How To Become a Cancer Researcher (and What They Do)

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.

How to become a cancer researcher
  1. Earn an undergraduate degree. If you’re hoping to pursue a cancer researcher career, it can be important to choose an undergraduate degree that best suits your career path. …
  2. Gain relevant experience. …
  3. Pursue a graduate degree. …
  4. Consider medical program. …
  5. Complete post-doctoral fellowship.

“Be fearless” Cancer Researcher’s Advice To Women In Science | UW Medicine Advancement

What does a cancer researcher do?

A cancer researcher can perform several important duties throughout their career, including:

What is a cancer researcher?

A cancer researcher is a medical professional who uses their skills and expertise to study cancer cells, how they interact with living organisms and try to discover ways to cure or prevent the disease. They often have to receive an abundance of formal education and training before pursuing their career, through schooling, mentorship and medical resident programs. Cancer researchers can often spend their career in different fields, from academia, studying cancer through basic research and post-doctoral programs, to working in laboratories, testing drugs and vaccinations through experimentation and clinical trials.

How to become a cancer researcher

Here is a list of steps you can use to help you become a cancer researcher:

1. Earn an undergraduate degree

If youre hoping to pursue a cancer researcher career, it can be important to choose an undergraduate degree that best suits your career path. Different undergraduate degrees can offer unique skills and knowledge in certain areas of science, and prepare you for different graduate programs. For example, individuals who pursue a masters degree with a focus on cancer research often pursue cellular biology or chemistry in their undergraduate programs. However, cancer researchers who hope to pursue a Ph.D. or medical degree may instead choose to earn an undergraduate degree in biology or pre-med.

2. Gain relevant experience

Before continuing your education, it can be helpful to first gain relevant experience in scientific facilities, such as a research coordinator or assistant. Whether you find a position at a cancer laboratory or another scientific field, the role can provide you with valuable experience in the researching field and help you develop your skills and knowledge to better prepare you for your graduate education.

3. Pursue a graduate degree

Many cancer researchers pursue a graduate education to increase their credentials for the position, network with other scientific professionals and develop important skills and understanding for their cancer researcher career. Most often, an individual will pursue a degree in a specific area of cancer research to focus their study and understanding. For example, one student may choose to study pharmacology to better understand how to develop important drugs and medication for cancer patients, while another student may pursue a degree in microbiology in order to understand better ways to prevent the disease from starting or spreading.

Though cancer researchers can pursue the career with a masters degree, many individuals choose to pursue a Ph.D. instead. This allows them to study their chosen field in-depth and gain a mentor who can help guide their research and studies during the program. It also allows them to fulfill a post-doctorate program or fellowship after they graduate where they can continue their research with school or government funding.

4. Consider medical program

Some cancer researchers attend medical school instead of other graduate or Ph.D. programs and earn their doctor of medicine degree (MD). This allows them to become a certified physician and play an active role in their research by administering treatments themselves and developing a stronger understanding of how and why patients react to the treatments in different ways. Aspiring cancer researchers who pursue an MD are not required to become a licensed physician in a hospital or health care facility and instead often choose to work directly toward a cancer research career after graduation.

However, there are also some colleges and universities that offer a joint MD and Ph.D. program, allowing students to pursue both simultaneously. This program can often take seven to eight years to complete, but can teach students the abilities and skills of trained physicians, as well as the knowledge and techniques of an academic researcher. Those who complete this joint degree are often better prepared for a cancer researcher career and sometimes start their research with a mentor while still in school.

5. Complete post-doctoral fellowship

Many colleges and universities offer post-doctoral fellowships to students who complete a Ph.D. program. The fellowship often lasts one to two years and allows recent graduates to gain more hands-on research experience through experimentation, laboratory work and continued mentorship. However, if they choose, some students can continue their fellowship and research as a school faculty member after their program ends.

Cancer researcher skills

Here are a few skills cancer researchers often use during their career:

Critical thinking

During their career, cancer researchers will often have to use critical thinking skills to develop important hypotheses and questions regarding the disease and determine the best methods of experimentation. It can also be important to use critical thinking skills to figure out possible answers or solutions to cancer challenges and figure out the best way to test new treatments.


Communication is important for cancer researchers because it allows them to relay important scientific information to colleagues and help them present their findings to the scientific community. The skill can also be useful when presenting new ideas to donors or academic officials in order to secure funding or grants for their research initiatives.


When conducting important tests and developing new experiments, its important for cancer researchers to have key analysis capabilities to better understand research results and adjust their experiments as needed. Analysis skills can also be important when researchers are examining the research results of other scientists in order to determine how it might contribute to their own hypotheses or ideas.

Jobs similar to cancer researcher

If youre considering a career in cancer research, you may be interested in the following similar positions:


What degree do you need to study cancer research?

Starting off in science

For most of our scientists, a career in cancer research starts with three or four years as a PhD student, usually after a first degree at university. This is an apprenticeship for researchers and it’s a necessary qualification for becoming a professional scientist.

What do cancer researchers make?

The salaries of Cancer Researchers in the US range from $44,510 to $155,180 , with a median salary of $97,606 . The middle 60% of Cancer Researchers makes between $97,668 and $116,430, with the top 80% making $155,180.

Are cancer researchers in demand?

Although scientists working in the field today have largely picked up skills along the way, there will be a massive increase in demand for translational researchers with computational, analytical, and clinical trial expertise who can turn data into concrete knowledge.

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