Biotechnology is responsible for many of the things that make our lives better. The field focuses on the intersection of biology and technology, leading to a vast array of new products that are designed to enrich lives, make day-to-day living easier, and make us healthier. From vaccine production to genetic modification, biotechnology is everywhere – and as a result, biotechnology careers are quite promising for new graduates. This guide focuses on the various biotechnology degrees, jobs and expectations for those who are interested in the field.
The United States leads the pack in biotech revenue, market capitalization, and the number of public biotech companies, according to a 2015 report by Ernst & Young Global Limited. In 2007, three biotechnology companies made more than one billion dollars; by the end of 2014, that number had grown to 26, and there is no end in sight to the massive growth. Biotechnology careers can be found mainly in pharmaceutical companies including Gilead Sciences, Celgene, Biogen, and Regeneron, all companies named by Forbes among the top 10 biotech companies in the country.
People who choose biotech careers have several areas of specialization to choose from. A few options include working as an epidemiologist, microbiologist, biochemist, botany specialist, agricultural and food scientist or biomedical engineer. Graduates might wind up working in a laboratory, creating new seed lines, or in a vast field, testing new soil compositions. They might work to clone animals, develop new pharmaceutical drugs, create a bionic pancreas and so much more. No matter what the career path, it all begins with rigorous study and earning a biotechnology degree.
As with all statistics, salary numbers can be deceiving. There are two reasons why the numbers below should be taken into context.
First, biotechnology careers typically require a bachelor’s degree for entry, but the field is filled with people who also hold master’s and doctoral degrees. For instance, 45 percent of the biomedical engineers who responded to an O*NET survey said a bachelor’s degree was sufficient; thirty-five percent needed a master’s degree and a further 20 percent needed a doctorate. Those with advanced degrees typically have higher earning potential, which partially explains how some biomedical engineers can earn around $50,000 per year while others are clearing $140,000.
Second, there are multiple employers of the scientists listed below. Some of the most prominent are universities, which typically pay less than companies engaged in applied research. Companies make profits, which can be shared with employees; universities do not.
Working in the biotechnology field starts with the proper education. Though there are numerous pathways to the various professions, some steps to success are universal. Here’s how to get there.
Those interested in biotechnology careers can begin their journey by taking several biology or chemistry electives while in high school. Students should also look into pursuing courses that provide both high school and college credit, such as advanced placement.
Once high school is over, it’s time to move into college and earn a bachelor’s degree in biology, biotechnology (if offered) or a closely related field. Though there are associate degrees in biology that will form a firm foundation for the bachelor’s, most entry-level positions in biotechnology will require at least a bachelor’s degree.
Learning about the job and getting hands-on training in the field can look great on a resume, as well as provide students an opportunity to decide what area of biotechnology interests them the most. Some students choose internships during their college years, while others seek out part-time or full-time work with biotech companies or labs.
In many cases, biotechnology careers will require a graduate degree for advancement. Depending upon the chosen career path, students might need to embark on their master’s degree or end up with a PhD in order to do the work they really want to do.
Technology is always changing, growing and shifting. Some fields of biotechnology are moving so fast that they can literally change by the week. That’s why it is so important to stay up-to-date by subscribing to industry publications, becoming active in industry associations, keeping in touch with network contacts, and otherwise staying on top of what is happening in the field.
Biotechnology careers offers quite a bit of overlap; for instance, a soil and plant scientist might choose to eventually work as an agricultural and food scientist, and their education might support both paths. Seeking out new opportunities to expand on a current profession is one of the perks of working in the field, and can lead to exciting possibilities.
Those who are interested in biotechnology will discover a dizzying array of possibilities for degrees; anything from the certificate to the PhD can be helpful during the career pursuit. In addition, many biotech degrees easily adapt to online study for students who don’t have the ability to attend traditional classes. Here’s an overview of which degrees might be more advantageous for certain situations.
|Career Goal or Educational Needs||Certificate||Associate||Bachelor’s||Master’s||Doctorate||Online|
I am excited to begin work in biotechnology. I need something that will allow me to get my foot in the door while giving me a strong foundation for graduate work.
I have been working in the field for years, but there are some points that I need to brush up on – times have definitely changed these last few years, and I’m ready to change with it. But leaving my job to go back to school is simply not an option, as finances would be too tight.
I already have my bachelor’s degree, but none of my classes focused on the high-level biology I need to know in order to move into the biotech field. I need to get a bit more education while I gain experience.
I definitely want to go into biotech but I have no idea where to begin. I want to test the waters a bit and leave my options open for changing my degree path when I find what I really want to do
I grew up on a farm and love working with animals. I want to be an animal scientist, so I can help make their lives better. It’s a journey that will take some serious time and effort, but I’m ready for the challenge.
