Clinical scientist (life sciences)

Clinical scientists working in life sciences are registered at postgraduate-level and play an important role in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of diseases, illness and medical conditions.

Many clinical scientists work in a laboratory environment, performing complex data analysis and using software to analyse tests and results. They work as part of a team that includes biomedical scientists, providing specialist advice, such as appropriate testing methods, or the interpretation of results to other healthcare science staff, as well as doctors and nurses. Clinical scientists have a fundamental role in research.

My name is Jonathan Grant. I'm a Clinical Scientist at the West of Scotland Genetics Department, based at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital here in Glasgow.

I would say my job is to predominantly analyse generated data from the laboratory to issue and authorise reports to healthcare professionals, such as Genetic Counsellors, Clinicians, Cardiologists, [to enable them] to provide patients with diagnostic, therapeutic and prognostic information and options.

In this job, I started by completing an undergraduate degree in Genetics at the University of Glasgow.

I should first of all say, I do have a passion for genetics first and foremost. Some would say it came from birth. I am an identical twin, so I've always been interested in genetics per se.

I was always interested in biology, so I completed a degree at the University of Glasgow in Genetics and subsequent to that, I completed a Masters in Medical Genetics , again, still interested in genetics and how this could impact on diagnosis for patients. To that end point, I completed a PhD, which led to a training programme in Liverpool Genetics Laboratory.

It was a 3 year training programme and I became a registered Clinical Scientist, which is where I am now, here in sunny Glasgow.

I did something very different. So, after... I became a trainee car rental manager. So, after I finished my university degree that I'd been studying for several years, I wanted to do something different and get out into the real world, get a proper 9 to 5 or 8 to 6 job. I did that for a year and a half, but it only really cemented the fact I really did want to come back to science and in particular, Genetics.

So, I would say it's no bad thing to go away, do something completely different and make sure you realise what you truly want to do.

As a Clinical Scientist in the laboratory, you could specialise in one of the following areas:

  • Blood Sciences – in biochemistry, for example, you’ll study chemical processes within living cells and tissues, including DNA and proteins. Alternatively, you could specialise in other branches of the blood sciences such as haematology or immunology
  • Transplant Sciences – as a scientist you will ensure that donated organs are matched to recipients and minimise immuno-rejection
  • Genomics – you’ll study DNA sequences and genetic mapping to help improve early diagnosis of diseases and inherited traits
  • Microbiology – you’ll study microbes, such as bacteria and viruses, to help in the prevention, diagnosis and control of infections and diseases
  • Reproductive Sciences  – you will be involved in the science underpinning assisted conception sciences

Depending on your chosen specialist area, your work activities could include:

  • interpreting test results and producing reports for medical colleagues to enable the clinical team to provide patients with diagnostic, therapeutic and prognostic information, and treatment options
  • researching, developing and testing new methods of diagnosis and treatment using specialist procedures
  • updating or computer systems with data and test results
  • formulating and adhering to laboratory protocols and quality control procedures to ensure accurate results

You will also be involved in carrying out new research or providing support to other Healthcare Science staff.

To work as a Clinical Scientist, useful skills will include:

  • strong analytical and experimental skills
  • technical and practical skills
  • a high level of accuracy and excellent attention to detail
  • strong communication skills
  • teamworking skills
  • committed to the wellbeing of patients
  • professional with an excellent work ethic
  • good problem-solving skills 

Useful abilities include:

  • the ability to work on your own initiative and take responsibility for making decisions
  • using specialist equipment, software and modern technology
  • empathy and understanding when working directly with patients
  • the ability to concentrate for long periods

To become a clinical scientist in life sciences in NHSScotland, you must have the minimum of an undergraduate degree, at least to 2:1 (or possess a 2:2 and a Masters) in a cognate life science discipline.

You must then complete the 3-year training programme based in Scotland via a UK-route called NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP) or an equivalent masters-level programme. NHS Education for Scotland commissions around 20 supernumerary trainees each year for clinical scientists. The training leads to registration with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

The minimum academic entry requirements for undergraduate degree courses in life sciences vary, but most universities in Scotland require SQA Higher AABB grades, including Biology and Chemistry. A pass in National 5 grade A – C in English and Maths is also required. Some universities may also accept an SQA HNC Applied Sciences (SCQF Level 7) for entry into year 1.

Students with SQA Advanced Highers at grades AAA in one sitting or those with HND Applied Biological Science (SCQF Level 8) may be allowed advanced entry to year 2.

Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP) – Access to Health & Life Sciences (SCQF Level 6) or Access to Science, Technology & Mathematics (STEM) – SWAP (Level 6)

These programmes are for adults returning to education, perhaps changing career or seeking to gain the equivalent university entry qualifications needed for a life sciences undergraduate programme. There are no formal entry qualifications, but applicants should have a good standard of general education and have been away from formal education for a minimum of 2 – 3 years.

Successful completion of the course could lead to:

  • A degree in a life science subject by applying to universities participating in the SWAP partnership programme
  • HNC Applied Sciences

Please visit the Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP) website for more information or you can view the following videos:

Once qualified and registered with Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), you also join the AHCS accredited register.

Continuing professional development (CPD)

As a qualified clinical scientist, you would be expected to undertake CPD activities in order to:

  • keep your knowledge and skills up to date
  • maintain your registration with the HCPC

The HCPC provides courses, conferences and seminars where you can exchange ideas and update skills.

During your career as a clinical scientist, you can gain additional qualifications, such as:

  • higher specialist development
  • PhD and professional doctorates
  • Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists (FRCPath)

All these qualifications will help your career prospects, leading to more senior roles or providing the opportunity to specialise in areas of life sciences The FRCPath qualification is open as a consultant clinical scientist-level award by examination and is for very senior scientific staff who work alongside medical consultant colleagues.

Find out more information from these professional and regulatory bodies: 

Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)

The HCPC is an independent, UK-wide regulatory body responsible for setting and maintaining standards for health, psychological, and in England; social work professionals. It maintains a public register of qualified professionals and works to improve industry standards and education. Visit the HCPC website to find out more.

The Academy of Healthcare Science (AHCS)

The Academy for Healthcare Science is an umbrella organisation covering training and policy issues for a range of healthcare science professions, including clinical scientists. Find out more on the AHCS website.

The Association of Clinical Scientists (ACS)

The Association of Clinical Scientists provides alternative training routes to registration and is used by some specialties for training. Find out more on the ACS website.