Becoming a Genetic Engineer



#What are the daily tasks of a genetic engineer?

#What credentials and educational requirements are needed to be a genetic engineer?

#What is the career demand for genetic engineers?

#What specialities within genetic engineering are there?

#What salaries can I expect as a genetic engineer?



We get a number of requests by email for information about careers in genetic engineering, this despite the fact that we are a forum for discussing the subject and not a careers service. We have therefore decided to provide some information which we hope will be helpful to anyone considering a career step in that direction who wants to take it with their eyes fully open. What is contained in this page is by no means exhaustive and we make no claims as to its accuracy. If you are planning a career in this direction we suggest that you get in touch with the career advice service in your institution or contact a local recruitment agency.

As the Internet is international, this document tries to be general. However, bear in mind that conditions and educational requirements differ in different countries.

A good picture can be obtained of the kinds of jobs available by reading the back pages of 'New Scientist', 'Nature' or 'Science' and other scientific journals. There, quite detailed advertisements are shown indicating salary, qualifications and type of work.

What level of achievement is needed to enter this field depends on the level at which one wants to work. That obviously partly depends on personal qualities. One can imagine a number of levels: director of a GE research institute, professor or lecturer in a department of molecular biology in a university, postdoctoral research assistant (someone who has done a Doctor of Philosophy original research degree and wants to extend their research experience), laboratory assistant/technician, information scientist, field trials steward, data processor etc. What follows is intended for those who want to aim for the pinnacle of the profession yet includes the broadest range of tasks including those which in establishments would be assigned to the technicians. As they say, aim for the skies and there is a good chance you might clear the tallest trees.

What are the daily tasks of a genetic engineer?

The following list is not necessarily exhaustive:

1) Laboratory work usually with microsyringes, plastic disposable apparatus, controlled sterility/temperature/humidity/lighting environments, DNA separation and transfer systems, DNA analysis etc

2) Maintaining organisms used for the genetic engineering: patients, animals, plants and microorganisms including cells and tissues from the higher organisms. A great deal of care and expense goes in keeping these living beings alive and healthy.

3) Keeping abreast of the scientific literature in genetic engineering, often in only a very narrow area. This involves searching literature abstracts databases and reading current journals in one's speciality (e.g. the journal 'Bio/technology')

4) Dreaming up, designing, executing and interpreting experiments.

5) Publishing one's experimental results by writing papers for scientific journals.

6) Attending international conferences on one's subject area. These are advertised in the relevant journals.

daily functions, educational requirements/ licensure/ certification, career demand and specialities, salaries and personal qualifications.

7) Communicating with ones colleagues both within and outside one's workplace. Science is nowadays generally a team effort.

8) Attending to laboratory, dangerous organisms and radiological Health & Safety requirements.

9) Ordering equipment and organisms.

10) Teaching both theory and practice to junior colleagues and, if in a university, students.

11) Inventing new techniques and applications.


What credentials and educational requirements are needed to be a genetic engineer?

1) A good all round education.

2) An ability to get on with others in a team.

3) A sound moral sense -- above all, a scientist has to be concerned with the truth, has to be honest.

4) An ability to love your subject of study/research and show individual initiative.

5) A lively and creative imagination; a flair for problem-solving.

6) A sharp intellect and an ability to think reductionistically, i.e. to consider living things in terms of molecules or objects to be tinkered with to suit human desires.

7) And ability to regard one's chosen living organism as a tool with which to build one's career, provided one respects the basic minimal ethical standards of treatment of the organism (e.g. an animal) imposed by society.

8) Late high school and exam passes to university entrance grades covering biology, chemistry and mathematics subjects, as well as genetics as part of the biology.

9) An undergraduate education in molecular biology or molecular genetics and a good enough Bachelor of Science degree to qualify for studying for a research degree (Doctor of Philosophy, Ph.D.).

10) A PhD degree based on several (e.g. 3) years of your own original research under the guidance of a supervisor.

11) Some post-doctoral research experience in which you choose a domain of molecular biology to make your own.

12) Practical experience in recombinant DNA techniques can be gained during academic research or through research and development (R&D) in industry.

13) Laboratory technicians including those charged with the care of the living organisms to be genetically modified in many countries often require special training at technical colleges. Some technicians work their way up by coming in with no qualifications and learning on the job.


What is the career demand for genetic engineers?

Judging by the job advertisements in the general scientific periodicals the opportunities are currently vast.


What specialities within genetic engineering are there?

The specialities are best categorised according to the organisms involved. Here we include genetics and molecular biology which are very much related. All the following specialisations which are not exhaustive are connected with the different professional levels listed in the introduction.


Clinicians who wish to carry out gene therapy (germ line and somatic), cloning, cancer treatment with genetic engineering (a form of gene therapy), embryo manipulation including pre implantation genetic diagnosis, genetic screening, genetic fingerprinting in forensic science, population genetics, human genome project, human genetic biodiversity project,


Direct GE of animals for instance to make them into 'bioreactors' for producing valuable pharmaceutical proteins. Direct GE of animals to make their tissues compatible with humans so they can be used in xenotransplantation. GM farm livestock for agriculturally advantageous traits (rare as yet), GM fish, GM insects as part of biological pest control. Animal genomic researches (the rat genome is in the sights at the time of writing this document).


GM food crops, GM fibre crops, GM trees, GM turf (e.g. different coloured grasses), herbicide tolerant GM food crops, insect resistant GM food/fibre crops and trees. Plant genomic researches (e.g. Arabidopsis thalinia), GM plants/trees producing vaccines, biofuels, biodegradeable plastics, human pharmaceutical proteins.

Microorganisms (GMMOs)

GMMOs (yeasts, bacteria, moulds) used to produce vaccines, food additives/flavourings, pharmaceutical proteins (e.g. insulin), carbohydrate polymers, biochemicals (e.g. amino acids), cheese, yoghurt, beers, wines. GMMOs including viruses are used as vectors to carry genes into higher organisms (e.g. Agrobacterium tumefaciens in plants; Adenovirus in humans). GMMOs are used in biological pest control, e.g. baculovirus.


What salaries can I expect as a genetic engineer?

Here the sky is the limit, depending on individual determination and ability.

Several web sites list biotech jobs. Here are two examples:

Here are some guide salaries provided by a recruitment agency in UK. The figures are in UK currency. To convert to US$ multiply by 1.8 (Mar 04).

1. laboratory technician without a technical qualification:

a) at university 12-16,000; b) in industry add 2,000

2. laboratory technician with a technical qualification:

a) at university 16-18,000; b) in industry add 2,000

3. research assistant with a degree or advanced technical qualification: 18-22,000

4. postdoctoral research associate: 25-30,000

5. lecturer in molecular biology: 50-60,000

6. professor of molecular biology: 70-80,000

7. middle management in the R&D side of a biotech company: 50-70,000, plus share options

8. head of a division of a biotech company: 80-100,000, plus share options

9. Chief Executive Officer of a biotech company:

100,000 to as high as you want, plus share options and other perks.

(Details of a CEO of a biotech company recently (March 2001) showed that he was earning 385,000, plus considerable share options)

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This document was compiled by David Heaf, Ifgene UK
30 March 2001, updated 25 January 2004