I’ve been working in the field for a while, but promotions and pay raises seem rather elusive – one manager pointed out that my educational level is holding me back. It’s time to remedy that problem.
Choosing the best biotechnology degrees can be tough, as there are so many options out there. However, the desired career path often provides clues to which degree might be best, as well as which level of educational attainment is expected. Here’s what students can expect to learn from each.
There are two types of biotechnology certificate programs: Those that are designed for students who have completed their graduate studies and now need more specialized training, or those who have earned their bachelor’s degree but didn’t get all the recommended courses to move into a biotech career. The latter scenario often applies to those who have earned their bachelor’s in another field but have now chosen a career change to the biotechnology field.
Most certificate programs take a year or less to complete, and are very focused on the particular educational path, with little to no general education courses. Some of the common courses in a certificate program include:
This course helps students understand structural organic chemistry, chemical thermodynamics, acid base chemistry, and reaction mechanisms.
Understanding of Lewis structures
Strategic use of reaction mechanisms
Knowledge of biological molecules and how they form and interact
Students will explore the ethical issues in biotechnology, including real-world case studies and current events in the field.
Applying philosophical theories to critical current issues
Conducting human experimentation in a compassionate and ethical manner
Ethical practices regarding animal testing
This class focuses on the regulatory approval process for drugs, foods, cosmetics and more.
Proper compliance with regulatory rules
Legal implications in regulatory issues
Ethical considerations when bring a new product to market
The associate degree in biotechnology prepares students to eventually move into the bachelor’s degree program. Though there are some employers who will accept students who have only the associate degree, many entry-level jobs do require the four-year education. The associate degree requires four years of study to complete, though some accelerated programs might allow completion in as little as 18 months. Some common courses found in the associate in biotech program include:
This course serves as an important overview for those who are interested in the biotech field, including a look at career options.
Use of safe laboratory procedures
Understanding the variety of potential careers and how they relate to each other
Applying the basics of biotech to day-to-day life
Students will learn quality assurance principles and how they relate to the biotech fields.
Understanding the differences in regulated and non-regulated work environments
Quality system usage, including Lean and Six Sigma
Theoretical views of quality assurance as applied to real-world events
Focuses on computational biology and bioinformatics as it relates to processes and end results.
Methods for high-volume data collection
Storing and accessing biological data
Use of common programs and algorithms to analyze data
For most careers in biotechnology – including that of biomedical engineer, food scientist, microbiologist, plant and soil scientist, and agricultural engineer, among others – a bachelor’s degree is required for entry-level work. The bachelor’s degree typically takes four years to complete and offers some opportunities for specialization through the use of electives under the biotechnology umbrella. Some classes that students can expect to take include:
Students explore the current research in biological science and analyze it according to biotechnology principles.
Critical analysis of current research
Use of scientific reasoning to make evaluative decisions
Understanding core biological concepts
Focus on the structure and function of cells, with an emphasis on eukaryotic cell biology.
Use molecular biology knowledge to draw research conclusions
Understand DNA replication and repair
The applications of genetic engineering
An in-depth look at safety procedures and proper management of laboratory spaces.
Management of personnel, space, inventory and equipment
Proper communications with stakeholders
Compliance with all safety and health regulations
The master’s in biotechnology degree allows students to enhance their knowledge through a specialized curriculum. The master’s in biotech is made up of a few core courses, which are then enhanced by electives that focus on the particular educational path a student wants to carve out for themselves. The master’s degree takes two to three years to complete, depending upon the program. Many programs are available online, as schools recognize the need for a flexible schedule for those who are already working in the field.
Some courses that can be found at the master’s level include:
Focuses on all the aspects of project management, such as working in teams, managing time, structuring projects and more.
Consideration of each phase of a project
Communicating with a wide variety of people involved in a project
Monitoring and controlling change
Students will learn the ins and outs of federal funding and regulations, writing grant proposals, and other sources of funding for research and development.
Writing grant proposals
Searching for funding opportunities
Understanding funding mechanisms and expectations of donors
Students will study how to apply a comprehensive validation philosophy to new ventures in biotech.
Creating equipment or processes that are less prone to failure
Designing robust yet cost-effective projects
Creating validation documents in line with rules and regulations
The doctorate is the pinnacle of the biotechnology field, and offers students quite broad autonomy when choosing an original research project and focus of study. Those who intend to work with in-depth research or move into teaching will need to earn the PhD. Some professions require it, such as that of animal scientist or biophysicist. The doctoral program usually takes between three and four years to complete, though some schools allow up to eight years for completion of the dissertation. Some courses that might be found at the PhD level include:
Students will explore cutting-edge research areas and instruments, with a rotation that takes them through biomedical and biotechnology areas.
