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.

Should I Become 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. The following table outlines the primary requirements that employers look for when hiring genetic engineers.

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, critical thinking; ability to use computer aided design (CAD) software, graphics or photo imaging software, PERL, Python, analytical software programs and word processing software programs; ability to use lasers, spectrometers, light scattering equipment, binocular light compound microscopes, benchtop centrifuges or similar laboratory equipment; excellent mathematical, deductive and inductive reasoning skills; reading, writing, and oral comprehension skills
Salary $86,950 per year (Median salary from May 2014 for all biomedical engineers)

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

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.

Success Tip:

  • Be part of an internship program. 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.

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