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 makeup to reduce disease, harnessing biomass to cleanly fuel the world, and transforming agricultural processes in productive and sustainable ways.
Those wanting to bring old-world concepts into cutting edge research and development can look forward to thriving career opportunities in biotechnology. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the top two employers for biological technicians, a similar career to biotechnologists, are growing at a rate of 7 percent which is faster than the national average (BLS 2019).
Comparing the two positions, biological technicians typically have a bachelor’s degree and fewer years of experience compared to biotechnologists who often have advanced degrees and more work experience. Aspiring biotechnologists are recommended to seek out biological technicians opportunities and choose to further their education and earn leadership positions as biotechnologists as their careers progress.
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 search for biotechnology jobs will reveal a wide range of roles from laboratory scientists and research associates to quality assurance professionals and manufacturing specialists.
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 Global Campus offers a hybrid bachelor of science (BS) in biotechnology. 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 UMGC 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 degrees, 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 Certificate or Master’s Degree In Biotechnology (One to Three Years)
After earning their bachelor’s degrees 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, many biotechnology job postings require 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 the field. 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.
The University of California, Santa Cruz – Silicon Valley Extension provides a biotechnology certificate program. Professionals from a variety of disciplines who want to pivot into a career in biotechnology are ideal candidates for this course of study.
Students in this program learn molecular diagnostics and their applications in healthcare, novel therapeutics, mass spectrometry in drug discovery, abnormalities in gene expression pathways, and roles and responsibilities of quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC). All students begin with the core course titled “Principles of Drug Discovery and Development.” Full-time students can complete this program in nine to 12 months and the cost is $6,200.
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 has a PhD program 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. Check out the list of professional resources at the end of this article.
Professional Certification for Biotechnologists
Having professional certification serves several purposes. For starters, it shows employers that a job seeker is professionally committed to high-quality work and continuing education. Since biotechnologist positions require laboratory work, having a standardized professional lab certification is an official way to show that one has the necessary skills for a job.
In some states, biotechnologist certification may be required to work, so it’s important for job-seeking biotechnologists to research this prior to applying. Lastly, certification can provide continuing education or serve as a credential for leadership positions.
Since biotechnology workplaces range from manufacturing to agriculture, certifications vary widely. Here are some certification programs for biotechnologists.
American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification (BOC): This organization is the oldest and largest certification body for laboratory professionals with over 525,000 people certified. Offering a wide range of certifications, many biotechnology professionals find the medical laboratory science (MLS) certification an ideal place to begin. There are multiple routes to eligibility and once an MLS has been earned, biotechnologists can prove their specialization knowledge through earning additional certificates in molecular and microbiology.
Center for Professional Innovation and Education (CfPIE): CfPIE is a provider of technical training for pharmaceutical biotech, medical device, and skin & cosmetics professionals. Offering more than 350 classes a year, CfPIE has 80 course titles to choose from. Aspiring professionals in these industries can take classes in-person or online and earn certifications such as Biopharmaceutical Development Certified Professional, Certified Device Compliance Professional, and Skin/Cosmetic Certified Professional.
Helpful Resources For Biotechnologists
Biotechnology is a constantly evolving and 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.
- Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO)
- International Council of Biotechnology Associations (ICBA)
- International Society for Biosafety Research (ISBR)
- Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology (SIMB)
- Journal of Biotechnology