Biotechnologists use biological organisms to develop or make innovative products designed to improve health, food and the world around us
As a biotechnologist you'll study the genetic, chemical and physical attributes of cells, tissues and organisms in order to develop new technologies, processes and products that will improve the quality of human life.
The role involves manipulating living organisms or their components to design or enhance vaccines, medicines, energy efficiency or food productivity and safety.
In recent years, 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. Others use 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 a variety of scientific disciplines to improve processes for a range of different industries including pharmaceuticals, healthcare, 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 an 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.
The amount of responsibility you'll have will depend on your level of seniority within your specific discipline and the type of company you work for.
However, you'll typically need to:
- create, conduct and monitor experiments using live organisms or biomolecular processes in a laboratory setting to solve problems, improve processes and develop new products
- use scientific knowledge to follow different methodologies to achieve results
- perform data analysis on your experiments and interpret findings to support scientific investigations
- record and disseminate results accurately in reports and via presentations
- set up, maintain and operate standard laboratory equipment and computers
- work independently and collaboratively with other scientists
- work to health, safety and environmental regulations and meet quality standards
- keep up to date with new advances in biotechnology to develop new techniques, products or practices.
- The starting salary for graduates generally falls between £18,000 and £24,000.
- The salary range for experienced (over five years' experience) biotechnologists can be between £25,000 and £50,000.
- Salaries in highly experienced roles (ten or more years) with additional responsibilities can rise to £60,000.
Your salary will vary depending on your area of focus and the industry you're working in. Salaries tend to be higher in large companies within the private commercial sector, particularly at senior level.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Biotechnologist positions tend to be on a permanent contract, particularly outside academia. A standard working week can range between 35 to 40 hours. However, it's common to work shifts, nights and weekends when conducting experiments that need continuous monitoring.
What to expect
- Work is often carried out in modern laboratories at hospitals, industrial lab units, factories or universities. You'll typically be working in sterile conditions and will need to wear protective clothing, such as a lab coat and safety glasses.
- You'll usually conduct experiments individually but will sometimes work collaboratively to achieve a common goal. Sharing information with your supervisor and colleagues is typical, and you may also need to attend conference calls or international conferences and produce research papers.
- Expect to use a range of standard and highly-specialised laboratory equipment and computerised machines to produce results, at times to a short deadline.
- Biotechnologist opportunities are available across the UK but mainly in the biotech golden triangle of London, Oxford, and Cambridge, as well as in Scotland. Opportunities are also available overseas, particularly in the USA.
- You may need to travel to enhance your knowledge and understanding of a specific technique or procedure.
You'll typically need an organic science degree, usually a 2:1 or above, to get into biotechnology. The following subjects are particularly useful:
- biological sciences
- biology (crop and plant science, environmental)
- biomedical engineering
- biomedical science
- chemistry or chemical engineering
- molecular biology
Some employers will also ask for a postgraduate qualification (MSc or MRes). Having a postgraduate qualification, such as a Masters or PhD, is particularly important if you want to follow a career in research or academia.
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'll usually receive specific training on the job, but will need to have laboratory skills and some experience of working in a lab.
Some large pharmaceutical and medical companies offer structured graduate training programmes, and some employers may support you to complete a postgraduate qualification. Competition is fierce for a place on a training scheme.
Although advanced apprenticeships (where A-levels or equivalent are required) are advertised as a possible career route, biotechnologist positions of this nature are rare.
You'll 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.
Try to secure work experience in a laboratory setting as this will significantly improve your chances of finding full-time employment. Although large companies tend to advertise formal opportunities, you'll need to make targeted speculative applications to small and medium-sized companies or research units to find out about opportunities. You can also get some experience through work shadowing or insight days and internships.
An industrial placement year can be particularly useful and will help you develop your lab skills as well as a network of contacts.
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.
Experience that develops your commercial awareness is also looked on favourably as many employers are keen to employ biotechnologists with an understanding of business.
Large private biotech companies tend to advertise positions with a focus on medical, pharmaceutical and biochemical disciplines, while small and medium-sized enterprises often advertise positions using a different job title.
Jobs are available with:
- biotechnology and genetic engineering firms
- food and drink manufacturers
- environmental and conservation (sewage and waste treatment, fuel, pollutant degradation) companies
- government and charity research institutes
- horticulture and agriculture organisations (food and drink science)
- NHS and private hospitals
- pharmaceutical and chemical companies
- private clinical research companies (genetics, disease detection, therapy, etc.)
Look for job vacancies at:
You'll usually have a company induction, which includes health and safety training and, in some cases, control of substances hazardous to health (COSHH) regulations training.
You're also likely to 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.
If you're on a permanent contract, you'll have an annual personal development plan, which is discussed with and agreed by your line manager. As part of this plan, you'll be encouraged to attend conferences and workshops to enhance your technical skills and understanding.
The following organisations provide further information on training and continuing professional development in various areas of biotechnology:
- Agricultural Biotechnology Council
- Biochemical Society
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
- Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS)
- Institute of Science & Technology (IST)
- Royal Society of Biology (RSB)
It's possible with experience to progress to a senior scientist position or into a supervisory or consultancy position. Opportunities for career progression vary depending on the type and size of company you work for, your area of specialism and your qualifications and skills. You may need to move company in order to move up the career ladder.
Taking additional professional or academic qualifications can increase your career prospects, particularly in academia. If you're following a career in academia, it's important to get your research published in journals related to your area of expertise. Securing funding for research projects will also help your career prospects.
There may be opportunities to move into another area of an organisation, for example in business development, production, information and data technology, or a into a regulatory role. Alternatively, some biotechnologists move into related careers such as scientific writing and journalism, or into quality assurance management, sales and marketing.