Jobs in Biotechnology
Research And Development
The laboratory is the heart of every biotechnology company. Research and development—also known as R&D—is how researchers discover new knowledge and turn it into useful products, processes, and services. According to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the biotechnology industry spent $17.9 billion on research and development in 2003. This makes biotechnology one of the world's most research-intensive industries.
A lot of biotechnology research takes place at colleges and universities. Companies may make the products, but the ideas behind them often come from universities. According to Bio Economic Research Associates, twelve of the top thirty-five organizations that conduct biotechnology research are universities.
R&D positions can be roughly divided into three categories based on education and experience. Senior research scientists direct the research. They decide which projects their laboratory will work on, and they supervise other researchers. Research scientists also conduct research, interpret the results, write reports on experiments, and attend scientific conferences. They almost always hold doctoral degrees (advanced degrees awarded after four or more years of specialized study following college).
Research associates, sometimes called research assistants, collaborate with others to perform research. They conduct experiments, make observations, analyze data, and reach conclusions. Research associates also write reports about their work. They may discover new ideas that lead to the development of new products. They usually hold bachelor's degrees (awarded after four years of college study) or master's degrees (awarded after a year or two of specialized study following college).
Technicians, also called laboratory assistants, write detailed observations about experiments. They may analyze results and draw conclusions from them. They may also write reports about their work. Some technicians order and maintain lab supplies or equipment. Others may care for animals or plants in the lab. They usually have associate's degrees (usually received after two years of study at a community or technical college) or bachelor's degrees.
In general, the more education and experience you have, the greater your chances of landing a position that offers you more independence and responsibility. People with doctoral degrees have worked in labs for many years. They know what sorts of questions to ask and strategies to employ. Therefore, they generally become lab and project supervisors. Technicians with associate's degrees do not have nearly as extensive backgrounds. Therefore, they are limited by their supervisors in the tasks they are allowed to perform, the decisions they can make, and the freedom they have to experiment in the lab. They generally follow the orders of the supervisor and complete tasks assigned to them. They have little say in how to design or conduct lab projects. It's not uncommon for someone to work as a technician or research assistant for a few years, then decide to go back to school to gain the experience and skills needed for a more important position in the laboratory.
A variety of skills are important for success in the laboratory. Attention to detail is necessary. An entire experiment can be ruined and data made meaningless or misleading if one small step is skipped or botched. Researchers need to be careful observers as well. A lot of lab work involves recording what is seen during experiments. In addition, researchers often perform the same procedures over and over again. They may work with different genes, but use the same techniques on each of them. Students interested in research careers should have a long attention span and not get bored easily.
Researchers in environmental biotechnology and some other biotech areas may perform fieldwork. This means that they conduct experiments outside the laboratory. This could be on a farm or at a polluted river. Students who enjoy travel and the outdoors are most suited for fieldwork.
Researchers must also be able to accept failure. Experiments rarely work perfectly on the first try. Sometimes, they don't work at all. Scientists often must develop new approaches in the wake of failed experiments, or even start from scratch. Flexibility is important. So is commitment. Many people in biotechnology R&D work far more than forty hours per week, which is the standard workweek.
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