What Can You Do with a Biotechnology Degree?
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Biotechnology is an ancient field of study that is at the forefront of human potential. Defined as the manipulation of living organisms to produce or modify useful products, biotechnology reaches back over 10,000 years—from the modification of seed crops, to the selective breeding of livestock, to the invention of bread, beer, and wine—and the innovations it’s made haven’t slowed or stopped. While the 20th century saw biotechnology discover penicillin, uncover the structure of DNA, and begin to map the human genome, the 21st century has pushed even further forward with the advent of personalized medicine, stem cell reprogramming, and bioinformatics.
In the modern era of biotechnology, with the aid of computational science, almost every living process can be mapped if not outright manipulated. New biotechnical processes and products are developed every year in medicine, agriculture, the environment, and industry. As a field that touches multiple disciplines, biotechnology careers can vary dramatically in educational requirements, salary benefits, and work environments. Those in biotechnology can discover new ways to optimize food sources, sidestep genetic defects, cure terminal diseases, and extend human life. But regardless of the specialization one pursues, a degree in biotechnology is the first step into a world where the overarching mandate is to change the limits of what’s possible.
Here is a list of 10 careers to pursue with a biotechnology degree and the career outlook data, certification entities, and salary data for each profession.
Become a Genetic Engineer
Genetic engineers rework genetic material to make organisms healthier and more efficient. They directly manipulate an organism’s genes, often using molecular tools to rearrange fragments of DNA. Genetic engineers can make a plant more resistant to disease or pests or modify bacteria to carry drugs to targeted tissues by altering those structural elements.
These professionals merge a strong natural sciences education with an engineer’s sense of curiosity and innovation; they “hack” the code of life’s building blocks. While genetic engineers spend the majority of their time working in laboratories, they’re employed by universities, pharmaceutical companies, and the federal government.
Employment options and remuneration packages increase with one’s level of education and experience, with salaries reaching upwards of $123,000 a year, according to PayScale (2021). The BLS shows that careers in bioengineering, a similar job to genetic engineers, are growing at a rate of 5 percent (2019-2029), which is faster than the national average for all occupations at 4 percent. The median salary for this career is $92,620 (BLS 2021).
Certification for genetic engineers is not common, but some certifications can help applicants stand out when applying for jobs. Earning a Medical Laboratory Scientist (MLS) certification from the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) proves an applicant is competent with laboratory protocols and serves as a legal requirement for work in some states. As well, Stanford University offers an online certificate in genetics and genomics, which could be helpful for candidates with scientific backgrounds who want to specialize in genetic engineering.
- Professional credentials: Medical Laboratory Scientist (MLS)
- Certification entity: American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP)
- Median annual salary: $92,620
Become a Bioinformatics Specialist
Bioinformatics merges biological science and computer science. As the complexity and scope of biological understanding continue to grow, so does the complexity of the tools necessary to analyze it. The concepts of big data and biotechnology are becoming increasingly interdependent. Modern-day bioinformatics specialists take massive amounts of biological data—comparing multiple genes and their mutations, for example—and derive applicable insights from it through computational means.
Whether developing the tools that mine the data or analyzing the integrity of the results, this requires an understanding of biological processes and statistical analysis, mathematics, and computer science. While twin PhDs were once the norm for those working in bioinformatics, more specialized and unified master’s degree programs are emerging as the field matures and the need grows.
According to the BLS, careers in computer and information research scientists, a similar career to bioinformatics specialists, are growing at a rate of 15 percent (BLS 2021). An estimated 5,000 new positions are expected to be created between 2019 and 2029, and the median salary for this career is $126,830.
Currently, there’s no industry-level certification for bioinformatics specialists, as educational and professional qualifications are often measured through computer programming language proficiency. Aspiring bioinformatics specialists can take certification courses proving their proficiency in computing languages such as Linux, Python, Ruby, Perl, and Unix through organizations such as CompTIA.
- Professional credentials: CompTIA Linux+
- Certification entity: CompTIA
- Median annual salary: $126,830
Become a Biopharmaceutical Specialist
Those who pursue a career in biopharmaceuticals discover, design, manufacture, and commercialize DNA-derived biotechnology products that include antibodies, vaccines, biosimilars, cosmetics and skincare, and cellular immunotherapies.
Biopharmaceutical specialists can work at either end of the corporate scale—from the small startup firm to the multinational conglomerate—and the need is growing as quickly as the science. The Pharmaceutical Research Manufacturers of America estimate that one-fourth of all new medicines will be biopharmaceuticals of one sort or another in the future. Due to the dynamic and complex regulatory landscape of biopharmaceuticals, development specialists must have an extensive background in biological sciences and comprehensive pharmaceutical training.
