So you are studying in college and have decided to pursue a career in biotechnology. Congratulations! You will have a very satisfying career in a field that is helping to pioneer and accelerate many discoveries in the medical, agricultural and industrial arenas that previously would have been time-consuming, labour-intensive and frankly, very frustrating.
A biotechnologist is trained to manipulate living organisms such as animals, plants, microbes and even single cells for the production and/or processing of goods for human use. Some of these processes include production of vaccines/antibiotics/hormones (medical biotechnology), genetically modified plant products and foods (agricultural biotechnology), food processing, fermentation, biopolymers and bioplastics (industrial biotechnology).
Whenever you think of a career in biotechnology, the first important question to ask is which one of the three broad classes are you interested in: medical, agricultural or industrial biotechnology? That will determine the nature of your education. Take for example, if you are inclined towards a career in medical biotechnology with a specialisation in vaccine production, then a solid background in immunology would be a must, whereas, if agro-biotechnology is what excites you, then extensive training in botany would be a prerequisite. Of course, there are many common specialisations in both the fields like recombinant DNA technologies, cell and molecular biology, biochemistry, etc.; therefore a basic biology education is needed for a firm grounding in the fundamental principles of biotechnology. The second important issue to be addressed is what type of job in your selected field you would want to perform since that would determine how many years you would want to invest in your education. On average, a senior research scientist in a university or biotech company dedicates 4-6 years to obtain a Ph.D. followed by a few years of post-doctoral experience. A research associate/technician would have to invest in a 3-4 year Bachelor’s and maybe a 2-3 year Master’s degree program.
Now that we have seen in brief the basic requirements of a career in biotechnology, the question is how to kick-start it? In other words, how can you go that extra mile so as to stand out from all the other hundreds of candidates who have the same basic education as you do? Based on experiences of other scientists in the field as well as some personal experiences, I have come up with a few key points that might help you. Although this is not a comprehensive, all-inclusive list by far, I hope that you will benefit from it.
All-round education - and then a little extra!
Biotechnologists have to integrate various technologies and have to be proficient in many different topics apart from their own specializations. Therefore, you should have a basic background in biology and chemistry, an aptitude for math as well as certain computer skills. Some knowledge of physics and engineering would be an added asset. And if you can combine it with some management skills, then you will be in high demand in the job market. Basically the more you know the wider career path you can follow. A good scientist must have an analytical and an inquisitive mind, able to ask pertinent questions and answer them systematically and scientifically. As an example, a scientist will use: a) bio-techniques to obtain results, b) statistics to analyse these data, c) computer skills to write manuscripts and make slides, d) presentation skills to display the project, e) marketing skills to get the project funded, and f) a combination of all the above skills to troubleshoot in case of problems.
The importance of networking throughout your career cannot be over-emphasized. The traditional view that a scientist is an island unto himself needing nothing other than test-tubes for company is a complete fallacy. The fact is that as biotechnologists, we are completely dependent on our peers to collaborate on that all-important, grant-worthy project or to help us get that next job or even to evaluate our research findings so as to publish them. So how do you get your foot in the door? I would suggest, visit some of the conferences and job fairs that are held every few months or so. Usually there is a fee for attending but it is worth the money spent since you will meet a lot of eminent scientists from academia and industry, all at one venue. Biotech companies also camp out at these meetings to advertise their presence and sometimes jobs. In any case, even if you are not yet ready for the job market, you can collect contact information and business cards. It will be very valuable once you graduate, to have phone numbers of a contact inside the company/institute. The following websites (among several others) are a good resource for some of the biotech conferences held around the world:
This might be the single most important step you undertake to jumpstart your biotechnology career. There are some professors at university and research institute labs that accept some students in the summer for short projects. These positions are in high demand and mostly voluntary in nature therefore you may or may not get paid for it. Some biotech companies also offer summer internships but these are rarer and they mostly do pay a stipend. The most efficient way to learn about these opportunities would be the websites of the company/institute. This would also be the right time to call up the contact numbers that were collected at the aforementioned conferences and ask if they would be willing to hire you for the summer. Getting hands-on experience in the real biotech world will place you far ahead of those candidates that don’t have any practical knowledge (and I don’t mean the lab courses that are conducted as part of the curriculum). These internships will not only impart lab training but also be a valuable source for getting recommendation letters for future jobs.
Membership in professional organisations:
There are various advantages to becoming a member of a professional biotech organisation. Firstly, it can help in the all-important task of networking since you can meet other fellow members by attending some of the meetings and conferences arranged by the organisation. Secondly, there will usually be a periodic newsletter published that advertises jobs, available grants, date and registration information of conferences, workshops, etc. Thirdly you will get access to a lot of industry updates, business news and partnership opportunities.
You can find a list of international biotech organisations at http://www.buyusa.gov/sanfrancisco/35.html and a detailed list of Biotechnology/Biology associations in the US at http://www.netsci.org/Resources/Web/society_biotech.html
The website http://biotech.cato.com provides an excellent biotechnology information directory. It has links to various biotech-related databases like products, services, publications (some of which are free and don’t require a paid subscription), software, employment, education etc. Also have a look at the website http://www.biospace.com which has extensive biotech and pharmaceutical news and job information.
In conclusion, I can say that one of the most important things I have learnt as a scientist is that the learning never stops. Keep your knowledge updated, take refresher courses every few years, gauge for yourself how much and how far ahead you want to take your career and then take the plunge, talk to the appropriate experts in the field and persevere in your quest for a successful career in Biotechnology.
Good luck and have a great career!
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—About our writer:
Vaishali wears many hats: scientist, writer, wife and her most favourite one, mommy. She enjoys reading (anything under the sun), cooking, travelling and watching Barney DVDs with her 18 month old daughter.
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