OWN Academy's Guide to Getting Started in Biotechnology

How to Start a Career in Biotechnology

If you want to pursue a biotechnology career, there are different career paths you can take in the biotech industry. A typical biotechnology job requires a bachelor’s degree, but you can lay the foundation even before you study biotechnology in college.

First things first: What is biotechnology?

In simple terms, biotechnology is the use of biological processes of living organisms to develop products that improve our quality of life. This interdisciplinary field has a wide range of applications, which are sometimes categorized by color

  • Medical biotechnology (red biotech) focuses on producing medicines, vaccines, antibiotics, therapeutic protein, stem cells, and more. 
  • Industrial biotechnology (white biotech) creates products that need less resources like energy. Some examples are enzymes, fermentation products, and biochemicals. 
  • Agricultural and environmental biotechnology (green biotech) improves processes to produce stronger crops and minimize risk. Think drought-tolerant crops, beta carotene-enhanced Golden Rice, and the like. 
  • Marine biotechnology (blue biotech) creates products and processes from marine organisms to enhance human health like medicines and supplements. It also addresses aquaculture problems like reproduction, nutrition, and health management. 

These are the four main subfields but there are more colors in the biotech rainbow: insect or yellow biotechnology, desert or brown biotechnology, bioinformatics or gold biotechnology, gray biotechnology which focuses on the elimination of pollutants and preservation of biodiversity, and more. 

OWN Academy's Guide to Getting Started in Biotechnology

What are the jobs in the field of biotechnology?

Just as there’s a rainbow of subfields in the biotechnology industry, there are different kinds of jobs you can look into: 

  • Biochemist and biophysicist: Applies lab research to solve specific problems like addressing nutrition deficiency with vitamin-enhanced rice 
  • Animal scientist: Improves farm animal reproduction and quality of life 
  • Food scientist and technologist: Uses food science and nutrition expertise to improve food preservation and processing 
  • Biomedical engineer: Creates tools to improve patients’ quality of life like artificial limbs that respond to brain signals 
  • Epidemiologist: Researches how disease spreads to stop it and to prevent it through vaccines 
  • Bioinformatician: Creates databases, develops algorithms, and analyzes large data sets using information technology  
  • Clinical technician: Uses highly technical lab instruments to collect and analyze samples from different substances 

There are more jobs you can explore in the field of biotechnology with different levels of salary and job growth. Depending on your specialty, you may work in the pharmaceutical, agricultural, environmental, engineering, or government sector, among others. 

So how do you start? 

You can take steps to get into the biotechnology field even before you apply for college. If your high school offers biotechnology courses, sign up for it; otherwise, choose related electives in science and math. 

At OWN Academy, we partner with Industry Coaches to give high school students a well-rounded view of what it’s like to actually work in biotech and other industries. 

One of our Industry Coaches is biotechnologist Hwei Huih Lee, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong working on infectious diseases. She’s skilled in bioinformatics, molecular cloning, molecular genetics, cell culture, and genomics. 

Dr. Lee has spoken about her experiences in biotech with students from different schools, sharing her passion about her work in the industry. “Even though we don’t treat humans, we develop technologies and produce vaccines and medicines for diseases. We are actually the background people of all doctors.”

Unlike popular belief, Dr. Lee shared that biotechnologists spend a fair amount of time outside a medical laboratory. She does a lot of fieldwork, collecting samples in forests and seas, observing animal behavior, and studying plants.

What are the academic requirements to become a biotechnologist? 

Most entry-level jobs require a degree program in biotechnology or related fields like biology, chemistry, and biomedical engineering. In college, you’ll also need to apply for training or internship at research institutes and biotechnology companies.

Speaking about her time in college, Dr. Lee recalled taking accounting, business, communication, statistics, and programming classes. It seemed irrelevant to her major at the time, but she realized that being a biotechnologist is not just about being good at research. It involves being good in statistics, business development, process development, communication, and more.

To move up the ranks in the workforce eventually, you’ll need to have a master’s degree in biotechnology or its related fields. This master’s degree typically requires a related bachelor’s degree. 

You can also take certificate programs to boost your knowledge in other aspects of biotechnology. If you want to go into research and academia, you’ll need to pursue a doctorate degree. 

Take Dr. Lee’s journey for instance. After getting a biotechnology degree, she pursued a master’s in molecular genetics, a certificate in infectious diseases, a certificate of teaching and learning in higher education, and a doctorate degree in microbiology and bioinformatics. 

It may seem overwhelming, but keep in mind that this is over a decade of learning with real-world experiences outside school. Each biotechnologist’s journey is different so take your time to find the specific aspects that you feel passionate about and follow that road. 

If you decide to change specialties down the line, you’ll have the flexibility to do so. As Dr. Lee said, biotechnologists know a little bit of everything, so you can rely on your foundational knowledge and fill in the gaps with further learning. 

What’s the secret sauce to moving forward in this industry?

Becoming a biotechnologist requires a lot of formal schooling, but it’s just as important to improve your soft skills. 

Biotechnology is about solving problems, so nurture your curiosity and see where it takes you. Ask questions, explore different perspectives, and train your brain to think outside the box. 

No matter the biotech career you aspire to have, you’ll most likely work with a team so it’s important to learn how to work well with different people. This will also prepare you for the future when it’s your turn to lead a team. 

Trial and error is a big part of this innovative field. You’ll need to learn how to deal with setbacks, push forward, and motivate your teammates to keep going too. 

These are some of the soft skills you develop more outside the four walls of a classroom. Explore as much real-world experiences as possible, such as internships and mentorships, and know that it’s never too early to make an impact in your chosen career. 

Want to learn more about biotechnology and other modern industries? 

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