The Center for Professional Innovation and Education (CfPIE) provides several training and certification programs for biopharmaceutical specialists. Their certification programs are divided into two categories: biotech and pharmaceutical certification and medical device certification. To earn certification, applicants choose from three core courses and one elective course. According to PayScale, in 2021, the average annual salary for a biopharmaceutical specialist is $71,216 per year.
- Professional credentials: 18 certifications available
- Certification entity: Center for Professional Innovation and Education (CfPIE)
- Median annual salary: $71,216
Become a Biomedical Engineer
Biomedical engineers explore the intersection of living and mechanical processes. They design products such as artificial limbs, internal organs, devices that regulate insulin, and laser systems that can be used in corrective eye surgery, helping people to see, hear, and walk again.
Biomedical engineers can work in various settings, from hospitals to research facilities or the commercial industry. The field of biomedical engineering is spread across multiple disciplines and a wide range of responsibilities, including product design, maintenance, sales, and patent law. Jobs in biomedical engineering are expected to grow faster than average in the next ten years as developments in smartphone technology and 3D printing advance alongside an aging population.
Most states require engineers to hold a professional license from the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). The initial engineering license is a PE or Professional Engineer, which can be earned after completing a four-year degree, working under a licensed PE for at least four years, passing two intensive competency exams, and earning a license from a state licensure board. In 2021, the BLS shows the median annual salary for biomedical engineers is $92,620, with the 10th percentile earning $56,590 or less and the 90th percentile earning $149,440 or more (BLS May 2020).
- Professional credentials: Professional Engineer (PE)
- Certification entity: National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)
- Median annual salary: $92,620
Become a Clinical Research Coordinator
Clinical research coordinators make sure new medicines are safe through rigorous clinical trials and sound scientific research practices. They screen clinical trial patients, develop research programs, or oversee an entire laboratory’s administrative procedures and policies. Clinical research coordinators usually work with large hospitals or independent research centers. Still, they can also work at an executive level in designing a pharmaceutical company’s overall strategy or budgeting resources for projects that meet both fiscal demands and regulatory standards.
Although the job outlook for clinical research coordinators is expected to grow faster than average, competition for those jobs is likely to be strong due to the high salaries, the level of individual control over projects, and the enviable access to resources that go along with them. Top clinical research coordinators often pair a degree in the natural sciences with a graduate-level management degree that gives them the leadership and communication skills necessary to oversee large and complex research operations.
Median salaries for entry-level positions as clinical laboratory technologists start at $54,180 per year for candidates with bachelor’s degrees and increase to $137,940 per year for natural science managers or candidates with graduate degrees and multiple years of experience. According to the BLS, both of these professions are projected to grow faster than the national average compared to all occupations at rates of 7 percent and 5 percent, respectively, between 2019 and 2029 (BLS 2021).
Certifications abound for clinical research coordinators, and many start with the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) Clinical Research Coordinator (CCRC) exam. To be eligible to apply for this credential, candidates must meet one of the eligibility pathways, which typically includes earning a clinical research degree and earning 1,500 hours of professional experience.
- Professional credentials: CCRC
- Certification entity: Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP)
- Median annual salary: $54,180 (clinical lab techs) or $137,940 (natural sciences managers)
Become a Plant Biotechnologist
Plant biotechnology allows plant breeders to modify the genetic makeup to foster more beneficial traits, such as resistance to pests, disease, droughts, and herbicides. Since the first significant commercial plantings in 1996, the acreage of land devoted to biotech crops has increased 60 times. In the U.S., 80 percent of all corn, 86 percent of all cotton, and 92 percent of all soybeans planted are now biotech varieties.
Over 11 million farmers in small, resource-poor areas planted biotech crops to boost production in the developing world. Creating more durable, more nutritious, and more cost-effective crops, those in the plant biotechnology fieldwork towards a sustainable, economic, and environmentally-friendly agriculture system. Most in this field have at least a master’s degree, with a PhD usually required for positions that use biotechnological techniques in genetic manipulation. According to the BLS, biological technicians, a similar profession to plant biotechnologists, earn median annual salaries of $46,340 (BLS 2021).
Beyond laboratory certification, plant biotechnologists can pursue specialized industry certifications in plant science from BASF. Having this certification provides international industry-recognized certifications with an emphasis on agricultural productivity.
