If you have an inquisitive mind with an interest in using live organisms to help solve society's problems, then a career as a biotechnologist could be for you

Biotechnologists use biological organisms to develop or make products designed to improve health, food and the world around us.

They study the genetic, chemical and physical attributes of cells, tissues and organisms and identify practical uses for this knowledge to aid medical, pharmaceutical, agricultural, or environmental advancement to essentially improve the quality of human life.

The work involves manipulating living organisms or their components to design or enhance vaccines, medicines, energy efficiency or food productivity.

In the last decade, the growth of UK biotechnology has been phenomenal. You can find work at biotechnology and other commercial companies, research or higher education institutions, government laboratories and hospitals.

Large biotechnology companies tend to use the term biotechnologist as a job title. Other organisations use other titles, such as laboratory technician, research assistant, genomic technologist, flow technologist or bioprocessing engineer. If the position involves using live organisms and biomolecular processes within a biotechnological discipline, it's likely to be a biotechnologist role.

Types of biotechnologist

Biotechnologists use many different scientific disciplines to improve processes for a range of different industries including pharmaceuticals, health care, biofuels, agriculture, conservation, animal husbandry and food production.

Types of biotechnology include:

  • environmental - detecting and controlling pollution and contamination in the environment, industrial waste, and agricultural chemicals, creating renewable energy and designing biodegradable materials to reduce humanity's ecological footprint
  • medical and health - using live organisms or biomolecular processes to develop and improve treatments, identify inherited diseases, cure certain disorders, and even lead to organ regeneration
  • industrial - using cloning and enzyme production to preserve and enhance the taste in food and drink, and developing enzymes to remove stains from clothing at lower washing temperatures
  • agricultural biotechnology - improving animal feed and genetically modifying crops to increase pest resistance and productivity
  • biofuels - using organic compounds to reduce the cost of bio-refining reagents and put biofuels on equal footing with fossil fuels, and creating chemicals from renewable biomass to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • marine and aquatic biotechnology - increasing the yields of farmed fish and designing disease-resistant strains of oysters and vaccines against certain viruses that can infect fish.

You would usually specialise in one area of biotechnology, such as:

  • biochemistry - microbiology, forensics, plant science and medicine
  • cancer studies - detection and treatment
  • genetics - detecting heredity, genetic variation and DNA repair
  • molecular biology - DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis function
  • microbial sciences - antibiotic resistant bacteria and improving fermentation
  • pharmacology - drug action on biological systems
  • stem cell research - modification and regenerative medicine
  • virology - viruses and viral diseases.

Responsibilities

The level of responsibility will depend on the level of seniority within your specific discipline and the type of company you work for. However, it's likely that you'll be responsible for:

  • creating and conducting experiments using live organisms or biomolecular processes in a laboratory setting to solve a problem
  • using scientific knowledge to follow different methodologies to achieve results
  • using computers and constructing, maintaining, and operating standard laboratory equipment
  • recording and analysing precise data to support scientific investigations
  • working independently and collaboratively with other scientists
  • keeping up to date with new advances in biotechnology to develop new techniques, products, or practices.

Salary

Your salary will vary depending on your area of focus and the industry you are working in; salaries tend to be higher in the large private commercial sector, particularly at senior level.

  • The average starting salary for graduates generally falls between £16,000 and £24,000.
  • The salary range for experienced (over five years' experience) biotechnologists can be between £25,000 to £50,000.
  • The salary range for a highly experienced role (ten or more years) with additional responsibilities can rise as high as £60,000.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Biotechnologist positions tend to be on a permanent contract particularly outside academia. A standard working week can range between 35 to 40 hours, however working shifts, nights and weekends are common when continuous monitoring of experiments is needed.

You'll mainly be laboratory-based, often in sterile conditions and should expect to wear protective clothing, such as a lab coat and safety glasses.

