Guide to College Majors in Biotechnology

The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.
--Arthur C. Clarke

What Is Biotechnology?

Biotechnology is the use of technology and biology to solve some of today's most urgent cultural and scientific issues. Biotechnologists help astronauts deal with effects of weightlessness, research medicines and pharmaceuticals, and create fabrics for the runways of New York and Milan. Biotechnology has transformed forensic science, as portrayed in TV shows like "CSI."

Biotechnology is found virtually everywhere: in breakfast cereal, coffee filters, aspirin, climbing ropes, camping gear, and vitamins. Not to mention other biotech products, such as canola oil, disease-resistant yeast, hard cheeses, and most soybean products. 70 percent of all processed food items readily available in the supermarket owe their existence to biotechnology.

A degree in biotechnology paves the way to a career in one of the many businesses and research facilities that make up the biotech industry. The array of programs offered is vast. Some focus on producing skilled researchers, managers, and laboratory technicians; others prepare the student for doctorates and post-doctoral work.

Trends for Biotech Careers

Managers who understand marketing and financial planning, as well as the day-to-day realities of the laboratory, are essential for the successful growth of the biotech industry. Recently, much has been written about the "management vacuum" now faced by the biotech industry. Industrialized countries around the world have reported a serious lack of leadership skills that holds back the growth of biotech business there as well.

Studies show that an unprecedented number of PhDs -- approximately 95% of life science doctorates -- are moving from the purely academic realm into the workforce. Although being a successful researcher is an important part of the job, this alone does not guarantee success in the ever-growing biotech industry. The need for skilled workers who are able to bridge the gap between science and business is overwhelming.

As Nature Jobs writer Virginia Gerwin puts it, "You may be an expert on recombinant DNA, but the business world is about making a return on an investment."

Leaders in the biotech business are lamenting the lack of such talents as basic leadership and communications skills, competitive budgeting, and viable analysis. In short, most biotech scientists are simply out of the loop when it comes to the question of what customers want -- or will pay for. There is a tendency not to look to the scientists whose discoveries make the company's success possible. When a scientist wants to move to a position of management within his or her own company, the "let them stay in the lab" mentality rears its head. Often, this arises from fear of losing a good scientist. Yet, who better than a scientist - who understands the products from the ground up -- with a little business acumen to help fill the gaps in the biotech leadership sector?

Understanding business is valuable even for a scientist who has no desire to enter the world of entrepreneurship. In one way or another, at some point in a biotechnology career, scientists will face or be affected by business decisions. One way to gain experience in this area is through business courses, many offered jointly by various universities and companies. For more business-minded scientists, a biotechnology MBA offers a comprehensive grounding in the two fields.

Career Education in Biotechnology

The array of programs available to those looking for a career in biotechnology may seem overwhelming at first glance. Generally, there are six types of programs: certificate, associate, bachelor's, master's, PhD, and dual degree programs. Many institutions focus on the multidisciplinary nature of the subject, with schools bringing in expertise from other areas to supplement a traditional study of biology. In addition, many universities apply cutting-edge technology to biological procedures in newly creative ways.

Certificate Programs in Biotechnology

A student who is looking to expand her knowledge of biotechnology without specializing in it may consider a certificate program. Most are offered with an eye towards immediate employment after graduation, or for enhancing an existing degree. Those with majors in another field may choose a certificate program to increase their own marketability.

Generally, a certificate program carries few prerequisites and offers a broad introduction into biotechnology. Most programs consist of about 15 to 25 credit hours and may be taken in two to four full-time semesters. The shorter programs are generally geared towards those students using it as a bridge to a Master of Science.

Courses range from basic concepts of biotechnology to studies in current manufacturing practices, the molecular basis of carcinogenesis, food biotechnology, biological computation, drug design, and targeting. A biotechnology certificate or diploma paves the way to a job as a laboratory or research technician.

Associate Degree Programs in Biotechnology

In many ways, an associate degree is similar to a certificate program. It typically lasts two years and prepares students either for bachelor's degrees or for entry-level lab assistant positions. However, an associate degree in biotechnology is more in-depth than a certificate alone. The objective of most associate degree programs is to see their graduates employed in the laboratory sector of the biotechnology industry. To this end, research training and technical skills are the focus of a strong associate program.

An associate degree usually consists of 60 or more credit hours, some of which may also count towards other majors and/or concentrations. An industry internship is generally required. The entire program takes four full semesters, or two years, to complete. Graduates of associate degree programs in biotechnology are well qualified to become lab technicians or assistants.

Bachelor's Degree Programs in Biotechnology

Because biotechnology has become so specialized in recent years, it is rare to find a college or university that offers a bachelor's degree in biotechnology. The expectation in the academic field is that students will pursue an initial degree in an applicable field, such as chemistry or biology, and then go on to a master's program in biotech. However, the bachelor's programs that do exist stress a particular aspect of biotechnology. Many programs offer employment assistance for new graduates.

Online Degrees in Biotechnology

Technological advances don't just benefit biotechnologists after graduation -- they're making it possible for students to earn biotechnology degrees online (typically at the master's level). These online programs sometimes include brief residencies or locally arranged lab work, so that students get the hands-on training they need. Online programs are increasingly popular among working professionals who want to earn their degrees without disrupting their personal and professional obligations. Biotech professionals already active in the field may choose online degree programs that allow them to apply their knowledge to their work, benefiting their studies and their employers simultaneously.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Biotechnology?