- Professional credentials: BASF Plant Science Certification
- Certification entity: BASF
- Median annual salary: $46,340
Become an Animal Scientist
As a broad term, animal science covers the study of the biology of animals under the control of humankind. Biotechnology applies to this in two significant ways: one, the genetic manipulation of laboratory animals, such as mice and rats, in the interests of human development; and two, the study of livestock productivity and welfare. In the former, scientists may study the effects of a disease like Alzheimer’s or addiction to devise new genetic treatments. In the latter, they may develop edible vaccines or investigate the possibility of disease-resistant livestock.
For a profession that covers such a wide range of species and specialties, the job outlook, educational requirements, salary, and work environment of an animal scientist can vary widely. Still, a PhD is often a prerequisite for any position involving the genetic manipulation of biological processes. According to the BLS, animal scientists earn median annual salaries of $63,490 (BLS May 2020).
The American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists (ARPAS) provides certification and continuing education for animal scientists and publishes a peer-reviewed journal supporting the field of animal science. Three levels of certification are available: Professional Animal Scientist (PAS), Registered Animal Specialist (RAS), and Registered Animal Product Specialist (RAPS). Certifications are available to prove specialization with a variety of agricultural and companion animals.
- Professional credentials: Professional Animal Scientist (PAS)
- Certification entity: American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists (ARPAS)
- Median annual salary: $63,490
Become a Biomedical Researcher
Biomedical researchers and medical scientists conduct research intended to improve overall human health. They can design and conduct studies to investigate human disease, standardize drug delivery methods for mass manufacturing and distribution, or develop programs with health departments to improve overall patient outcomes.
Biomedical researchers, which fall under the same occupational category as bioengineers and biomedical engineers, are primarily funded by the federal government. Still, private pharmaceutical companies also employ a significant percentage too. Grant-funded biomedical researchers are often given the freedom to form their hypotheses and conduct experiments with little supervision but minimal resources.
On the other hand, those in private industry will have larger budgets but less freedom to explore avenues other than those that benefit the parent corporation. Due to an aging population and rapid advancements in medical science, the BLS shows the job outlook for biomedical researchers is expected to grow slightly faster (5 percent) than the average rate for all occupations (4 percent) between 2019 and 2029 (BLS 2021). The median annual salary for bioengineers and biomedical engineers is $92,620.
Biomedical researchers are encouraged to earn laboratory certification from the ASCP or specialize in a credential such as the Certified Associate in Biomedical Technology (CABT). The Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) awarded this and other related credentials. The CABT certification lasts for five years, at which point an applicant will have to sit for and pass this or another examination to earn a related credential.
- Professional credentials: Certified Associate in Biomedical Technology (CABT)
- Certification entity: Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI)
- Median annual salary: $92,620
Become a Craft Beer Brewer
One of the first recorded cases of biotechnology in action was the production of beer. And while the formula is elegantly simple—yeast plus barley and hops—the particular choice of dosage and strains of those ingredients requires biotechnical artistry. From mango pale ales to cucumber lagers, it can seem there’s no limit but imagination to the array of tastes one can create in the $26 billion industry that is craft beer brewing. But there’s a lot of hard work that goes into it, too, from adhering to FDA regulations to balancing the intricate combinations of flavor and strength to managing a facility and supply chain.
There aren’t official numbers to forecast the job market for craft beer brewers, but industry statistics show an ongoing trend. While overall beer production fell over the last year, craft beer production increased by five percent. The BLS shows careers in agricultural and food science are growing at a rate of 6 percent and that 2,000 new positions will be added between 2019 and 2029 (BLS 2021). The annual mean salary for this occupation is $68,830.
Professional certification for craft beer brewing is available through community colleges and universities. Programs include certificate programs, undergraduate and graduate degrees to teach students the science of craft beer brewing. Master Brewers Association of the Americas is a non-profit professional organization dedicated to keeping industry standards high when it comes to educational programs teaching beer brewing fermentation science. While they don’t award a credential, they recognize a handful of programs that meet their approved guidelines and learning outcomes.
- Professional credentials: N/A
- Certification entity: N/A
- Median annual salary: $68,830
Become an Environmental Biotechnologist
Environmental biotechnology is the development, use, and regulation of biological systems to repair contaminated environments and establish environment-friendly processes. Those in the field of environmental biotechnology look for natural solutions to environmental hazards; examples include producing biogas from food waste, remotely detecting landmines through bacterial sensors, or remediating the health and biodiversity of the area affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The BLS shows that environmental engineering careers are growing at the same rate as the national average for all occupations (4 percent). Environmental engineers earn median annual salaries of $92,120 per year (BLS 2021). Engineers are licensed through the National Society of Professional Engineers.
- Professional credentials: Professional Engineer (PE) in environmental engineering
- Certification entity: National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)
- Median annual salary: $92,120