How to Get a PhD in Biotechnology

Biotechnology is producing some of the most awe-inspiring, controversial, and useful advances in scientific research. Simply put, biotechnology is the modification of living organisms and cells for commercial, research, and practical applications. Developments in biotechnology include sustainable agriculture and manufacturing, pollution control, and vaccine development.

A PhD in biotechnology prepares you to contribute to the growing body of applied biological research in agriculture, medicine and pharmaceuticals, environmental engineering, and industrial processes. The degree qualifies you to lead technological innovation as an academic researcher or as a scientific R&D director.

WorldWideLearn.com's guide to the PhD in biotechnology sets you up for a successful journey through the doctoral program. Prepare for the highest degree in the field by focusing your academic goals, finding the right online or campus program, and submitting a solid PhD application.

A Guide to the PhD in Biotechnology

The National Science Foundation defines biotechnology as "the controlled use of biological agents, such as microorganisms or cellular components, for beneficial use." Scientists use recombinant DNA techniques, cell fusion, and bioprocessing techniques to alter organisms for specific purposes. Researchers have been successful in increasing crop yields, developing better pharmaceuticals, developing biofuels, improving medical diagnosis through genetic testing, among many other innovations.

History of the Biotechnology Discipline

The biotechnology discipline arose in 1981, when the first biotech patent sparked interest in the commercial applications of biological research. Initial innovation focused on agricultural research. More recently, biotechnology companies have tackled environmental problems and explored the medical applications of genetic biology. The discipline was dogged by controversy over genetically-modified crops and genetic engineering throughout the 1990s. While these biotech specialties still raise concerns, the discipline's focus on green innovations such as biofuel development has restored the discipline's reputation.

To learn more about the field, visit WorldWideLearn.com's Guide to Majors, where you'll find a specific section devoted to biotechnology.

Doctoral Degrees in Biotechnology

Although more and more universities are offering biotechnology PhDs, much biotech research happens in the context of other doctoral degree programs. This diversity in doctoral degrees reflects the interdisciplinary nature of biotechnology, which exists at the intersection of established scientific fields such as genomics, bioengineering, and molecular cell biology. Many PhD degrees in biotechnology are not sponsored by a biotechnology department, but by a coalition of departments spanning science and engineering specialties.

In addition to the PhD in biotechnology, consider interdisciplinary doctoral degree programs in:

  • molecular biology
  • genetics
  • biochemistry
  • plant and animal sciences
  • bioengineering
  • pharmacology

Expanding your search to include these intersecting disciplines allows you more latitude in finding the best program for your circumstances and career goals.

Specializations

A PhD in biotechnology challenges you to develop your own research project within one of the discipline's specialty areas. Research fields may be defined by:

Scientific application:

  • Food Biotechnology
  • Pharmaceutical Biotechnology
  • Industrial Biotechnology
  • Environmental Biotechnology

Biological Process or Technique:

  • Nanotechnology
  • Bioinformatics, or Computational Biology
  • Recombinant DNA biotechnology
  • Genomics
  • Protein Engineering

Since biotechnology is a relatively new academic discipline, you'll find considerable variation among PhD programs. Focusing your research interests can help you identify programs that emphasize your particular biotechnology field.

Career Track

A doctoral degree in biotechnology prepares you to take a leadership role in academic and professional research, as well as education, policymaking, and scientific administration.

  • Academic careers focus on teaching and original research. As a university professor, you'll manage a research lab, pursue research into biotechnology fundamentals, publish scholarly articles, and teach college courses.
  • Professional careers in biotechnology typically lead to senior research and management positions in biotechnology labs. Other professional avenues include biotech entrepreneurship and business development, biotech patent consulting, and policy administration.

Plan for a PhD in Biotechnology

Once you've gained perspective on the biotechnology field and your own ambitions within it, you're ready to begin the application process. For best results, start researching your options well in advance of the application deadlines. The following steps should help you plan your approach to the PhD program.

