What Does it Mean to Study 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 are designed to guide students along the path to doctorates and post-doctoral work.
Types of Biotechnology Degrees
The array of science degree 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. Generally, a certificate program carries few prerequisites and approaches a specific topic of biotechnology in a short time period. Most programs consist of about 15 to 25 credit hours and may be taken in two to four full-time semesters. Courses may range from basic concepts of biotechnology to studies in manufacturing practices, the molecular basis of carcinogenesis, food biotechnology, biological computation, drug design, and targeting.
Associate Degree Programs in Biotechnology
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 usually takes four full semesters, or two years, to complete. Graduates of associate degree programs in biotechnology often find themselves pursuing positions as 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 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.
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?
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. 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.
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.
A scientist with a background in biotechnology might enjoy working for an engineering consulting firm. The goal of a consultant is to identify possible problems or issues for other companies and businesses, then to help troubleshoot them. These professionals may advise in matters of product development, process implementation, forensic analysis, manufacturing, and management recruitment and training.
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 may 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 usually expected that candidates 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.
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.
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.
If remaining in academia seems attractive, consider a staff or faculty position at the university level. Requirements for these jobs vary, depending on the level of the professorship. Generally, most positions require an MD or PhD with extensive postgraduate experience. Positions may be available as a lecturer, an assistant professor, an associate professor or 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.
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.
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 often oversees or coordinates 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.
Associations and Organizations
Many industry organizations can serve as great resources for biotech students and workers. 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 -- 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 listings, area information