Biomedical Engineer Career Guide

What is Biomedical Engineering?

Imagine being at the forefront of innovation where you research how to build new medical devices, develop tools for addressing a wide range of human health problems, and perform studies in which you devise cutting-edge ways to help people live healthier lives. This exciting field of work is biomedical engineering.

Biomedical engineering has helped advance human understanding of everything from stem cell research to new diagnostic tools to detect health issues, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). But biomedical engineering isn’t only concerned with advancing science in the medical field.

Instead, workers in this field work every day to advance our understanding of how technology can be used to improve the way we live from health care to dentistry to manufacturing. In that regard, biomedical engineering is a fast-paced, widely varied field that is changing the way in which we live.

What is a Biomedical Engineer?

A biomedical engineer uses their background in science, research, development, and engineering to address critical problems that humans face, especially in the realm of health care. Some biomedical engineers focus on designing improved medical equipment that allows doctors and other medical personnel to provide better care for their patients.

Others work with computer systems that aid in improved medical diagnoses. Yet others work in laboratories devising new treatments for illnesses. Essentially, a biomedical engineer strives to make our lives better through hard work, dedication, and teamwork with others in the medical research field.

What Does a Biomedical Engineer Do?

In a nutshell, biomedical engineers address critical problems by using knowledge and skills that span medicine, technology, and engineering to improve the lives of other people.

In many instances, biomedical engineers utilize their engineering know-how to design health-related products and systems. For example, a biomedical engineer might develop artificial devices like a pacemaker that improve the likelihood that a person can continue living a relatively normal life even though part of their body is malfunctioning. As another example, biomedical engineers are typically responsible for designing artificial limbs. But rather than just designing the limb itself, these engineers might also develop the material that covers the limb as well as the materials used to build the limb in the first place.

In other instances, this design emphasis focuses on developing medical machines, tools, and instruments. For example, a biomedical engineer might design software to run newly designed medical equipment that improves a doctor’s ability to diagnose a patient’s condition. Additionally, some biomedical engineers design rehabilitative equipment for people that help people recover from an injury more quickly.

Another key role of biomedical engineers is to provide technical support for equipment that they design. For example, if an engineer designs a software program that assists doctors in properly using an MRI machine, they would provide support should that software need to be updated or adjusted. They would likely also provide direct training to people that would use the software.

Beyond providing technical support, biomedical engineers might also be asked to evaluate how well biomedical equipment is working. In that regard, they might run tests on medical devices to ensure that they are safe, efficient, and effective. Their findings would be used to make necessary adjustments to ensure the safety of the patient.

Still other job duties for biomedical engineers is to use their skills in biology and chemistry to develop drug treatments, use their background in math and statistics to evaluate medical information, or even use their work experience and knowledge to enter the field of teaching to train future biomedical engineers.

What is the Role of Biomedical Engineers in Hospitals?

As noted earlier, biomedical engineers are uniquely trained to help solve problems, especially those related to health care and medicine. And while it might seem strange to have an engineer employed in a hospital, there are plenty of important roles they play in a medical facility setting.

Primarily, biomedical engineers seek to address the challenges faced by medical staff and their patients by designing programs, tools, and systems that make recovery a smoother, faster process. For example, if a patient has undergone an amputation, a biomedical engineer would work with the medical staff to determine the patient’s specific needs for an artificial limb. Taking the information gathered from the medical team and the patient, the biomedical engineer would design a limb specifically for that patient.

In that regard, biomedical engineers can be thought of as a support member of the medical team whose knowledge and expertise in biology and engineering allows them to fulfill the goals of the treatment plan.

Of course, this is just one example. Biomedical engineering has many, many subfields, so the area of specialty determines the duties performed in a hospital setting. For example, a biomedical engineer that specializes in computer science might work in a hospital to design programs that help doctors diagnose certain medical conditions. In other cases, a biomedical engineer might use their expertise in developing new research methods to help identify a cure for a particular disease.

What Do You Learn in a Biomedical Engineering Degree Program?

