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How to Become a Biotechnologist

Biotechnologists manipulate organisms or components of a biological system to create new products or processes. They study the physical, genetic, and chemical characteristics of cells and tissues and explore industrial applications for them. Biotechnologists work in fields like agriculture, medicine, waste treatment, and food production.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 7% growth rate for jobs in this sector between 2018 and 2028, which is faster than the projected growth rate of 5% for all other professions.

An undergraduate biotechnology degree qualifies graduates for several entry-level jobs in the field. Candidates typically must complete graduate degrees to be considered for leadership positions in the field.

What is biotechnology and how do you enter the field? This guide contains information on how to obtain a biotechnology degree and the different careers you can pursue after graduation. You can also find out more about potential salaries, common coursework, and professional organizations.

What is Biotechnology?

A broad research and professional arena, biotechnology spans the agricultural, industrial, and medical fields. Some practitioners classify biotech areas according to color. For example, blue biotechnology refers to the study and use of marine-based essential compounds, while white biotechnology refers to industrial applications.

Biotechnology is an expanding field. New subfields continue to emerge as advances in science and technology open fresh areas of exploration and growth. Careers in biotechnology include positions in research and development, regulatory affairs and quality assurance, manufacturing, and policymaking.

What Does a biotechnologist Do?

Career Basics

Many biotechnologists work in a laboratory setting assisting scientists and doctors with different types of research. They maintain lab equipment, synthesize chemicals, assist with experiments, and produce reports of their findings. Some biotechnologists go out in the field to collect data and measure how products or processes work in a non-clinical environment.

Biotechnologists must follow where the evidence and test results lead and make recommendations based solely on unbiased findings.

Career In-Depth

Biotechnologists can specialize in any of the subfields mentioned above or break new ground in an emerging field of research.

Most lab biotechnologists work regular eight-hour days, except when actively performing an experiment, which may require them to adjust their hours according to how their experiment is proceeding. The working hours of a field biotechnologist tend to be less regular and predictable.

Depending on their educational background and professional interests, biotechnologists can work as forensic science technicians, food technologists, and research associates. Biotechnologists can work for big pharmaceutical companies, environmental protection organizations, or academia.

Biotechnology Salary and Job Growth

In addition to a healthy growth rate projected by the BLS, biotechnologists also enjoy a higher annual median salary than most workers ($45,860 and $39,810, respectively). Years of experience in the field and graduate studies often lead to professional advancement and higher salaries.

Biotechnologists who pursue a master's or graduate certificate can usually find work as epidemiologists ($70,990), medical scientists ($88,790), and biochemists or biophysicists ($94,490). The projected growth rates for these positions between 2018 and 2028 are 5%, 6%, and 8%, respectively, which are on par with or just faster than the average 5% growth rate for all other occupations.

$86,950 Biomedical Engineer
$84,940 Biochemist/Biophysicist
$71,730 Agricultural Engineer
$67,790 Microbiologist
$67,420 Epidemiologist
$61,480 Food Scientist and Technologist
$61,110 Animal Scientist
$59,920 Soil and Plant Scientist

Four Steps to Becoming a Biotechnologist

You must complete several stages before you can begin your career in biotechnology. While students can take different paths to achieve the same objective, the following steps outline a more traditional approach to a career as a biotechnologist.

Step 1
Complete a Bachelor's Degree

Although a bachelor's in biotechnology provides the ideal foundation for a career in the field, an undergraduate degree in a related science arena, like chemistry or physics, often works as well. Choose a program that provides both classroom instruction and some amount of experiential learning opportunities. To succeed as a biotechnologist, you need both types of learning experiences.

Additionally, most graduate programs require that applicants hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution.

Step 2
Complete an Internship

Many undergraduate biotechnology or applied science programs include an internship component. Students enrolled in an online program can typically meet this requirement in approved sites within their geographical area.

An internship familiarizes you with the nature of the work biotechnologists regularly perform. Completing an internship can also bolster your application to a graduate program, especially if you do not yet have professional experience in the field.

