Medical Ethicists


Education and Training Requirements

High School

To become a medical ethicist, you should take a well-balanced college preparatory course load in high school, including classes in science, math, psychology, health, anatomy, history, literature, and languages. Courses that encourage the development of imagination and creativity, such as literature, art, and music, are helpful. Good communication skills are also important, so speech and English classes are also recommended.

Postsecondary Training

Students with many different college majors go into the field of medical ethics. A good liberal arts program that includes laboratory sciences, social sciences (especially psychology and sociology), and humanities (philosophy, religion, history, and literature) provides a solid foundation for graduate work in ethics. Philosophy or religious studies are good undergraduate majors for studying the human experience and traditions of ethical reflection.

Medical ethicists often earn a Ph.D. from a department of religion or philosophy, with a concentration in medical ethics. Some programs emphasize the clinical side of medical ethics (involving hands-on experience); others place a heavier emphasis on public policy.

Because medical ethics is a newly emerging field and is highly interdisciplinary, it is important not to focus solely on issues of medical ethics. Students need to learn a broad base spanning the entire field of ethics, as well as study such related areas as psychology and sociology.

Many medical ethicists approach their work from the perspective of a commitment to a particular religious tradition; for example, some ethicists are ordained clergy. However, regardless of whether medical ethicists have a secular or religious perspective, it is essential that they develop the ability to demonstrate sensitivity and understanding toward people who may have opposing convictions. Supervised clinical training during a graduate program is important for this. Analyzing ethical problems in a seminar room is very different from being involved in actual life-and-death situations.

In addition to clinical experience, Ph.D. programs require several years of course work beyond the master's degree, comprehensive exams (also known as qualifying exams), reading exams in (usually) two foreign languages, and the writing of a dissertation based on original research.

Other Education or Training

The National Institutes of Health’s Department of Bioethics offers a yearly course, "The Ethical and Regulatory Aspects of Clinical Research." It also offers seminars and other continuing education (CE) opportunities. Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research provides online courses, webinars, and conference classes that focus on topics such as the ethical oversight of human subjects and the basics of institutional review boards. Other associations that provide CE classes include the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities and the American Society of Law, Medicine and Ethics. Contact these organizations for more information.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

There is no universal certification or licensing entity for medical ethicists. Most medical ethicists have at least a master's degree; many have a Ph.D. and several years of experience in a clinical, academic, or theological setting. Because medical ethicists come from such varied backgrounds and fill varied roles, there is not yet a consensus in the field on who should be allowed to serve as a medical ethicist.

Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research is a national membership organization that offers a certification exam to candidates serving on an institutional review board (IRB). As part of an IRB, medical ethicists approve medical and behavioral research protocols for clinical trials, help hospitals and universities consider the rights of patients, and guard against scientific misconduct, such as may occur when commercial entities sponsor research.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Any experience one can obtain dealing with medical-related ethical issues—especially at the college level—will be useful.

Medical ethics is not the right profession for people who expect to find easy, clear-cut answers or prefer to avoid dealing with the tough questions of life and death. Clinical consulting in medical ethics also requires the patience and emotional maturity to work day after day with people who are suffering and in pain.

Since a career as a medical ethicist often requires a Ph.D. or at least a master's degree with some clinical and/or life experience, it is obviously essential to have good academic skills and to enjoy studying. However, learning does not stop when your formal education is complete. Because the field changes so often and so rapidly, medical ethicists must read up on every development and possible policy change that will affect their job. Medical ethicists today are confronting issues created by technological advances that would have been dismissed as science fiction not long ago.