How to Become a Cancer Researcher: Requirements, Degree & Skills

Learn more about the requirements needed to become a cancer researcher. Read about the skills, training, and job setting, so you can determine if this career is right for you. Schools offering Anatomy & Physiology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Information at a Glance

Cancer researchers are health scientists whose research focuses on the causes, prevention, or treatment of cancer. They design and conduct experiments, gather data, and interpret the results. Some cancer researchers also practice medicine as a physician. The table below highlights some of the requirements necessary to become a cancer researcher, as well as some career statistics.

Recommended Degree Many jobs require a PhD or MD; some may only require a master's degree
Education Field of Study Biology, chemistry, epidemiology, or another health-related field
Key Skills Analytical, attention to detail, statistical, communication, critical thinking
License Medical license required only if practicing medicine
Job Growth (2016-2026) 13% (Medical Scientists)*
Median Salary (2019) $ 50,139**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; **

What Does a Cancer Researcher Do?

A cancer researcher conducts studies designed to answer specific questions about cancer. They analyze and interpret data and present these results to other researchers and policymakers. They develop programs to improve the health outcomes of patients with cancer, such as screening or risk prevention programs. Cancer researchers with an MD may treat patients in a clinical trial. When not conducting experiments, cancer researchers write reports and manuscripts for publication. They also write grant proposals to fund their work. Cancer researchers typically work full-time, and jobs may include travel to conferences or clinical sites.

Do Cancer Researchers Need a Degree?

While some entry-level positions may only require a master's degree, many cancer researcher jobs require a doctorate degree. This can be a research-focused degree, such as a PhD, or a clinical degree, such as an MD. Students in graduate programs typically have completed undergraduate coursework in biology, chemistry, or other medical-related fields. At the graduate level, students focus on their specific area of interest, such as cancer biology, cancer pharmacology, or cancer epidemiology. They will take courses related to their topic, plus courses in statistics and research methods. PhD students complete original research work in the form of a dissertation, while MD students will complete clinical rotations in a hospital.

Do Cancer Researchers Need Additional Training?

Cancer researchers generally begin their career by completing a postgraduate training program. Those with a PhD find postdoctoral research positions in universities or other settings. During this time, they will conduct research and publish findings under the supervision of a more senior researcher in their chosen specialty. Those with an MD will complete a medical residency or fellowship, which lasts about three to seven years. These residencies mainly take place in a hospital and allow the researcher to develop their skills both as a medical practitioner and a research scientist.

What Other Skills Are Needed?

Cancer researchers must have the critical thinking skills necessary to develop research questions and determine the best methods for solving them. They need strong analytical skills, including knowledge of statistics, so they can analyze their data and interpret the results properly. They must have strong communication skills, so they can explain their findings to a wide audience.

Where Do They Work?

Cancer researchers work in a variety of settings. Many work in academia, such as schools of medicine, or in a nonprofit setting, such as a hospital or health clinic. Cancer researcher positions can also be found at the federal or state government level, including state departments of public health or the National Cancer Institute. Corporate opportunities do exist, and cancer researchers can find jobs in biotechnology, pharmaceutical, medical device development, and insurance companies.

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