Step 3
Pursue Graduate School

A master's in biotechnology gives you the chance to focus on a specific subfield like process sciences, pharmaceutical technologies, or manufacturing and quality operations.

A master's degree requires a significant investment of time and money. Many universities administer grant programs for the federal government earmarked for STEM students.

Step 4
Find a Biotechnologist Position

Many graduate programs in biotechnology include an internship component. Interns who do well during this phase of their studies often end up being hired by the company where they completed their internship.

Conferences and professional organizations also provide extensive networking opportunities, which can help you in your job search. Biotechnologists often work in labs, but they can also find work in local or federal governments and in international environmental organizations.

Preparing to Become a Biotechnologist: Schools and Programs

Some institutions, such as the University of Maryland Global Campus, now offer an online bachelor's in biotechnology. Keep in mind that some online biotechnology programs may still have on-campus requirements, especially for lab components.

In addition, colleges and universities offering online programs do not always conform to a single structure. Some use a cohort model, in which students complete the same course sequence with the same peer group. Others deliver all coursework synchronously, while still others offer both asynchronous and synchronous coursework.

For many students, affordability is the most important issue. Remember to inquire about private scholarships and federal financial assistance programs from every prospective school. There are several financial aid packages specifically for students pursuing a STEM degree.

Most schools include much of the relevant information about their programs on their websites. If you still have questions, reach out to the admissions office and inquire.

Courses in Biotechnologist Programs

Undergraduate biotechnology programs typically require students to enroll in advanced science courses during their junior and senior years. Students develop and hone strong analytical and research skills through classroom instruction, lab work, and internship or practicum experiences. Most bachelor's programs culminate in a capstone project that showcases each student's mastery of the curriculum.

The following courses represent a typical course load for an undergraduate biotechnology student.

Biochemistry

This course covers fundamental concepts such as the structure and functions of biomolecules, genetic information transfer, signal transduction chemistry, and thermodynamics. Developing a clear understanding of these concepts helps future biotechnologists carry out research after graduation.

Genome Technology and Analysis

In this course, students learn about the most recent advancements in genome sequencing technologies. They explore the practical applications of these developments in various fields including medicine, biological research, and pharmaceutical products. Students also learn how to perform efficient and accurate sequence analyses.

Molecular Genetics

This course covers chromosome structure, bacterial virus, and the transcription and regulation of gene expression and replication. Students also learn about genome analysis, which is a key component of many biotech jobs today.

Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology

Students examine the human nervous system and how different types of diseases affect or alter its functions. This course covers topics such as energy metabolism and brain biochemistry, synaptic plasticity, and intercellular neuron signaling. This knowledge can lead to the development of medicines that can address neurological diseases like Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis.

Virology

Students build a comprehensive knowledge base about viruses as they progress through this course. Topics include the cellular and molecular components of viral infections, multiplication cycles, and virus-host interactions. Students also learn about new viruses and emerging viral topics that can help them develop vaccines or fresh processes.

Accreditation for a Biotechnologist Program

Postsecondary institutions across the country seek accreditation as a way of objectively certifying the quality of education they offer. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) oversee the process.

Nonprofit public and private colleges and universities often seek regional accreditation. The ED and CHEA recognize six regional accreditors, each one responsible for evaluating a sector of the country. These accrediting bodies work with two-year and four-year institutions. For-profit and vocational schools typically seek national accreditation.

Programmatic accreditors focus on evaluating specific programs rather than entire institutions. As of June 2020, no accreditor focused solely on undergraduate biotechnology programs, although The Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering occasionally accredits biotechnology programs.

Limit your search to accredited schools, as institutional accreditation generally extends to all academic programs.

Accreditation matters for two main reasons. First, the ED channels federal assistance packages only through accredited institutions. Second, transferring credits from schools that hold one type of accreditation to a school with a different type of accreditation can be problematic. Regionally accredited schools usually do not accept credits earned at nationally accredited schools.

