Now is an excellent time to be working in the biotechnology industry. The number of biotech jobs has increased by more than 14 percent in the last five years, and the starting salary for biotechnologists with master’s degrees ranges from $75,000 to $85,000.
What’s more, projected job growth for in-demand biotechnology careers in biochemistry, microbiology, medical science, and biomanufacturing far exceeds the average growth rate of 5 percent over the next 10 years.
To fill these roles, employers are looking for people with backgrounds in chemistry, biology, physiology, or genetics who have advanced mathematics skills. But that’s not necessarily what sets the best candidates apart, says Jared Auclair, director of the biotechnology and bioinformatics programs at Northeastern University.
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“One thing we hear from employers a lot is that it’s not the technical skills—they can train you on those,” he says. “The most important thing to them is understanding the biotechnology landscape, and knowing how the business works. Soft skills are huge.”
If you’re interested in how to become a better biotechnologist, developing these five soft skills will help you stand out from other job candidates on the market.
5 Ways to Become a Better Biotechnologist
1. Practice setting research priorities.
A breadth and depth of knowledge of the current and emerging trends in the biotechnology market—including the legal landscape, applicable quality standards, and pending regulatory changes—will help you set research priorities. This is a critical skill for a successful biotechnologist, as it influences an organization’s strategic direction and dictates the resources and personnel it will need to complete the work. Doing so will enable your organization to stay a step ahead of the competition; at a personal level, it will demonstrate your value as a team leader.
In some cases, setting research priorities is a matter of finding a new solution to an existing problem. You may decide to try to develop a new strain of wheat that contains more protein, or you may alter the makeup of an organism that can clean one industrial byproduct to see if it responds to another type of byproduct.
In other cases, research priorities will have to pivot to meet market needs. In medicine, for example, attention has quickly turned to efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. “That’s not where the industry was three months ago,” Auclair says. “The uptick in vaccine research is utilizing new technology that is part of biotech to try to create new vaccines that we as a species have never worked on before. This will lead to more biotech jobs in the future.”
2. Learn to estimate a project’s ROI.
Beyond simply deciding that a project is worth pursuing, a biotechnologist needs to show organizational leaders that the project will achieve a return on investment (ROI) if it moves forward. Executives need to know that a new product will make enough money to offset the research and development process, or that it has the potential to attract interest from external investors or cause stock prices to increase.
Many factors can influence ROI, including the amount of time a project will take to complete (including regulatory approval), the number of researchers needed, the cost of acquiring materials (including intellectual property), the potential sale price for a product, and the projected market for similar competitive products. A researcher or project leader may not be expected to calculate an exact ROI but, to become a better biotechnologist, it is crucial to have an overall sense of how the results of a project could impact the bottom line.
3. Assess and manage risk.
Success as a biotechnologist requires an understanding of the risks associated with a particular project. There are several elements of risk assessment, Auclair says.
First, there’s the business risk. If the desired results are achieved, there’s a chance that a project will result in new customers, entry into new markets, or a spike in share prices. But what if a project fails to deliver? Failure to achieve ROI is one factor, but there’s also the hit to an organization’s reputation in the market and a negative impact on employee morale. You become a better biotechnologist by being able to examine the risks and the benefits associated with your work, regardless of your field.
There’s also the inherent risk of the research and development process—what will happen if you do X or Y, the risk of doing X over Y, and so on. “At the end of the day, everything should be focused clearly on the patient” in medicine and pharma, Auclair notes. “Even in [research and development], you need to be focused on product development in the long run. What are the risks to each of the steps? Is that risk going to impact the end product—and the patient?”
4. Improve your communication with non-technical peers.
Whether you get a job at a small startup or within a division of a multinational firm, working as a biotechnologist in a professional setting will require communicating with colleagues who don’t have the same background in science, math, or technology. To practice effective science communication, take steps such as using everyday language instead of technical jargon, using stories or analogies to make research more relatable, and changing your message for different audiences.
It’s also essential to take the time to listen to your peers and incorporate their feedback into how you communicate. If the compliance department has questions about regulatory approval, or the sales team needs more information about the benefits of your product, that’s an indication that your message needs to be refined. Don’t regard this as a lack of understanding; instead, use it as an opportunity to improve and to provide an additional benefit to the company.
5. Manage and present data more effectively.
Presenting data in a graphical format is an effective way to present complex information such as clinical trial results or other experimental data. However, Auclair notes, presenting data is the final step in a long process. Before you can be ready to present data to stakeholders, you must analyze large sets of data that the research process generates, understand which data points are most relevant for answering key business questions, and manage data that will influence future experiments and be used by future colleagues.
“Even simple things like data storage and data logging are important,” he says. For example, data sets that may not be relevant to your existing research may be valuable for future projects. It’s important to store that data in a way that your colleagues can access it when they need to— but also to store it in a way that won’t slow down the software systems that are vital to day-to-day work.
If you’re considering how to become a biotechnologist, Auclair recommends taking the time to study lab information management systems and other forms of electronic recordkeeping. An experiential learning program such as Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Biotechnology, which offers professional training within the industry sector, offers students a chance to work with large-scale lab information management systems up close—and to bring that experience into a job interview.
How to Become a Biotechnologist: Career Paths and Education
Traditionally, the majority of careers in biotechnology have been in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, Auclair says. Typical roles include biomedical engineers, microbiologists, and medical scientists who work in either a lab or clinical research environment. Work in this field has focused on faster drug development, specialized treatments for rare diseases, and, in recent months, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, there are opportunities to become a biotechnologist in fields other than medicine, such as agriculture, defense, energy, and the environment. For example, much of the food we eat today has been genetically modified to increase its yield or make it safer for human consumption; biotechnologists have also created environmentally friendly methods of pest control.
A bachelor’s degree will enable you to take on a role conducting experiments “at the bench” as a research assistant or research associate, Auclair notes. Earning a master’s degree in biotechnology—with its emphasis on business skills and soft skills—enables you to advance to a more senior role where you have the responsibility to set an organization’s research agenda and manage a research team.
“The master’s education is key for seeing the big picture for the group you work in or for the company as a whole,” Auclair notes. That’s something a lot of professionals lack because they get caught up in the minutiae.”
Meanwhile, a PhD in biotechnology is better suited for someone who plans to pursue a career in academia and complete specialized research projects. The length of time that it takes to earn a PhD can actually be a disadvantage if you want to become a biotechnologist, as professionals with a master’s degree gain years of hands-on experience while PhD students are completing their programs.
If you’re looking to become a biotechnologist or to advance further in your biotechnology career, download our ebook below to learn more.