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Become a Genetic Engineer: Education and Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become a genetic engineer. Learn about the job description and read the step-by-step process to start a career in genetic engineering. View article »

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Video Transcript

Should I Be a Genetic Engineer?

As a genetic engineer, you'll alter genes in order to improve the biological capabilities of humans, plants and animals. In this field, your main goal is to help people lead quality lives. As a gene therapist, you'll treat human patients with genetic illnesses. Otherwise, you might work in a non-medical environment as a biochemist or biophysicist, exploring living organisms such as plants used as food crops. Your work will involve handling harmful organisms and toxins. You'll typically work full-time with a consistent schedule.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's or master's degree for entry-level careers; doctoral degree for independent research careers
Degree Field(s) Biochemistry, biophysics, or related fields
Key Skills Strong understanding of scientific methods and rules, complex problem solving and critical thinking; ability to use computer aided design (CAD), graphics or photo imaging, PERL, Python, analytical, and word processing software programs; ability to use lasers, spectrometers, light scattering equipment, binocular light compound microscopes, bench top centrifuges, or similar laboratory equipment; excellent mathematical, deductive and inductive reasoning, reading, writing, and oral comprehension skills
Salary $86,220 (2015 median salary for all biomedical engineers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net Online

Genetic engineers need a bachelor's or master's degree for entry-level careers. However, a doctoral degree is required for those seeking independent research careers. Relevant fields of study include biochemistry, biophysics or related fields. Genetic engineers need a strong understanding of scientific methods and rules, as well as complex problem solving and critical thinking skills. Excellent mathematical, deductive and inductive reasoning skills, as well as reading, writing, and oral comprehension skills are also needed to work in this field. These professionals should have the ability to use computer aided design (CAD) software, graphics or photo imaging software, PERL, Python, analytical software programs, and word processing software programs. Additionally, genetic engineers should be able to use lasers, spectrometers, light scattering equipment, binocular light compound microscopes, benchtop centrifuges or similar laboratory equipment. According to 2015 earnings information gathered by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, biomedical engineers had a median annual wage of $86,220.

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Steps to Become a Genetic Engineer

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A genetic engineer starts by earning a bachelor's degree, typically in a branch of the physical sciences, such as biology or chemistry. Some schools offer undergraduate programs in genetic engineering or in closely-related fields such as biological engineering. Curricula typically include rigorous courses in calculus, biology, chemistry and physics.

Step 2: Earn an Advanced Degree

A bachelor's degree may be sufficient educational preparation for some entry-level careers in genetic engineering. However, many employers only hire candidates with advanced degrees (master's or Ph.D.). Advanced degree programs allow aspiring genetic engineers to gain valuable experience through laboratory-based research. To carry out genetic engineering research independently, one should expect to earn a doctoral degree, and to advance in a genetic engineering field, one usually needs a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. You may pursue a degree in biochemistry or biophysics. If you want to treat human patients, you'll likely need a medical degree as well.

While attending a graduate school, it is a good idea for students to participate in an internship program to gain experience. Universities often have fellowship and research programs that allow students to receive relevant training before leaving the academic environment. The Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other professional or governmental organizations in the field may post internship opportunities.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

Genetic engineering is a broad field. Engineers can specialize in agriculture, healthcare and other specialties. They may work as molecular biologists, breast cancer researchers, forensic scientists and genetic counselors, among other positions. These careers can be found at universities, healthcare organizations, research and development firms, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and government agencies.

Step 4: Join a Professional Organization

Aspiring genetic engineers seeking to advance their careers may consider joining a professional membership organization, such as the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), which offers its members access to continuing education, professional training, networking opportunities, industry-related events and other resources for professional growth and career advancement.

Genetic engineers commonly need a master's degree or a doctoral degree in a related field, such as biophysics or biochemistry, though some entry-level positions may be available to individuals with a relevant bachelor's degree.

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