Biotechnology Careers and Salaries

Although biotechnology is a relatively young industry—the earliest companies formed in the 1970s and 1980s—its impact has been considerable. The science behind biotechnology has transformed our understanding of biological life through discoveries such as DNA, and scientists have applied this knowledge to develop innovative products that have improved our lives. Examples include bio-based vaccines, more accurate testing for disease in humans and animals, alternative fuels based on corn or sugar cane, hybrid crops that resist pests and reduce reliance on chemical pesticides, among others. The value biotechnology offers to the world through its continual development of useful products has fueled its rapid growth.

Careers in biotechnology

Biotechnology is a dynamic field with diverse applications across sectors. This diversity creates a broad range of careers in the field with varying job titles and responsibilities. A research scientist at “Company A” might have an entirely different set of responsibilities compared to someone with the same job title at “Company B”, although some similarities may exist. The information below is a general guide to assist in understanding career options available in biotechnology.

Entry-level positions typically require a bachelor’s degree in biological or chemical science, microbiology, biomedical engineering, or similar. Career advancement may require additional education, such as a master’s degree or PhD, plus professional experience. Prospective employers will be interested in hiring employees with the knowledge and experience to successfully execute job responsibilities and navigate the often complex regulations in biotechnology. Positions can be found at established or startup companies, medical laboratories, or at research facilities within a university, government, or healthcare system.

According to BIO (Biotechnology Innovation Organization), a leading trade organization, wage and job growth in biotechnology consistently outpace the national average. Because biotechnology is a diverse field spanning a variety of workplace scenarios, salaries will vary by job, location, company size, and required education.

Technicians

Biological Technician

This entry-level position supports activity in a biological or medical laboratory under supervision of a biologist or medical scientist. Job duties include maintaining lab equipment and supplies, collecting and processing biological specimens for analysis, preparing solutions and reagents, conducting experiments, and research data collection and entry. Technicians follow safety and quality assurance protocols during experiments and procedures for safe disposal of contaminants. Biological technicians may train and supervise other lab personnel. The position requires attention to detail and good communication skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for biological technicians is $44,500 per year. Similar to: laboratory technician, laboratory assistant, medical technologist, animal laboratory technician, microbiology technician, forensic science technician, R&D laboratory assistant, and agricultural and food science technician.

Scientists

Microbiologist

A microbiologist specializes in the study of bacteria, viruses, algae, fungi, protozoa, and other microorganisms that are not visible without the use of microscopes and other advanced tools. Microorganisms can be found in the soil, air, and water—virtually anywhere biological life exists—and can promote disease or decay of a living organism or assist in the process of fermentation. Microbiologists supervise complex research projects to advance scientific discovery, solve a problem, or develop a product. They may perform lab experiments or oversee a team of biological technicians who manage daily lab activities. Critical thinking and communication skills are important because a microbiologist will need to understand scientific literature, design appropriate experiments, and write technical reports and research papers. They may present research findings to scientists, non-scientist colleagues, and the public. According to the BLS, the median pay for microbiologists is $71,650 per year. Similar to: bacteriologist, virologist, clinical microbiologist, environmental microbiologist, and quality control microbiologist.

Research Scientist

Research scientists appear in healthcare, agriculture, or industrial bioscience settings, among others. Their responsibilities are similar to those of microbiologists—forming a hypothesis, conducting research, and analyzing the results, with the ultimate goal of developing a product that will solve a problem. They may work with scientists from partner laboratories, and with their organization’s regulatory, legal, and research and development (R&D) functions.

In healthcare, medical scientists research biological methods for treating disease in humans or animals, conduct clinical trials to prove the efficacy of new pharmaceutical products, or develop standards for dosage and production methods as new drugs and medicinal compounds are brought to market. They may also work with public health agencies to manage outbreaks of disease. According to the BLS, the median pay for medical scientists is $84,810 per year.

An agricultural research scientist investigates animal pathogens and methods to treat disease, and genetics to improve breeding programs and the quality of livestock for food. They may focus on plant food production, exploring methods to improve crop yield or develop uses for biological agents to remediate environmental concerns. They may also explore food use for alternative fuels, such as ethanol produced from sugar or corn. According to the BLS, the median pay for agricultural and food scientists is $64,020 per year.

A molecular biologist is concerned with the chemical processes and interactions of molecules that occur within cells. They may conduct basic research to expand scientific understanding or applied research to develop a new product. They can work in healthcare, researching new treatments for cancer and other diseases, or in agriculture, developing disease-resistant crops, or other areas. According to the BLS, the median pay for molecular biologists is $93,280 per year.

Education required to obtain a position as a research scientist varies, however, most employers expect at least a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, or a related field, plus professional laboratory experience. Many positions call for advanced education, and academic research facilities may require a PhD. Salaries will vary depending on educational attainment and job title, with median salaries for some positions as high as $115,450. Similar to: medical scientist, biochemist, chemical and materials scientist, senior scientist, plant scientist, geneticist, biophysicist, cellular biologist, and research analyst.