Step One: Find the Right Graduate Biotechnology Program

Taking the time to research biotechnology PhD programs helps ensure that you'll have the resources and support you need to pursue your research interests.

1. List Accredited PhD Programs

Begin by listing your doctoral program options, including PhD degrees in biotechnology and in fields related to your research interest. Be sure to include only programs accredited by an independent national or regional program evaluation agency. Accreditation guarantees the quality of your education, the value of your degree, and your eligibility for financial aid. You can find a list of approved accreditation agencies at the U.S. Department of Education Web site.

Resources

WorldWideLearn.com represents a selection of accredited programs in biotechnology. Search Degrees by Subject to find an online or campus PhD program in biotechnology, or browse a list of university partners.

U.S. News & World Report publishes an up-to-date A-Z Directory of Engineering Schools. Use this list to find bioengineering programs.

The Sloan Consortium, an association representing online institutions, offers a list of Environmental-Related Programs. The list includes 'biotechnology studies' and related fields.

Peterson's Guide to Graduate Programs in Biological Sciences includes doctoral programs in biotechnology, bioengineering, and related fields such as bioinformatics. Updated annually, the guide includes key information for each school.

2. Choose Campus or Online Format

Next, decide whether program format is a priority. Your decision to study online or on campus depends on your career goals, life circumstances, and the availability of biotech programs in your area.

Online Professional Degrees. Biotechnology research generally argues for a campus program, since access to state-of-the-art facilities is critical. However, some programs are developing online programs to accommodate working professionals. Since many of these students are already working in biotechnology labs, they may already have a means of accessing the necessary equipment. Other programs rely on industry partnerships and internships to afford students access to research facilities. Hybrid programs, which involve a mix of campus and online education, require temporary residencies during which students access campus resources.

Campus Academic Education. While online programs work for professionals heading into industry careers, they are not the best choice for aspiring academics. Academics rely on campus resources to establish their university careers. Teaching and research assistantships, for example, serve as apprenticeships to a university professor job. In addition, academic scholars rely on faculty mentorship and networking to navigate the academic job market.

Resources

Explore program format options at WorldWideLearn.com's Online Degree Programs and Campus Education sections. You can find programs with your preferred delivery format, or search degrees by location for a program near you.

3. Explore Academic Programs

The key element in a successful research doctorate is access to the right resources. Paying close attention to the unique orientation of different biotechnology doctorates can help you determine whether the program aligns with your academic requirements

The following factors can help give you a sense of the program's resources and specialties:

  • Faculty research areas
  • Facilities such as research labs and advanced equipment in your biotech specialty
  • Program specializations
  • Curriculum and course requirements
  • Special programs: research institutes, conferences, and publications
  • Relationships with industry or government agencies

Of these features, pay particular attention to the availability of resident faculty experts who share your academic interests. In addition to providing academic mentorship, prominent faculty in your field ensure that you'll have the funding support, lab facilities, and other resources you need to perform research.

Resources

WorldWideLearn.com streamlines your academic research by matching you with schools that fit your requirements. Simply fill out an online form indicating your program criteria, and the system puts you in touch with school representatives who can answer your questions about the doctorate. By helping you zero in on the appropriate programs right away, the system saves you time and increases your likelihood of finding the right campus or online PhD program in biotechnology.

School Web sites feature most of the information listed above, from PhD degree requirements to links to professor CVs and research publications.

Academic journals offer an effective means of identifying influential researchers and research programs in your biotechnology specialty. Check out both general biotech journals and publications that reflect your particular research interests. Examples include:

  • Trends in Biotechnology
  • Biotechnology
  • Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology
  • Nature Biotechnology
  • Nature Nanotechnology
  • International Journal of Biotechnology & Biochemistry
  • Journal of Biotechnology
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Advances in Biotechnological Processes

The Science Citation Index (SCI) offers an indication of which universities are leading research in your biotech research area. The index is available in academic libraries, and lists all publications attributed to each department in the past year. This resource can also point you to related departments that sponsor interdisciplinary biotechnology scholarship.

