

  • getting experience in a laboratory or with other experienced biochemists
  • having experience or skills in a related technology such as biotechnology, microbiology or genetics. 

Types of employers varied

More than a quarter of biochemists work for health organisations such as hospitals or medical and animal diagnostic laboratories.

Other employers of biochemists include:

  • research institutes
  • biotechnology, chemical or pharmaceutical companies involved in research and development
  • universities and other teaching institutions
  • food, dairy or brewing companies involved in product development
  • government departments or regional councils.

Although this work is spread across New Zealand, almost a quarter of the opportunities are based in the Auckland and Northland regions.

Sources

  • Barker, W, chief executive officer, NZBIO, Careers New Zealand interview, April 2016. 
  • Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, '2006-2014 Occupation Data' (prepared for Careers New Zealand), 2015.

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)

Progression and specialisations

Biochemists usually enter the job as technicians or assistants during university or after graduating.

As they gain lab and computer skills, they may progress to senior positions, or they may undertake postgraduate study to specialise in a particular research area. 

Biochemists with PhDs may become project leaders, seeking funding for projects and managing people, processes and resources.

Biochemists may also move into related roles such as:

  • biotechnologist
  • food technologist
  • medical salesperson
  • teacher or professor.
Stephanie Hughes holding three test tubes filled with coloured fluids

Biochemists study the chemical structure and function of living things

Last updated 21 March 2019