Biomedical Engineer

Biomedical engineers develop equipment and technology that improve quality of life or help with diagnosis of disease, such as artificial transplants, prosthetic devices, and cancer detection tests. Usually located within an organization’s research and development (R&D) or quality assurance (QA) function, they conduct research and analyze results, calibrate equipment and perform validation tests, evaluate safety protocols, and train personnel on the proper use of medical equipment. They may present research findings to scientists, non-scientist colleagues, and the public.

A bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering or similar program is typically required. Those with a traditional engineering degree may enter the field but will benefit from coursework in biological science. Advancement usually requires work experience plus a graduate degree. Potential career advancement paths include leading a research team or moving into managerial positions. According to the BLS, the median pay for biomedical engineers is $88,550 per year. Similar to: biomedical systems engineer, clinical engineer, product development engineer, quality engineer, process engineer, agricultural engineer, quality assurance engineer, and research and development engineer.

Managers

Quality Assurance Manager

Similar to other industries, biotechnology employs trained professionals who oversee manufacturing operations to ensure the products delivered to the public meet quality standards. However, biotechnology operates within a highly-regulated environment where product integrity is critical because the end products—drugs and pharmaceuticals, medical devices, or agricultural feedstock—are consumed by humans or animals. A quality assurance manager develops company standards and best practices, known as Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), that ensure compliance with regulatory requirements. They manage quality systems, data, and reports, and support activities related to validation of equipment and processes, and may supervise and train employees. They may partner with product development, procurement, regulatory affairs, clinical research, and facilities, and host regulatory audits with external agencies.

A bachelor’s degree in one of the life sciences, engineering, or a similar program is required, plus several years of work experience, and knowledge of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations and similar protocols. Certifications may be required for certain roles. Career advancement typically requires a graduate degree. According to O*Net Online, the median pay for quality control systems managers is $103,380 per year. Similar to: quality assurance specialist, quality assurance project manager, and senior manager quality assurance.

Regulatory Affairs Manager

The regulatory affairs manager oversees a firm’s compliance with legal and regulatory protocols established by individual state departments of health, the FDA, and international agencies. They often interact with these agencies on behalf of their company, for example, by preparing reports and hosting regulatory reviews. They must stay current with changes to regulations and develop a strategy to minimize disruption to product lifecycle planning. Advanced positions, such as a regulatory affairs director, may supervise a team of regulatory affairs managers and the quality assurance function in their organization.

A bachelor’s degree, plus several years of work experience and extensive knowledge of FDA regulations and similar protocols, is required. Advancement to a director level or higher typically requires a graduate degree and progressive regulatory affairs work experience. According to O*Net Online, the median pay for regulatory affairs managers is $107,480 per year. Similar to: clinical affairs project manager, director of regulatory affairs and quality assurance, regulatory affairs labeling manager, director of quality, and senior regulatory affairs specialist.

Research and Development Manager

Research and development, or R&D, is the arm of biotechnology that explores ideas and identifies innovative products. R&D has a dual purpose—first, to explore an idea using methods similar to the research scientist, and second, to identify products that can be successfully brought to market. They devise and run experiments, evaluate results, and assess product valuation, feasibility of production, and scalability, and identify intellectual property and patent requirements. Often, market research to assess potential product demand is conducted during the research and development phase. They may oversee lab personnel and will likely interact with colleagues in clinical research, quality assurance, and business development.

A bachelor’s degree, plus experience, is typically required. Advancement to a director level or higher usually requires a graduate degree plus progressive work experience. According to SalaryExpert.com, the median pay for an R&D manager is $138,237 per year. Similar to: R&D scientist, product development manager, R&D engineer, research and innovation, laboratory manager, and research director.

Marketing or Business Development Manager

Similar to a marketing manager in other fields, they devise strategic plans to bring biotechnology products to market. Activities may include market research, competitive analysis, pricing, brand strategy and promotional tactics to ensure maximum revenue and profitability, budgeting, and financial forecasting. As biotechnology operates within a highly-regulated environment and bringing a product to market faces unique challenges not typically found in other industries, an understanding of the product lifecycle from scientific discovery to intellectual property and patents to production is crucial.

A bachelor’s degree is usually required, and advancement may require a graduate degree. A life sciences degree and/or work experience in biotechnology is highly desired by employers. According to SalaryExpert.com, the median pay for a marketing or business development manager is $138,126 per year. Similar to: marketing director, business development director, product marketing manager, senior communications manager, and business manager.

What’s Next?

Are you ready to explore where the online UW Master of Science in Applied Biotechnology can take you? The program offers a choice of three tracks—Quality Assurance and Compliance, Business Management, and Research and Development—so you can tailor your degree to match your career goals.

Have questions about the UW Master of Science in Applied Biotechnology online program? Contact an enrollment adviser at 1-877-895-3276 or learn@uwex.edu.