How to Become a Biotechnologist - Education & Experience
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Biotechnology is about hacking the elements of life. By manipulating cellular and biomolecular processes, biotechnologists are able to develop new products that improve the world around us.
This may sound like the future—and it is—but it’s also a critical part of the past. Biotechnology is over 6,000 years old, dating back to the creation of bread, cheese, and preserved dairy products. From that tasty history, biotechnology has come a long way and it’s now manipulating genetic makeups to reduce disease, harnessing biomass to cleanly fuel the world, and transforming agricultural processes in productive and sustainable ways.
Biotechnology is an expansive field. The biotech industry generates approximately $140 billion in revenue and bioscience firms in the US employ over 1.6 million people. A cursory search for job listings that involve biotechnology will reveal a wide range of roles from laboratory scientist and research associate to quality assurance professional and manufacturing specialist.
Many biotechnologists choose to work in biopharmaceutical production and others work in areas like food science, cosmetics manufacturing, biofuel optimization, or genetic manipulation. With applications as wide as the imagination, biotechnology plays a critical role in shaping a cleaner, healthier, and more interesting future.
Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Biotechnologist
Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
After graduating from high school, an aspiring biotechnologist typically needs to earn a bachelor’s degree. While it is possible to pursue this career with an undergraduate degree in one of the life sciences or a related area of engineering, the most linear pathway is to major in biotechnology itself. Admissions requirements for undergraduate programs vary from school to school, but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater), SAT and/or ACT scores, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.
The University of Maryland University College offers a hybrid bachelor of science (BS) in biotechnology through its State University Global Campus. While the majority of its classes may be completed online, the overall requirements do include an onsite component and applicants are expected to have already gained technical and scientific knowledge of biotechnology through transferable credit and practical experience. The UMUC curriculum includes classes such as inquiries in biological science; molecular and cellular biology; bioinformatics; laboratory management and safety; and current trends and applications in the life sciences. The program consists of 120 credits and may be completed in four years.
Indiana University, Bloomington offers a rigorous on-campus BS in biotechnology. Designed to give both fundamental training in basic scientific principles and specific training in advanced topics, graduates are prepared for either immediate employment or further advanced study. In addition to general education and core curriculum requirements, students take 36 credit-hours of upper division classes, which include topics such as molecular biology; societal issues in biotechnology; structure, function, and regulation of biomolecules; organic chemistry; and the theory and applications of biotechnology. The program consists of 120 credits and may be completed in four years.
Do note that some programs, such as the on-campus Plus One Accelerated Program at Northeastern University, offer a combined BS/MS degree, which can be applied for at the undergraduate level.
Step Two: Gain Practical Work Experience (Optional, Timeline Varies)
After earning their bachelor’s degree, many aspiring biotechnologists elect to gain some practical work experience before determining the course of their career. Entry-level jobs, internships, and fellowships not only allow one to put their newly learned skills into practice but also build a professional network and sift out which niche of biotechnology to focus in. Work experience is often the best education on the market, and some employers may even subsidize further graduate-level education.
Step Three: Earn a Master’s Degree in Biotechnology (One to Three Years)
After earning their bachelor’s degree and gaining some practical work experience, many biotechnologists elect to earn a master’s degree. While it’s not a requirement for all types of work that a biotechnologist may pursue, over half of biotechnology job postings in 2014 required a graduate-level degree.
A master’s degree can boost one’s resume and professional network, as well as cement one’s expertise in a particular niche of biotechnology. Applications requirements for master’s programs vary from school to school, but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater), letters of recommendation, work experience, GRE scores, and a personal statement.
Northeastern University offers an MS in biotechnology that can be completed entirely online. In addition to a biotechnology core, the curriculum allows students to choose from several different concentrations: molecular biotechnology; process development; biopharmaceutical analytical sciences; pharmaceutical technologies; scientific information management; regulatory sciences; or biotechnology enterprise. The program can be completed in two to three years and costs approximately $51,100.
Johns Hopkins University has an MS in biotechnology program that can be completed either online or at one of two Maryland campuses. Students may either choose a generalist track or specialize in one of six concentrations: biodefense; bioinformatics; biotechnology enterprise; regenerative and stem cell technologies; regulatory affairs; or drug discovery. The ten-course curriculum is thesis-optional and also includes the opportunity to apply for a fellowship with the National Cancer Institute. The program can be completed in one to two years and costs approximately $44,950.
Step Four: Earn a PhD in Biotechnology (Optional, Four to Seven Years)
While it’s not a requirement to practice, some biotechnologists do choose to earn a doctoral degree—especially if their interests lie in academia, leadership, and/or research. Doctoral programs in biotechnology are often highly individualized and include several years of advanced study, teaching requirements, and a culminating thesis.
Admissions requirements vary from program to program but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive GPA in previous study (3.0 or greater), letters of recommendation, work experience, a personal statement, GRE scores, and in-person interviews. Do note that in many cases a master’s degree is not needed for acceptance into a PhD program and in some cases, the two degrees can be combined.
Tufts University offers a PhD in biotechnology at its Massachusetts campus. Offered through the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, the program is heavily focused on research, with coursework in areas such as biochemistry and cellular metabolism; biochemical engineering; molecular biology; protein purification; and the principles of cell and microbe cultivation. PhD students must also complete one to three teaching assistant assignments, participate in the departmental seminar series, pass both an oral and written qualifying exam, and defend a final thesis.
Step Five: Join a Professional Society (Optional, Timeline Varies)
After a biotechnologist has completed their journey through academia and gained practical experience, the final step is to join a professional society. Professional societies in biotechnology can congregate around a particular niche of the industry (e.g., agriculture, biopharmaceuticals) or they can act as interdisciplinary points of connection and collaboration. Many professional societies host conferences, push for points of advocacy, foster professional networks, provide opportunities for continuing education, and publicize developments in the industry at large. While joining a professional society isn’t a requirement for biotechnologists, it’s an important step in helping the industry progress as a whole.
Helpful Resources for Biotechnologists
Biotechnology is a constantly evolving and perennially relevant field. If you want to listen in on high-level biotechnology conversations and learn how it applies to the world today, check out some of the resources below.