Biotechnologist Specialties

Students who pursue a bachelor's in biotechnology usually have to complete 36-45 credits of major coursework. Schools that offer concentrations often require students to complete at least 18 credits in their chosen area.

Common concentrations include biomedical engineering, environmental regulatory affairs, bioinformatics, and drug research. Having a concentration can improve your chances of qualifying for positions in that specific arena without necessarily closing you off to opportunities outside of your focus area.

A concentration can also bolster your application to graduate programs, which can be competitive. An undergraduate concentration in biotechnology shows graduate programs that you are committed to pursuing a career in biotechnology and making a meaningful contribution to the field.

Finding a Biotechnologist Program

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.

Components of a Successful Biotechnologist Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology

Skill

Comprehensive knowledge about the field and staying on top of most recent research developments are essential components of a successful biotech career. However, you need additional skills to stand out in such a competitive professional arena.

Biotechnologists need analytical skills to solve and anticipate problems that arise in practice. They also need to develop clear and concise written and oral communication skills to convey findings or concerns. Since biotechnologists manipulate living organisms, they must be able to react quickly to any unexpected developments or results.

Credentials

Most states do not require biotechnologists to earn a license in order to work. However, some positions may require a background or criminal check. Practitioners can opt to sit for the Biotechnician Assistant Credentialing Exam, which has wide industry recognition.

Tools and Technology

Biotech equipment and technology undergo constant modifications to serve the changing demands of the industry. Biotechnologists must be a fast learner to keep up with the technological advances in the field.

Agricultural and Food Scientist

Animal scientists require animal husbandry equipment, incubators and stunners while on the farm. In the office, they may use two types of specialized software:

  • Scientific software: DNA sequence analysis software, Nutrition Balance Analyzer (NUTBAL)
  • Database software: Domestic Animal Diversity Information Service, Online Mendelian Inheritance in Animals (OMIA)

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:

  • Analytical software: BioDiscovery ImaGene, MDS Analytical Technologies GenePix Pro
  • Database software: PathogenTracker, USDA National Nutrient Database

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:

  • Scientific software: European Soil Erosion Model (EUROSEM), Water Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP)
  • Database software: National Soil Information System, SoilVision software
  • Map creation software: ESRI ArcGIS, Leica Geosystems ERDAS IMAGINE
Agricultural Engineers

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.

Biochemist and Biophysicist

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:

  • Scientific software: Accelrys QAUNTA, Fujitsu BioMedCache
  • Computer-aided design software: Accelrys Insight II, ChemInnovation Software
  • Photo imaging software: Molecular Devices Corporation MetaFluor, Molecular Simulations WebLab ViewerPro
Biomedical Engineer

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:

  • Analytical software: Minitab, Stratasys FDM MedModeler
  • Computer-aided design software: Mathsoft Mathcad, SolidWorks CAD software
  • Medical software: Electromyograph analysis software, gait analysis software, virtual instrument software
Epidemiologist

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:

  • Analytical software: TerraSeer ClusterSeer, World Health Organization HealthMapper
  • Database software: CDC WONDER
  • Map creation software: ESRI ArcGIS, ESRI ArcView
Microbiologist

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:

  • Scientific software: BD Biosciences CellQuest, Protein Explorer
  • Medical software: CLS-2000 Laboratory System

Biotechnologist Professional Organizations

Professional organizations offer networking and mentoring opportunities and active job boards open only to members. Additionally, many organizations publish journals with peer-reviewed articles containing the latest advancements and discoveries in biotechnology.

Explore the professional associations below to learn more about benefits that can help your career in biotechnology.

American Institute of Biological Sciences

AIBS offers several professional development and training programs to help members broaden their knowledge base and improve their skills. Its peer-reviewed journal features articles on cutting-edge biological research and the impact it has on the industry as a whole. Members also gain access to exclusive podcasts and webinars by experts in the field.