Because biomedical engineering exists at the intersection of math, science, technology, and engineering, students have many varied learning opportunities. These might include:

  • Thermodynamics – An essential component of engineering is an understanding of physical and chemical principles, particularly regarding how they are applied to medical devices and biological systems.
  • Biomechanics – This course is designed specifically to assist students in learning how structures and solids behave.
  • Fluid mechanics – Students discover the properties of fluids and how they behave, including how blood circulates throughout the body and how intravenous drugs act when injected into a patient’s circulatory system.
  • Engineering analysis – Students learn how to integrate knowledge from math, science, and programming to help them understand how to use scientific principles to solve problems.
  • Statistics – Engineering students need a strong foundation in mathematics and statistics for analytical purposes. For example, statistics can be used as a means of quality control and as a means of determining probabilities in the biological and medical realms.
  • Quantitative systems physiology – Because much of their work revolves around medical and health care issues, biomedical engineers must have an understanding of human physiology from the molecular to the behavioral level.
  • Human-centered design – Courses in this field help students learn how to design tools, apparatuses, and systems that help humans overcome obstacles and solve problems. For example, students might learn how to design a keyboard that helps a disabled person communicate by typing.
  • Quantitative design – Quantitative design courses give students the opportunity to learn how to design and implement research programs as well as analyze the findings of their research.
  • Engineering practice – Many biomedical engineering degrees require students to have hands-on practice implementing their learning into real-world situations. This hands-on learning proves invaluable for students to prepare them for the workforce.

What Qualifications Do You Need to Become a Biomedical Engineer?

To become a biomedical engineer, you need at least a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, bioengineering, or in a related engineering field (such as mechanical and electrical). These programs usually take four years to complete and consist of about 120 credit hours of study. Of that 120 hours, approximately half are comprised of general education requirements and the other half are comprised of courses specific to biomedical engineering.

The purpose of a bachelor’s degree program is to prepare students for the workforce. As it pertains to this field of work, a bachelor’s degree represents the education required for entry-level positions in biomedical engineering. As such, these programs have what might be considered entry-level admissions requirements – typically a satisfactory GPA (i.e., 2.0 on a 4.0 scale) and satisfactory scores on college prep exams like the ACT or SAT.

Most positions in biomedical engineering only require a bachelor’s degree. However, some advanced and specialized positions often require applicants to have a master’s degree.

Master’s degree programs can be thought of as an opportunity to specialize. That is, biomedical engineering students can take courses that are specific to an area of interest, such as biomedical device design or cell engineering. Because the coursework at this level is more advanced, master’s degree programs tend to have stricter admissions requirements. Typically, these include an above-average undergraduate GPA and a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Master’s degree programs usually take two or three years to complete, depending on the number of credit hours that are required.

What Skills are Needed to be a Biomedical Engineer?

To become a successful biomedical engineer, one should possess the following skills and traits:

  • Operations analysis – Biomedical engineers must have strong analytical skills that they can apply to understanding the process of designing tools and systems for the end-user.
  • Systems evaluation – Workers in this field need to be able to identify specific measures of performance in determining if a system design is meeting its intended goals.
  • Ability to troubleshoot – Having the ability to troubleshoot problems with designs, tools, and systems is of the utmost importance.
  • Teaching skills – Biomedical engineers are often responsible for teaching others how to use software, hardware, and other design elements. As such, they must be adept at communicating with diverse learners.
  • Understanding of production and processing – Biomedical engineers need to take into account how the implements they design will be produced. Understanding the production workflow will enable them to create more effective products.
  • Scientific analysis – Workers in this field should have a strong understanding of the principles of scientific analysis so they can use those methods to solve critical problems.
  • Computer programming – Often, biomedical engineers utilize computers to design tools and systems. As a result, having a strong understanding of computer programming is often a must.
  • Complex problem solving – Using their analytical skills, biomedical engineers should be able to identify solutions to complex problems by reviewing information related to their work.
  • Communication skills – This career requires workers to have excellent verbal and written communication skills.
  • Empathy – Many biomedical engineers work to help others solve significant problems in their lives. As a result, it’s necessary for workers to have empathy and be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Biomedical Engineer?