Familiarity with the latest technologies
Refresher on how to use instruments that considered out-of-date but might be advantageous for some projects
How to balance research between different laboratories and get the same results using different systems
Students will examine upper-level biotechnology or bio-engineering problems through the lens of equations and statistics.
High-level mathematics literacy
Advanced numerical methods
Refresher on statistical analysis
Students will engage in discussions with leaders in the field on current events and ethical issues that arise from the use of technology in the biological field.
Proper development of biological products
Conducting ethical biomedical research
Marketing and transparency in presenting new biotechnologies to the public
The U.S. biotech industry grew by just about every measure in 2014, according to Ernst and Young’s 2015 industry report. Revenue was up 29 percent, net income increased 293 percent and there were 164 more biotech companies than during the previous year. All of this meant one thing for jobs: There were a lot more of them. The industry added over 10,000 new jobs in 2014, which equates to a staggering 10 percent annual growth rate. Of course, not all of these jobs were for scientists and researchers — many were for support staff one might find in any industry. Jobs specific to biotechnology — involving research and development and manufacturing — are outlined below.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) combines three related careers under the heading of agricultural and food scientist: animal scientist, food scientist and technologist, and soil and plant scientist. Although all have the ultimate task of improving farm productivity, they accomplish this in different ways. Each are discussed separately here.
Many people don’t think of farming as being sophisticated. Seeds are planted, crops are watered, and eventually food is harvested. But it is an extraordinarily advanced field, and the largest farms are essentially food factories. Engineers are involved in research and development as well as manufacturing. They might oversee water supply and usage, design comfortable areas for the animals, and create machines that can efficiently harvest crops with minimal food loss. Agricultural engineers spend their time both in offices designing systems and on farms testing and applying those systems.
Farm animals can be crossbred to produce better quality meat, eggs or milk. They can also be bred to live longer, healthier lives, saving farmers money. Animal scientists have the expertise in genetics and reproduction to crossbreed effectively so that farmers can increase production and lower costs.
These scientists spend most of their days in large laboratories researching how living things function. They plan experiments; work directly with protein, enzymes and DNA; and study the effect of external substances on living things. Those who work for biotechnology companies or divisions work in applied research, meaning they are looking to use their findings to solve a specific problem. For instance, in the past, biochemists in agriculture have used applied research to genetically modify rice to have more beta-carotene and, by extension, vitamin A. This rice could be used in parts of the world where rice was a staple food but vitamin A deficiency was a major killer. Biophysicists working for energy companies, meanwhile, have made advances in developing fuel such as ethanol from plants.
These product-makers either create tools to analyze medical problems or design tools that improve patients’ lives. For instance, they can create better microscopes or newer imaging technologies. More pertinent to the field of biotechnology, however, is their work to create artificial limbs that respond to brain signals or the recent invention of a bionic pancreas that eliminates the need for insulin injections in people with diabetes.
Whereas microbiologists get up close with viruses under the microscope, epidemiologists are more interested in high-level views of disease, namely how a disease is spread via people or animals. Their ultimate goal is to stop the spread of disease. Since biotechnology utilizes farm animals such as pigs and chickens that can carry diseases that mutate and affect humans, such as H1N1, epidemiologists are vitally important to insuring food chain safety. Perhaps more interestingly, many harness diseases to humans’ advantage. Vaccines are essentially biotechnological tools that render diseases innocuous.
Food scientists and technologists are experts in nutrition. They use this knowledge to develop new products and methods of food preservation and processing, making sure that food makes it safely into consumers’ mouths. Similar to biochemists, they want to know the effects of food on a consumer when that food is altered in some way — perhaps through genetic modification, additives or a processing technique. Many have specialized knowledge in topics Julia Child would be familiar with, such as pasteurization, canning and fermentation.
Microbiologists research bacteria, viruses, fungi, algae and parasites — basically anything too small to be seen with the naked eye. The field is highly specialized, meaning that most microbiologists focus on studying just one type of microorganism. In the context of biotechnology, microbiologists might work in the manufacturing side of the industry, making sure that products are not contaminated, but they are just as likely to be involved in research and development. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook provides the following example: “They may study the use of microbes to clean up areas contaminated by heavy metals or study how microbes could aid crop growth.”
Soil and plant scientists in the field of applied biotechnology are typically employed by companies to improve food quality. They have advanced knowledge of environmental science, meaning they can maximize land use while also increasing food production. Because the composition of soil changes over time and depending upon how it is utilized, soil and plant scientists balance short-term production considerations with long-term soil health.
