The Job and What's Involved

Biotechnologists help to develop products that have a biological ingredient or action, such as vaccines, antibiotics, hormones and washing powders. Some work with genes to try to improve crops or medicines.

They work in a range of areas, including:

Medicine - developing new medicines and treatments to fight illness and disease. This includes products with a biological ingredient or action, such as antibiotics, drugs and hormones. Insulin has also been made from genetically engineered bacteria.

Agriculture - using genetic engineering and genome mapping to improve crop production, or crop resistance to pests and diseases.

The Environment - developing the use of biosensors for the early detection of environmental pollutants, and exploring the use of biological systems to treat effluent (liquid discharged as waste) or clean up contamination.

Food and Drink - developing new products and processes for the manufacture and preservation of food, and producing and cloning enzymes to manufacture and preserve food and drink, as well as for use in biological detergents.

Chemicals - researching and developing new manufacturing processes and products, including developing new methods for quality control and waste management.

Some biotechnologists are concerned with pure research, focusing on subjects such as:

  • Proteomics - studying the structure and function of proteins, including the way they work and interact with each other inside cells, body fluids and tissues.
  • Functional genomics - studying the function of individual genes and interactions amongst groups of genes.
  • Structural genomics - studying the three-dimensional structure of proteins.

In their work, biotechnologists design and conduct experiments, make observations and analyse data. They use complex, sophisticated and sensitive equipment, including computer technology.

Other responsibilities may include administration, supervising the work of support staff, writing up reports and scientific papers, and presenting work at scientific meetings and conferences.

Biotechnologists work in teams with other scientists and technicians.

Biotechnologists usually work 35 to 40 hours a week, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Evening and weekend work may be required. Some biotechnologists may have to work on call at certain times.

Biotechnologists work in laboratories, industrial manufacturing settings or the field. They may work with hazardous chemicals or micro-organisms. Some work is carried out in sterile conditions.

The work can involve sitting or standing at a workbench, desk or piece of equipment for long periods. Protective clothing is usually worn, both for personal protection and to prevent contamination of samples or equipment.

There may be some travel to attend scientific meetings and conferences.

Starting salaries may be between £18,500 and £24,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The biotechnology industry is expanding rapidly and employs over 40,000 people. Biotechnologists are employed throughout the UK, with clusters of biotechnology companies in London, the South East and Scotland. There is a high demand for biotechnologists.

Employers include:

  • Industrial companies - including companies in the chemical, metals and materials, plastics and polymers, petrochemical, cosmetics and toiletries industries.
  • Pharmaceutical and agri-chemical companies.
  • Food and Drink manufacturers.
  • Government establishments and agencies.
  • Charity research institutes and hospitals.
  • Specialist biotechnology companies that are involved in a wide range of research and development.
  • Universities, where biotechnologists are mainly involved in research.

Vacancies are advertised in national newspapers, sector publications such as New Scientist, Nature and Science, and on the internet.

Education and Training

The minimum requirement for a biotechnologist is a degree, usually in biotechnology, biochemistry, genetics, microbiology, molecular biology, biology or chemistry.

Many employers look for applicants with a postgraduate qualification. Entry to a postgraduate course is usually with a relevant first degree (normally a 2.1 or above). Courses may last from one to three years full time.

Relevant work experience is advantageous. In some cases this can be gained through an industrial placement as part of a degree course.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Entry to a degree is normally with a minimum of two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), usually including English, maths and science subjects, or equivalent qualifications. Requirements for specific subjects vary between courses and universities, but chemistry, biology, physics and maths are useful subjects.

Applicants should check specific entry requirements with individual universities

New entrants generally train on the job. Some employers even run formal training programmes.

Biotechnologists may study for postgraduate qualifications, or for examinations leading to membership or fellowship of a professional body.

It is important for biotechnologists to keep up to date with developments in the field.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A biotechnologist should:

  • Have strong scientific ability, particularly in biology and chemistry.
  • Be able to think clearly and logically.
  • Be good at problem solving, with a methodical approach to their work.
  • Be able to work accurately and pay attention to detail.
  • Be able to work in and lead a team.
  • Have excellent communication skills.
  • Have strong ICT skills.
  • Be competent with statistics.
  • Enjoy working in a rapidly developing field.

Your Long Term Prospects

It may sometimes be necessary to move between employers to progress, although promotion, usually to supervisory and managerial roles, is possible in most organisations.

Some biotechnologists move between biotechnology sectors. It is also possible to move into sales, production, marketing, university lecturing or writing.

There are excellent opportunities to work abroad, particularly in Europe and the USA.

Get Further Information

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI),
12 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY
Tel: 0870 890 4333

Bioindustry Association (BIA),
14/15 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PS
Tel: 020 7565 7190

The Genetics Society,
Roslin Bioscience, Roslin, Midlothian EH25 9PP
Tel: 0131 200 6391

Royal Society of Biology,
Charles Darwin House, 12 Roger Street,
London WC1N 2JU
Tel: 020 7685 2550

Institute of Biomedical Science,
12 Coldbath Square, London EC1R 5HL
Tel: 020 7713 0214

Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST),
5 Cambridge Court, 210 Shepherds Bush Road, London W6 7NJ
Tel: 020 7603 6316

The Science Council, 32-36 Loman Street, Southwark, London SE1 0EH
Tel: 020 7922 7888

SEMTA (Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance),
14 Upton Road, Watford WD18 0JT
Tel: 01923 238441

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