4. Evaluate Program Quality

Finally, narrow down your list by taking into account program quality and selectivity. Factors that may come into play in your assessment include:

  • Reputation
  • Selectivity and the strength of your academic background
  • Job placement and career support resources
Resources

Rankings offer an easy way to compare the reputation and selectivity of different PhD programs in engineering. The major rankings include:

School data sheets feature straightforward information on job placement, graduation rate, and academic tenure. You can also find out graduate student demographic data and applicant admission statistics (percentage of applicants admitted, average GPA and test scores)

Campus visits offer another foolproof means of evaluating programs. If possible, pay a visit to your top doctoral program choices. Tour biotechnology labs, meet with resident experts and potential faculty mentors, and talk to graduate students in your field.

Step Two: Apply to PhD Programs in Biotechnology

Once you've identified your PhD program wish-list, it's time to complete your applications. Application requirements are pretty standard across the board, though some differences apply. Expect to encounter the following steps in the application process:

1. Complete Eligibility Requirements

  • Bachelor's or master's degree in biology, biotechnology or a related field. If your degree is in another field, you may need to complete undergraduate prerequisite courses before you can apply for the PhD.
  • Standardized test scores, such as the GRE and the TOEFL (for non-native English speakers).
  • Publications and work experience are generally not required, but can boost your admissions prospects.

WorldWideLearn.com's Education Resources Guide offers information and insight into completing prerequisites, including advice, online college courses, and test preparation resources.

2. Prepare Application Materials

In addition to a student information form, you can expect to submit the following documents to support your application:

  • Three letters of recommendation from faculty or professional supervisors
  • Academic transcripts
  • Test scores
  • Statement of research interests

Other materials may include a writing sample or resume. Prepare your application well advance to give recommenders and academic institutions time to respond to your request.

3. Secure Financial Aid

Finally, apply for financial aid to defray the cost of your biotechnology PhD. Funding options include:

  • Scholarships and fellowships
  • Corporate sponsorships
  • Research grants
  • Tuition waivers
  • University research and teaching assistantships
  • Federal and private loans

 

Step Three: Join the Academic Community

The period between submitting your applications and starting the PhD program can either be a protracted waiting game or a productive academic orientation. Pave the way for your academic success by choosing the latter course. Steps you can take now to immerse yourself in the biotechnology community include:

  1. Joining academic and professional associations such as the Biotechnology Industry Association.
  2. Subscribing to biotechnology journals.
  3. Attending conferences in your research field.

Together, these resources allow you to build relationships with your future peers, meet influential thinkers, and gain a basic literacy in the issues and trends in biotechnology research.

Conclusion

The secret to a successful graduate school experience is careful planning and preparation from the outset. This foundation starts you on solid footing, ensuring that you have the resources you need to perform effectively and take advantage of the opportunities available to you. The road to a leadership position in biotechnology begins with the simple steps outlined in this guide.

 

Sources

  • American Institute of Biological Sciences.
  • Assessment of Research Doctorates, National Research Council.
  • Best Science Schools, U.S. News & World Report.
  • Biotechnology Industry Association.
  • Biotechnology PhD, Emory University.
  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education.
  • Phillips, Theresa. Biotech and biomedical PhD, About.com.
  • Plein, L. Christopher. Popularizing Biotechnology: The Influence of Issue Definition. Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 474-490.
  • Programs in Environmental-Related Fields, The Sloan Consortium.
  • Science Citation Index, Thomson-Reuters.
  • Schwartz, Jill, ed. Graduate Programs in the Biological Sciences 2010. Peterson's Guides.
  • The Top American Research Universities, 2008 Annual Report. The Center for Measuring University Performance.
  • Trends in Biotechnology.