For many students, taking various classes in bioethics simply amounts to their way of getting a good, rigorous liberal arts education. Others, however, may be interested in eventually pursuing some sort of bioethics-related career. As a relatively new interdisciplinary field, bioethics lacks the sort of tried and true career paths that we find in the worlds of business, law, teaching, medicine, and so on. Indeed, all of those who are now in the senior ranks of professors in bioethics pretty much stumbled or sleepwalked into their current interests and professional positions. Our commitments to bioethics more or less developed along with the field itself. And because bioethics is an interdisciplinary field, there is often controversy about fundamental issues, such as what sorts of things people in bioethics should know and what sort of training they should obtain. That said, things are now much more settled than they were twenty years ago, and some distinct career paths have begun to emerge.
The first (obvious) thing to note is that a minor or interdisciplinary major in bioethics won't exactly allow you to graduate, "hang up a shingle," and start offering reimbursable ethical advice to people. Entry into the field of bioethics can only be successfully accomplished through one of the contributing traditional disciplines that jointly constitute this field. This means that anyone serious about "doing bioethics" in some capacity must also take seriously the need to master some related discipline, such as medicine, nursing, public health, law, or an academic discipline like biology, philosophy, religious studies, politics, anthropology, etc. This list suggests three general rubrics for thinking about careers in bioethics: Health and health care, law, and academics.
Probably the most tried and true route to a successful career in bioethics, both now and in the foreseeable future, is through the health professions-i.e., medicine, nursing, public health, and medical social work. One reason for this is that the best way to be taken seriously within the world of health care is to be oneself a physician or nurse. Another reason is that it's economically more advantageous for health care institutions to hire ethically trained health care professionals who can also do some sort of clinical work than it is to hire "outsiders" (e.g., philosophers and lawyers) to give ethical advice on cases or policies. Each of the "job tracks" listed below requires proper credentialing in medicine, nursing, public health, or social work. (Undergraduates should note that admissions committees in medicine, nursing, public health, and law schools generally do not mind if students major in a traditional discipline or in an interdisciplinary major like Bioethics, Human Biology, Political and Social Thought, or Philosophy, Politics & Law.)
The final route into a bioethics-related career is through teaching in academe. This is the route chosen by Professors Childress, Arras , and Mohrmann here at UVA. Our fields, Religious Studies and Philosophy, are the most frequently encountered specialties in bioethics, but opportunities also exist through graduate study in such fields as Anthropology, Biology, History, Politics, and Sociology. This is a viable option for students who excel in any one of these fields and appreciate the full range of sub-disciplines that constitute them. It is not a good idea for students who are simply and exclusively interested in bioethics - i.e., students who do not wish to "pay their dues" by doing the hard work stretching over 4-6 years required in any self-respecting doctoral program. For example, anyone doing a Ph.D. in Philosophy will be expected to do well in logic, metaphysics, epistemology, history of philosophy, etc., as well as in ethics and political philosophy. The same holds true for Religious Studies or any of the above fields. (This career path requires a Ph.D. in an established discipline. Graduate admissions committees in such fields prefer that students first obtain a broad education in their respective field , rather than in an interdisciplinary major like bioethics.)
Although most Ph.D.s in bioethics-related fields occupy teaching positions in disciplinary departments (e.g., Philosophy, Sociology, Religious Studies, etc.) in colleges and universities, some work in interdisciplinary bioethics centers within medical schools - indeed, the current directors of the centers at Virginia, Penn, Minnesota, and Indiana are all philosophers by training - or in research institutes not affiliated with universities, the most distinguished of which is The Hastings Center http://www.thehastingscenter.org/ .