Physiology is an incredibly broad and diverse field that offers many career choices and chances to increase knowledge through the study of the human body. Because of its seemingly infinite facets, the following information will be based on medical physiology and information pertaining to those who wish to obtain a medical degree to work in one of the various fields of physiology.
What is a Physiologist?
A physiologist looks at the body at both the cellular and molecular levels. They attempt to determine what conditions are normal and what causes abnormal conditions as the body parts work together. The breadth of physiology allows those who study it to focus on any number of specific diseases or events.
Many physiologists split their time between laboratory and office work, working with patients, and working alongside medical specialties that will benefit from increased knowledge about the cells in the body. For example, physiologists may work closely with nephrologists to discover how to improve kidney function; work alongside organ transplant specialists to develop the best ways for patients to retain their new organs after transplant, and with pharmacologists to develop effective treatments and drug therapies for patients.
Physiologists need to develop strong math and communication skills in order to analyze data and express discoveries. They also need critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills and a highly developed sense of teamwork in order to succeed.
Physiologists should have some of these personality characteristics in order to experience success and fulfillment with their work:
Educational Requirements for Becoming a Physiologist
For the purposes of this article, the following education path is recommended for those who wish to practice medical physiology with a patient-focused element. The minimum requirement is a doctoral degree obtained from a medical school in order to do patient work. A Ph.D. will provide the individual with the information and focus they need for research or teaching capacities.
Step-by-Step Educational Path to Becoming a Physiologist
A bachelor’s degree is the first step to training as a physiologist. Attending a school that offers a physiology specific major is beneficial for students who know they want to become a physiologist as they graduate high school. However, if the major is not available for the student, it is likely that majoring in another biological science program will provide the foundational education necessary for moving forward with both education and career aspirations. Some schools offer physiology as a minor while students focus the majority of their studies on coursework pertaining to another degree, like biology.
During undergraduate studies, the student will take classes in biology, botany, kinesiology, physiology, anatomy, mathematics and chemistry. These courses will help the student understand the foundation of science and how various systems work together and affect each other in order to have a completely informed understanding of physiology.
It is important to note that any student wishing to obtain further study in biomedical field and continue on to medical or health professions or a doctoral program should have an undergraduate science and overall GPA of 3.5 or higher for competitive master’s programs.
The next level of education for a physiologist is the master’s degree, usually obtained in one year. Students will study in order to obtain a Master’s of Science in Physiology either with or without a research component. This master’s degree can help students become more competitive In order to enter a professional school or give them one of the requirements they need to achieve their doctorate. During master’s education the student will study general physiology, biochemistry, gene expression, research ethics, biomedical research and biotechnology.
Some master’s programs for physiologists consider either a Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) score, which can be taken the third year of undergraduate study, or a Graduate Record Examination (GRE). These tests will show the students prior knowledge and areas of study as well as their conceptual understanding of science, critical thinking and problem solving skills.
From this step there are two options for continuing education: medical school which will result in a D.O. or M.D. classification or doctoral studies which will result in a Ph.D. classification. For those wishing to work with patients, it is necessary to go to medical school at this point which will require taking the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT, and submitting the scores from that test along with all other academic information and requirements to the medical school(s) of choice.
Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)
The MCAT is a challenging test that scores the test-taker on their basic scientific knowledge, their ability to problem solve and their critical thinking skills. The test can be taken either the junior year of undergraduate study for those going directly into medical school, or during their master’s program for those seeking a master’s degree to make them a more competitive candidate for medical school.
According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, the MCAT is, “A standardized, multiple-choice examination designed to assess your problem-solving, critical thinking, and knowledge of natural, behavioral and social science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine.” Scores on the MCAT are reported in four sections:
Medical school is a very competitive and focused attention is given to fully developing a student’s understanding of the biological and natural sciences that will affect their work as well as introducing them to basic patient care principles and clinical environments.
Some medical schools have a department of physiology and biophysics that focuses on biomedical studies. Students in these departments will experience molecular, cellular and systems biology coursework, electrophysiology, electrical engineering and advanced light microscopy used in research. Students will be introduced to studies in neuronal and muscle cell function and brain processing as well as many other important concepts including system level physiology for cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, endocrine, immune and central nervous systems.
Joint Doctor of Medicine and Ph.D. degrees are available for researchers who wish to work both in a laboratory setting and medical setting. In order to work with patients and prescribe drugs, it is necessary for the medical physiologist to complete a residency.
For physiologists, the residency portion of education can be focused on any one of the many sub-specialties within medicine that need a strong physiology knowledge. These can include nephrology, endocrinology, immunology, neuroscience, reproductive or renal physiology, and many others. Each of these sub-specialties require in-depth knowledge of physiology while the residency portion will also provide the physician with experience working with patients and alongside other doctors.
In order to practice medicine, the physician must meet the states requirements where they plan to practice. Each state determines their own licensing pre-requisites and needs which will direct the physician throughout their testing and experience.
One of the requirements for licensure in almost ever state and to be able to work with patients comes with completion of the three-part United States Medical Licensing Examination, or USMLE. The three parts of the USMLE are taken during medical school and after in order for a physician to be licensed as a doctor. Other requirements can be found on state health department websites.
Understanding the Career Path
There are many career fields and work environments that a physiologist can find interesting. The medical field is one where the physiologist can be involved in patient care or research relating directly to the human body or to pharmacology. Some physiologists choose to explore exercise and sports sciences in order to work within training or rehabilitation. Still other physiologists get the most out of their career by teaching and training other scientists in an academic setting.
The career focus of the physiologist will have a significant impact on their salary. Physiologists can work in healthcare facilities like hospitals and clinics, government agencies, non-profit agencies, colleges and universities, medical schools, pharmaceutical companies and for private research institutions.
A recent study shows that the average wage of a physiologist is around $74,000 annually. This wage is dependent on the scientist’s experience, place of employment, educational level and other important factors. Because physiologists have such a wide array of career choices, this estimated salary can very significantly between practicing scientists, those focused on patient care, lab research, field research and teaching. Depending on the area of work, the scientist’s salary may be dependent on grant money and obtaining an approved long-term research grant.
However, for physiologists who have taken the career path outlined above and obtained experience and credentials as a specialized physician, the salary can be quite a bit higher. For example, an immunologist can be around $126,000 per year; the median income of an endocrinologist’s is $207,000 per year; and the salary of a nephrologist averages $193,000 per year.