Basics of A Biotechnology Career

Biotechnology has a definite mystique about it. Most of its concepts were unheard of only a short time ago. Today's version of the science will give way to the yet un thought of discoveries of the coming decades. A career in biotechnology can be glamorous, but this romantic field has its mundane side, too. In order for biotechnology firms to operate efficiently, there are somewhat standardized job titles that have well-defined, down-to-earth duties and entry prerequisites. Before spotlighting these specific details, a quick over view of the categories that make up the biotechnological workplace is in order.


Molecular biologists and immunologists constitute about a third of the research workers in biotechnology. Most molecular biologists focus on animal and bacterial systems, because this research is most applicable to human health. Substantial funding for molecular biology comes from the National Institutes of Health. Immunologists are greatly involved in the development of hybridomas (the cells produced by fusing two cells of different origins) to create monoclonal antibodies. More recently, the employment of plant molecular biologists has been increasing, with the re direction of agricultural research toward molecular biological techniques.

Bioprocess engineers, biochemists, and microbiologists develop methods of producing biotechnology products in large quantities. The demand for these specialties will increase as products are readied for production.

Microbiologists study bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms. They identify microbes with particular characteristics for industrial processes. Microbiologists also identify optimum growth conditions for microorganisms and the conditions for their production.

Cell culture specialists perform similar functions for plant and animal cells grown in tissue culture. Tissue culture is becoming increasingly important for the processing of useful products. Expertise in working with tissue culture is a skill much in demand.

Bioprocess engineers design systems to approximate conditions identified by the microbiologists. Bioprocess engineering is related to chemical engineering. One of the main tasks undertaken by bioprocess engineers is the design of fermentation vats and the various vessels used for bioprocessing (bioreactors) that hold the microorganisms that will produce given products. Bioprocess engineers are required for the next stage of production too-the recovery, purification, and quality control of products. Many of these products are extremely fragile, making purification a difficult and highly demanding job.


The following basic outline provides a general idea of the common positions existing within the biotechnological industry. Companies engaged in biotechnology-related research and development may differ in the employment opportunities they offer, the education and experience histories they expect, and the responsibilities of members of their personnel teams at particular job levels. The following job descriptions highlight one position each from a group of research families. (A family is a collection of jobs that call for the performance of similar types of activities.)

A lab assistant I is responsible for performing a variety of research/laboratory tasks and experiments under general supervision. This could involve making detailed observations, analyzing data, and interpreting results in written reports and summaries. Duties also could include maintaining laboratory equipment and inventory levels of supplies. This job classification usually is filled by graduates from two- or four-year programs that provide minimal back grounds in biology. Some firms will hire individuals with their high school diplomas or equivalent experience who have a minimum of zero to one year of relevant laboratory background.

Lab assistants are not "gofers." They could have their own projects, although this is not as common a practice in commercial/industrial laboratories as it is in those at universities.

A lab assistant carries out routine, day-to-day laboratory procedures. Many employers realize that lab assistants will be more productive if they do not have to repeat the same activity all the time. Therefore, a lab assistant I can be responsible for a variety of procedures such as preparing the solutions, chemicals, and tools that everyone senior to this job level utilizes. He or she should be considered an important part of the whole laboratory picture.

The number of techniques that lab assistants accomplish as they move up in rank from I to III increases. Prior experience is the factor that counts if someone wants to advance from lab assistant 1 to lab assistant II. Lab assistant III is the level where a laboratory manager or somebody who has only a bachelor's degree peaks and stops. It is not unusual to find someone settling in at this position for five years or more.

Research Associate

A research associate I is responsible for research and development in collaboration with others for products and projects. He or she makes detailed observations, analyzes data, and interprets results. Someone at this level may exercise technical creativity and discretion in the design, execution, and interpretation of experiments that contribute to projects. A research associate I prepares technical reports and summaries. The job calls for staying familiar with current scientific literature.

People management, specifically of lab assistants, is a responsibility of research associates. For example, only lab assistants, not research associates, have to prepare solutions, chemicals, and DNA and RNA tools for everyone's use.

Remember, however, that the beginning job classifications are very flexible. Some people who would be associates II in one company may be labeled assistant III at another firm. It also is not that unusual to find research associates who are doing more demanding work than those employees who are classified as scientists.

Years of experience, the nature of his or her independent research, and the excellence ratings of his or her experiments are the factors propelling a person up the ladder from associate I to associate IV, While a B.S. in a scientific discipline is often sufficient to start out, those research associates who can anticipate successful career growth plan to earn a Ph.D. degree.