What to expect

  • Work is often carried out in modern laboratories at a hospital, industrial lab unit, factory or university.
  • You'll usually be conducting experiments individually but at times work collaboratively to achieve a common goal. Sharing information with your supervisor and colleagues will be typical but attending conference calls, international conferences or producing research papers may also be required.
  • Expect to use a range of standard and highly-specialised laboratory equipment and computerised machines to produce results, at times to a short deadline.
  • You will often have to wear protective clothing to reduce contamination and meet health and safety standards.
  • You may need to travel to enhance your knowledge and understanding of a specific technique or procedure.
  • Biotechnologist opportunities are available across the UK but mainly in the biotech golden triangle of London, Oxford, and Cambridge.

Qualifications

You typically need an organic science degree, usually a 2:1 or above, to go into biotechnology. The following subjects are useful:

  • biochemistry
  • biomedical
  • biology (crop and plant science, environmental)
  • biotechnology
  • biomedical engineering
  • chemistry or chemical engineering
  • microbiology
  • pharmacology.

It's possible to do an integrated masters' degree, which will typically last for four years in England and Wales (five in Scotland). These are designed to lead to further postgraduate study (e.g. a PhD), and are particularly suited to those looking for a career in research or innovation.

Employers may expect you to have some knowledge of the specific area of biotechnology you want to go into, like the food and drink industry. You would usually receive specific training on the job, but will need to have laboratory skills and a natural flair for lab work to enter the field.

Some large pharmaceutical and medical companies offer structured graduate training programmes, and some employers may support you as you earn a postgraduate qualification. However, competition is fierce and the application process can be extensive.

Employers advertising junior positions will ideally require a 2.1 relevant degree with previous lab experience and some require a postgraduate qualification (MSc or MRes). Although advanced apprenticeships (where A levels or equivalent are required) are advertised as a possible career route, biotechnologist positions are rare.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • an aptitude for bioscience with the ability to solve social problems
  • an enquiring mind and the ability to work with abstract concepts
  • patience, and the ability to work methodically and meticulously when following scientific techniques and company procedures
  • good hand-eye coordination and the ability to use technical equipment with accuracy
  • excellent communication skills, both written and verbal
  • the ability to analyse and interpret statistical and technical data
  • the initiative to work well as both part of a team and independently
  • good computer skills to record data and write scientific reports.

Work experience

You should try to secure work experience in a laboratory setting as this will significantly improve your chances of finding full-time employment. While you'll find work experience at a small and medium size company or research unit by making speculative applications, larger companies tend to advertise formal opportunities. You can also get some experience through shadow days or insight days, internships, and a placement year.

While any lab experience will be a great help to your career prospects, try to gain experience relevant to your field of interest to enhance your application.

Employers

Large private biotech companies tend to advertise the positions with a focus on medical, pharmaceutical, and biochemical disciplines, while small medium size enterprises will advertise positions using a different job title.

You can find positions at:

  • biotechnology firms
  • environmental and conservation (sewage and waste treatment, fuel, pollutant degradation)
  • government and charity research institutes
  • horticulture and agriculture (food and drink science)
  • NHS Trusts and boards
  • pharmaceutical and chemical companies
  • private clinical research companies (genetics, disease detection, therapy etc.)
  • universities.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies are also widely used within the scientific community. These include:

Professional development

Expect to undergo health and safety training, a company induction, and in some cases, take part in control of substances hazardous to health regulations (COSHH) training. You'll likely receive specific training to develop essential biotechnological techniques, and these skills can be tested to ensure you meet company standards.

You may join a structured graduate training programme which can take one to three years to complete. Some employers might financially support part-time study for postgraduate qualifications.

Employees on a permanent contract will take part in devising a personal development plan each year which is discussed and agreed with by your line manager. You'll also usually be encouraged to attend conferences and workshops to enhance technical skills and understanding.

The following organisations may be able to provide further information:

Career prospects

Depending on the type and size of company and the qualification and skills you possess, you could progress to a senior scientist position or progress onto a supervisory or consultancy position within five to ten years. Obtaining additional professional or academic qualifications can increase the possibility of career progression, particularly in academia. There may also be opportunities to move into another area of an organisation in business development, production, or a regulatory role. Some biotechnologists move into scientific writing and journalism, or into quality assurance management, sales and marketing.