Biomedical Engineering Society

BMES maintains active professional ties with several institutions in academia, the government, and healthcare that allows members to explore networking and business development opportunities. Members can also access informative webinars, electronic journals, and curated job boards.

Engineering in Medicine & Biological Society

EMBS publishes several journals and newsletters for members, sponsors regional and national conferences, and maintains an online job board with active employment opportunities. Biotechnology experts get a chance to network and explore professional collaborations with practitioners working in related fields such as industrial engineering and biomedical research.

Institute of Biological Engineering

Members gain access to exclusive educational materials and informative electronic newsletters. The IBE represents the industry in various advocacy activities and keeps members informed about relevant policy changes that impact the field. The organization also provides members with access to an online career center where they can look for work and get help with job applications.

FAQ
Question Answer
What does a biotechnologist do? Biotechnologists study the genetic and physical characteristics of cells and organisms. They create new products and improve processes in fields like agriculture and medicine.
What is a biotechnologist's salary?

According to PayScale, entry-level biotechnologists typically earn a starting salary of around $56,000.

What skills do you need to be a biotechnologist? Biotechnologists need excellent problem-solving and analytical skills. They also need communication skills to share and explain their findings to colleagues and clients.
How much schooling does a biotechnologist need? A bachelor's in biotechnology or a related science field such as chemistry or biology typically qualifies graduates for entry-level positions. Advancement in the field usually requires a graduate degree and several years of professional experience.

Resources for Biotechnologists

Biotechnology Innovation Organization

BIO members include startups and companies in human health, agriculture, and the environment. Members commit to the organization's culture and support of innovation in the biotechnology field. The organization makes its resources, including industry analysis reports and amicus briefs, openly accessible to biotechnologists and other interested parties.

Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology

Frontiers is a free online journal that publishes the latest research findings in bioengineering and biotechnology as well as in other related scientific fields. Scientists and researchers from all over the world submit scholarly articles on topics such as applications of synthetic biology, multiplex genome editing, and experimental cell fusion techniques.

Journal of Biotechnology

This publication features several peer-reviewed articles each month. Writers can submit research findings and recent advancements in the fields of biochemical engineering, genomics and bioinformatics, and molecular biology. The journal maintains an open-access mirror journal with the same publishing standards and mission.

National Center for Biotechnology Information

NCBI maintains an extensive database of articles, tutorials, training videos, and other digital resources for professionals in the biotechnology arena. Visitors can also explore collaboration opportunities with peers from all over the country and the world. The center offers its educational materials free of charge.

Career Paths In Biotechnology

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.

Agricultural and Food Scientist

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.

Agricultural Engineer

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.

Education requirements

Bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering or biological engineering

Animal Scientist

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.

Education requirements

Doctorate

Biochemist and Biophysicist

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.

Education requirements

Doctorate in biochemistry and biophysics

Biomedical Engineer

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.

Education requirements

Bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, which features an assortment of biology and engineering courses

Epidemiologist

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.

Education requirements

Master’s degree in epidemiology or an MPH; requirements include coursework in biology, life sciences and statistics

Food Scientist and Technologist

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.

Education requirements

Bachelor’s degree in agricultural science or food science; according to BLS, typical courses include food chemistry, food microbiology, food engineering and food processing

Microbiologist

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.”

Education requirements

Bachelor’s degree in microbiology, biochemistry or a related field, although a PhD is needed to conduct independent research

Soil and Plant Scientist

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.

Education requirements

Bachelor’s degree with coursework specific to the field; according to BLS, courses include soil chemistry, biochemistry, entomology and plant physiology

Biotechnology Job Growth, Prospects and Outlook

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:

Career 2014 Jobs
Biochemist/Biophysicist 31,350
Microbiologist 20,670
Biomedical Engineer 20,080
Soil and Plant Scientist 15,150
Food Scientist and Technologist 14,170
Epidemiologist 5,420
Agricultural Engineer 2,450
Animal Scientist 2,350

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.

What Do Related Occupations Make?

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.

Related Occupations: What You Need to Know

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.

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