Biomedical engineering is a field of work that presents many advantages to workers. These include:

  • Excellent income potential – Biomedical engineers earn top wages, and can often do so with just a bachelor’s degree.
  • Excellent employment opportunities – Biomedical engineering is a field of work that is ripe with career opportunities. There is also a lot of potential for work outside biomedical engineering, such as in the medical field and education sector.
  • Regular working hours – Though there might be times when a biomedical engineer has to work on a tight schedule, and as such, might need to work some long days, nights, or weekends, for the most part, they have a traditional and predictable 40-hour work schedule each week.
  • High job satisfaction – Most biomedical engineers report that they not only enjoy their work but that they also find it to be a very meaningful career.
  • Opportunity for independence – Many biomedical engineers work on their own most of the time. That means they have a great degree of independence and have the ability to make decisions on their own.
  • Ideal for analytical people – Much of what a biomedical engineer does is research, development, problem solving, and the like. For analytical people, this is an excellent career choice.

There are some pitfalls to being a biomedical engineer, though. These include:

  • Potential for loneliness – If you prefer to work with other people, be a member of a team, or otherwise interact with others, this might not be the career for you as many biomedical engineers work independently.
  • Repetitive work – This line of work can be fairly repetitive, and can lead to boredom for some workers.
  • Stiff job competition – Though many biomedical engineering jobs are available with just a bachelor’s degree, there are many, many workers trained in biomedical engineering. This can lead to stiff competition for jobs.
  • Long hours standing or sitting – Many biomedical engineers work while standing or sitting for long hours, which can lead to stiffness, aches, and pains. What’s more, this work is almost always done indoors, so people that like to work outside might not find this line of work very enjoyable.

Where Does a Biomedical Engineer Work?

As noted earlier, one of the greatest advantages of a career in biomedical engineering is the wide variety of jobs that are available in such a wide range of employment settings.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, biomedical engineers primarily work in the medical equipment and supplies manufacturing sector and the research and development sector, where 22 percent and 17 percent of all biomedical engineers are employed, respectively.

Other primary areas of employment for workers in this field are navigational and electromedical control instruments manufacturing (11 percent), colleges and universities (11 percent), and healthcare and social assistance (10 percent).

What are the Advancement Opportunities for Biomedical Engineer?

There are plentiful opportunities for career advancement in the field of biomedical engineering. On a basic level, workers that have a bachelor’s degree can often find many more job opportunities and higher paying jobs at that if they pursue and complete a master’s degree program. Naturally, as workers gain experience on the job or find ways to specialize in their field, more job opportunities may present themselves as well.

Beyond advancing their education and experience directly in the biomedical engineering field, biomedical engineers can advance their careers by specializing in other fields. For example, if a worker is interested in research and has a background in biomedical engineering, it could lead to a career as a medical scientist, where having a scientific and engineering background can be quite helpful.

Additionally, biomedical engineers can advance their careers by specializing in areas such as medicine, dentistry, and even law. For example, with the research and development background that many biomedical engineers have, they could pursue a law degree and have a career as a patent attorney.

In other words, a degree in biomedical engineering doesn’t pigeonhole workers into staying in this field. Instead, it’s an excellent means of preparing oneself for more advanced careers in other areas of work.

What is the Average Salary of a Biomedical Engineer?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in May 2017, the average yearly salary for a biomedical engineer was $88,040. The pay range for biomedical engineers in 2017 was from a low of $52,070 to a high of more than $142,610 per year.

The area in which one works impacts one’s yearly income quite significantly. For example, a biomedical engineer in the research and development sector can expect to earn an average annual income of $95,980. On the other hand, the same worker in the education sector can expect to earn $61,990 per year.

Nevertheless, there is excellent income potential in this field, particularly for workers that tend to have only a four-year bachelor’s degree. This is evidenced by the fact that, on average, biomedical engineers made $42.33 per hour in 2017. Again, the range of pay varied widely from a low of $25.04 per hour to more than $68.56 per hour.

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