Postdoctoral Research Scientist

A postdoctoral research scientist is responsible for the de sign, development, execution, and implementation of scientific research involving a large research team. He or she investigates the feasibility of applying a wide variety of scientific principles and theories to patented inventions and products. This biotechnologist maintains extensive knowledge of state-of-the-art principles and theories. A postdoctoral research scientist contributes to scientific literature and conferences.

Obviously, the educational prerequisite for this position is a Ph.D. in a scientific discipline. Employers prefer postdoctoral research scientists to have experience in a research environment. Hiring officials expect job candidates to demonstrate potential for technical proficiency, creativity, cooperative abilities with others, and the knack for independent thought.

As a general rule, a postdoctoral research scientist I is a person who just received his or her Ph.D. A postdoctoral re-search scientist II is an individual with two to three years of professional experience.


A scientist does the same things as a postdoctoral research scientist. In addition, he or she may coordinate interdepartmental activities and research efforts. The scientist uses professional concepts and company policies and procedures to solve a broad range of difficult problems in imaginative and practical ways.

The requirements for scientist I are a B.S. or M.S. in a scientific discipline and preferably one to three or more years of experience in a research environment. A Ph.D. is helpful for advancement and may be required for a scientist I position by some companies. Different companies have different criteria, but, for the most part, several years of on-the-job accomplishments separate the scientist II, scientist III, and scientist IV levels. To move up at all in these levels, a person basically has to show employers what he or she has done and what he or she plans on doing. Some firms use the categories of assistant scientist and full scientist to classify these levels.

Merit often can help a bright scientist advance at a faster pace than normal. If, for example, you are twenty-four years old, just received your Ph.D., and, in one year, you found a clone that is worth a great deal of money for your company, you can disregard the years-on-the-job requirement usually needed for the upgrading of your scientist classification. You probably would become a scientist IV right away, once management officers realized you are an independent starter and can inspire people.

Associate Scientific Director

By the time a person works up to the job of associate scientific director, he or she may actually be leaving the laboratory. In fact, the higher a person goes on this ladder of position titles, supervisory and paperwork tasks will increase and responsibility for working in the laboratory will diminish.

The ultimate transition away from the laboratory bench is at the level of higher scientist or associate scientific director. The chance of anyone working at either of these levels doing any research is minimal.

Associate scientific directors organize and manage groups of people. They establish what their personnel will work on, what directions are or are not functioning well, who to hire or fire, and which individuals have earned promotions. Some companies assign associate scientific directors to specific, individual projects.

Scientific Director

A scientific director is responsible for managing the activities of an entire scientific/engineering group in the research, design, and development of an organization's products, projects, and programs. This biotechnologist conducts and works with others on basic research relevant to long-term objectives and concerns. He or she writes and reviews manuscripts for publication. Other duties involve developing strategies to ensure effective achievement of scientific goals and monitoring and evaluating the completion of tasks and projects. You can find a scientific director putting together budgets for capital expenditures and labor. This official also participates with other top managers to establish company policies. He or she makes the final decisions on administrative or operational matters. It is not unusual for companies to assign different scientific directors for different fields of interest.

A person entertaining thoughts of being a scientific director should consider the following qualifications. He or she needs a Ph.D. in a related scientific discipline. His or her resume should feature a minimum of ten years of related work experience and some management background. The job candidate must be recognized for individual scientific accomplishments. He or she also must be willing to work very hard-sixty-hour workweeks are not abnormal in the bio technology industry.

Project Manager and Technical Services Manager

Although some experts list the job titles of project manager and technical services manager in the overall research category, other authorities question their presence in this grouping.

A project manager is responsible for providing oversight in order to maximize the effective use of resources. He or she facilitates information flow between research team members, the project leaders, senior management, and the corporate client. The goal of the project manager is to maintain positive interaction with the client and initiate and coordinate the decision-making process. The direction rendered by a project manager is administrative rather than technical. His or her supervision is indirect rather than direct. The educational prerequisite for this position is a B.S. or M.S. in a scientific discipline or equivalent. The expected work history needed to fill this job is a minimum of three to five years industrial experience in multiple disciplines. The job applicant must have previous know-how in overseeing projects.

A technical services manager is someone at the master's level who is aware of techniques but not necessarily good at the laboratory workbench. This person is capable of answering questions on the telephone.

There are other job titles in biotechnology outside the realm of research. A brief description of some of these follows.