Workers in the field of biotechnology are experts at the scientific method, meaning they display exceptional critical thinking, problem solving and decision-making skills. The guide “Careers in Biotechnology: A Counselor’s Guide to the Best Jobs in the United States” goes into greater depth, noting that modern scientists in this field must not only be great technically, but also must have the interpersonal skills to work well in large teams. Additionally, while knowledge of laboratory procedures continues to be essential, increased computing power means these scientists must be adroit with powerful and field-specific software.
Animal scientists require animal husbandry equipment, incubators and stunners while on the farm. In the office, they may use two types of specialized software:
Food Scientists and Technologists typically use crushing machinery when working on food processing techniques, filling machinery for packaging methods, and laboratory heat exchange condensers and convection ovens to explore chemical changes to food under heat. The specific software they might use includes:
Soil and Plant Scientists work with tools both in and outside of the laboratory — tools such as pH meters, spectrometers, radar surveillance systems and photometers. The specific software they may be required to know or learn includes:
These engineers spend a lot of time thinking about the proper usage of space. While in the office, they use computer-aided design software geared toward rural and farming areas, such as Eagle Point LANDCADD or PTC Pro/Pipe. When in the field, they may use theodolites for land surveying.
The laboratory houses a wealth of toys for these research scientists, who regularly work with tools such as centrifuges, calorimeters, flow cytometers, pH meters and protein sequencers.
A host of software helps them get the most out of their experiments. These include:
Engineers in this field love toys. They work with electrodes, electrometers, MRI scanners, pressure indicators, and activity monitoring devices that make Fitbits look like Cracker Jack prizes.
They also use a lot of software, including:
Because epidemiologists are often office-based rather than laboratory- or field-based, they don’t have a lot of intricate tools. What they do have are computers with complex software. The programs they might run in a typical day include:
Because they work with things too small to see without a microscope, microbiologists need a lot of tools to help them. From air samplers to autoclaves, spectrometers to staining dishes, microbiologists have a lot of gear to store. Like other research scientists, they rely on software to analyze outcomes and results. Programs include:
There is fantastic job growth in biotechnology, with most of the industry growing at pace with — or faster than — the rest of the economy. Biomedical engineers, for instance, are growing at a rate of 27 percent this decade. This is because our world continues to have problems that need solving — and biotechnologists are in the business of solving problems by pushing the envelope of scientific innovation.
Biomedical engineers are needed because humans are living longer than ever thanks in part to their designs. Agricultural engineers will be needed to think through land management issues as demand for food increases but arable land decreases. Microbiologists remain on the hunt to cure or control existing and emerging diseases, such as HIV and Ebola. Agricultural and food scientists are making use of nanotechnology to make food safer and developing biofuels to reduce the need for fossil fuels.
However, the jobs we have discussed thus far account for only about 112,00 jobs in the United States, meaning that in absolute terms, job growth will be small. According to BLS data from 2014:
|Soil and Plant Scientist||15,150|
|Food Scientist and Technologist||14,170|
Having said that, the industry itself is quite large and there are jobs not yet discussed that fall within it. For instance, biological technicians assist scientists with laboratory research. They gather biological samples, conduct experiments and analyze the findings. Typically, they report on how these findings may be applied to new products. There were 80,200 of them in 2012 in the U.S. and they are expected to grow 10 percent by 2022. With education and training they may move into more advanced careers in biotechnology.
The first chart covers the most popular jobs from those already discussed, all of which are related to biotechnology. The second chart compares careers that are not strictly within the biotech field but that shares some similarities.
Biotechnology is a purposely broad field that covers health and agriculture. Below, the field’s interconnected careers are compared to similar jobs. Environmental engineers share much in common with agricultural engineers; farmers and ranchers rely upon agriculture and food scientists; chemists are akin to biochemists and biophysicists; and community health workers relay much of the information produced by microbiologists and epidemiologists.
This publication by Elsevier offers in-depth information on biomass, biological waste treatment, bioenergy, and other technologies associated with biological topics.
This peer-edited journal offers up-to-date publications on issues that are important to the world of biotech.
The world’s largest biotechnology trade organization, BIO helps boost research and development across all biotechnologies.
Perfect for those who aren’t yet sure about a biotechnology career, these articles and videos presented by PBS offer an excellent overview of the various professions.
This journal is designed or those who work in agriculture, plant and animal science, and other areas of interest in the biotechnologies field.
This journal focuses on biotechnologies and biotechnics, with an emphasis on management, economics, political and social issues.
This publication covers all aspects of biotechnology, including biochemical engineering, molecular biology, genomes and agricultural technologies.