  • Bioinformatician. The primary responsibility of a bioinformatics specialist is to design, develop, and use tools for gaining information about biotech procedures. In addition, bioinformaticians must implement these tools and analyze the data obtained from them. Many major companies, especially in the food processing and pharmaceutical arenas, are currently hiring many bioinformatics professionals. This career requires a PhD in biotechnology with a focus on bioinformatics, informatics, computational biology, molecular biology, and/or genomics. In certain cases, the PhD requirement for these jobs may be waived if the candidate can demonstrate comparable experience in the field. Fluency in several programming languages is a must. The bioinformatician is not the owner of the information that he extracts; this belongs to the company.
  • Biotechnical Scientist. Requiring a PhD and at least two years of work and/or research experience, the biotechnical scientist works as part of a group of scientists on a given project. This position often entails knowledge of several programming languages. As a biotech scientist, good interpersonal skills are important, as much of the work is collaborative.
  • Consultant. A scientist with a background in biotechnology might enjoy working for an engineering consulting firm. These companies provide advice and support in product development, process implementation, forensic analysis, manufacturing, and management recruitment and training. The goal of a consultant is to identify possible problems or issues and help trouble-shoot them, ensuring optimal client returns on investment.
  • Director. An experienced senior scientist may eventually move to managerial status, becoming the head or director of a research facility. In this capacity, the scientist works to recruit and coordinate group leaders. In addition, the director of such a facility will be responsible for the management - and at times, promotion - of the services and programs offered by the institute. A director is, above all, a coordinator of all that goes on, from daily activity to long-range planning. The director also acts as partner and liaison to the company CEO. This job requires above-average communication skills and a proven track record as a team leader. In addition, it is expected that candidates would have an MD or PhD, several years' experience as the head of the research laboratory (or comparable experience), and extensive international publication credits to his or her name.
  • Industry Researcher. Researchers for a biotech company generally enjoy a great deal of freedom and flexibility. A biotech researcher helps define the range and scope of new areas of research. Such a position generally requires a PhD plus a few years of postdoctorate experience in either industry or research. In addition to a doctorate degree, companies often look for candidates with strong publication skills. Companies in the industry are always on the lookout for talented researchers whose work demonstrates economic viability and the possibility of high returns. A researcher is frequently hired because her previous work dovetails with an area of interest for the company. Networking and communicating with other scientists around the world who are engaged in the same type of work is essential to your success as a researcher.
  • Investigator. An investigator's job is essentially to determine whether a biotech company is operating in compliance with existing laws and regulations. Identifying defective products, system failures, or deficient manufacturing are all part of the investigator's job description. Careers in this area require the ability to multitask, excellent communication skills, and attention to detail. In addition, most positions as an investigator require an MD and/or a PhD.
  • Professor. Not ready to give up the ivory tower? If remaining in academia seems attractive, consider a staff or faculty position at the university level. Many schools are looking for scientists willing to share their knowledge and expertise with others. Requirements for these jobs vary, depending on the level of the professorship. Generally, most positions require an MD or PhD with extensive postgraduate experience. These schools are also interested in candidates with a track record of high-quality academic writing and publication. Positions are available as a lecturer, an assistant professor, an associate professor, and, finally, as a full-time tenured professor. Professors are responsible for developing research programs in their own departments, as well as teaching, lecturing, mentoring, and overseeing student work.
  • Project Leader. A project leader (or a group leader) oversees the collection, analysis, and integration of data from different sources. He directs collaboration between group scientists as well as two-way work with partner organizations. This job entails a higher degree of accountability and responsibility than working as a researcher or scientist. Generally, a project leader is expected to have a PhD as well as two to five years of postdoctorate work experience.
  • Research Associate. The research associate position in a university biotechnology program teams up new postdoctorate students with leaders in their field. These positions often help the associate gain valuable contacts and knowledge, as well as increasing marketability. These are not generally high-paying positions, but rather a stepping stone to career development.
  • Senior Scientist. Employers expect senior scientists to bring excellent interpersonal skills to their jobs. Strong communication skills and a talent for presentation are equally important for success in this role. The senior scientist will often oversee or coordinate the work of others, as well as acting as a liaison between the scientific arm of a company and its management. Candidates for these jobs are expected to have obtained a Master's and/or a PhD, depending on the company and the requirements of the job. In addition, some industry experience with a biotech company is preferred.

Did You Know?
These are exciting times for careers in biotechnology. Not only are there amazing discoveries, inventive products on the market, and new applications happening nearly every day, but the role of biotechnology in our society is being recognized to an unprecedented degree. Biotechnology has been targeted for development by 40 state governments, who have implemented a number of incentive programs. Their goal is to create a nurturing climate for the biosciences in general, and biotechnology in particular.

Because the industry as a whole is moving towards a more open, collaborative approach, scientists around the world are finding ways to link up and share information. In addition, many industry organizations serve as great resources for those just entering the field. Because these organizations have a vested interest in linking with promising individuals and potential workers, networking is the name of their game. Some of these organizations include:

  • Biocom - San Diego-based website for biotech employees
  • BioInsights - Education and additional trainings for bioscience professionals
  • Bio-Link - National Advanced Technology Education (ATE) Center for Biotechnology, working to expand educational programs in biotechnology
  • European Initiative for Biotechnology Education - get biotech news, data, and reports from the other side of the Atlantic
  • PharmWeb - information and networking on for the pharmaceutical industry
  • MassBioEd - Website for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council; news and job listing, area information

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