Those involved in quality control usually can be found working at companies that manufacture pharmaceuticals using recombinant DNA procedures or conventional biochemical methods. These drugs are packaged in a sterile fashion. There has to be scrupulous attention paid to cleanliness in the environment where actual bottles are handled.

For instance, quality control inspectors are "on guard" where interferon is made. Little bottles containing the drug roll down a conveyor belt. There has to be constant surveillance of the line. Even the slightest pinholes in any of the bottles could lead to instability. Quality control personnel rely on equipment to test the integrity of the bottles.

The pharmaceutical industry also is home for the majority of biotechnologists involved in clinical research. Firms start negotiating with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as soon as new drugs are "born" in research and development departments. The FDA mandates a prescribed series of tests to be run by private industry and reviewed by the governmental agency. The process can last for about ten years before FDA grants permission for the drugs to be sold in the United States. Clinical research specialists in industry are devoted to developing, administrating, and analyzing the results of these clinical trials.

Regulatory Affairs

The existence of entities like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has fostered the need for biotechnologists trained in the area of regulatory affairs. The industry needs a whole series of people ranging from lawyers to scientists whose job it is to understand what the governmental regulations are, all the hurdles that will have to be passed, and how that is to be accomplished.

Government employs biotechnologists, too. They are responsible for communicating the government's positions to industry, setting testing standards, and generally making sure that things are done properly.


The next step after governmental approval of drugs or other biotechnological products is what is known in the industry as scale-up-turning something that was created in small quantities into what now will be a mass-produced item. Biotechnologists are needed to fill a variety of roles in the manufacturing/production sector. Manufacturing personnel commonly have a degree and/or work experience in engineering.

As the biotechnology industry passes from research and development into manufacturing and production, marketing and sales forces will greatly expand, too. Industry needs in formed people to act as liaisons between strictly sales personnel and scientists. A Wall Street mentality is sufficient in most marketing situations in the business world, but not in the field of biotechnology. Companies involved in this new science are not addressing laypeople. They are approaching other scientific professionals. Therefore, it is crucial for sales personnel to properly relay the technical benefits of products to customers who need and appreciate such data. For example, could a scientifically untrained salesperson properly promote human insulin made by recombinant DNA methods rather than from the traditional extraction of insulin from pigs? Physicians want to know how the former is better than the latter. They are interested in how patients react to human insulin versus how they react to insulin made the old-fashioned way.

It is useful to know the broad range of activities that today's biotechnologists can pursue. Most of the current action in the field still takes place in the research laboratories. Because most of the present job opportunities are in research, the following is a description of some of the day-to-day tasks in a laboratory.


Plan on putting in a full day's work daily no matter what your job title is. When, for example, a lab assistant enters the laboratory in the morning, he or she takes off the simple gels he or she prepared the preceding day. The lab assistant will photograph them and see what the analysis is. He or she will ask for work assignments from a postdoctoral scientist, scientist I, or research associate. This could involve continuing to process tissue culture cells or bacteria or making DNA from bacteria cultures. This involves spinning the cultures down and making simple manipulations to isolate DNA from the cells. By the end of the day, he or she could be doing some simple digestions of DNA and might also be starting the gels for the next day.

The first thing research associates do when they check into work at the start of the day is to determine what the lab assistants are doing and what jobs should be assigned to them. Research associates might be putting a library of clones (a set of cloned DNA fragments) down onto filters and transferring them with the help of lab assistants. The postdoctoral research scientist does bench work in the laboratory and also computer work and analysis and writes papers.

As a rule of thumb, the higher the level a person attains in biotechnology, the less time he or she will spend at the lab workbench and the more time that person will spend doing what administrators do.

An outline of the biotechnology job title ladder is comparable to a road map. Both show the routes to get from point A to point B, but neither indicates the speed at which you will complete your trip. In fact, you may not even want to go all the way to point B.

There are some biotechnologists who clearly want to move upward. At the lower levels of the industry, this frequently means earning academic degrees. Many firms actually pay for this education. Some individuals have no interest in the more prestigious job titles. They don't want the more severe responsibilities that come with advancement.

Entry-level positions draw persons with bachelor's degrees who may or may not know what to do with themselves professionally. Often, this includes individuals who plan on being accepted to medical schools in one to two years down the road.


Companies engaged in biotechnology-related research and development may vary in the positions they offer, the education and experience required for similar positions, and the responsibilities of the staff at particular job levels. The job categories described below are intended to give a general idea of the positions existing within the industry.
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