Become a Cell Biologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Find out how to become a cell biologist. Research the education and training requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in cell biology.

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Should I Become a Cell Biologist?

Cell biologists study life at the cellular level. They analyze either organisms that can usually only be seen with a microscope or single cells of more complex organisms. They can work for government agencies or for private companies. Some cell biologists may help create vaccines or work with food and cosmetic manufacturers.

Microbiologists, including cell biologists, usually share their work hours between office and laboratory settings. Those that work with diseased or otherwise hazardous cells must wear protective clothing and gear while in the lab. Some microbiologists may travel in order to gather cell samples to study. Because scientific research like cell research is often funded by grants, cell biologists may feel pressure to produce results in order to gain funding for their experiments and projects. Almost all such scientists keep regular full-time schedules.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Ph.D.
Degree Field Cell biology or a related field
Key Skills Analytical skills, active listening and interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, math skills, critical thinking skills; use of cloning vectors, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers, temperature cycling chambers, volumetric pipettes; use of analytical and scientific software, graphical imaging software and spreadsheet software
Salary (2014) $67,790 (median salary for microbiologists)

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

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Cell biologists generally begin their careers with a bachelor's degree in cell biology. Coursework for an undergraduate degree includes classes in math, chemistry, biology and physics. Those courses will likely include hands-on lab experiments. Students will also take coursework in advanced biology courses, such as immunobiology, neuroscience, stem cells and genetics.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in conducting research studies. Many schools will offer opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research. Research experience is vital for cell biologists and is not just for graduate students. Students will have the opportunity to sharpen their critical thinking skills, develop marketable professional skills and learn about challenges in developing and executing sound research. Taking part in these opportunities can also be important in the application process to graduate school as it shows a commitment to research.

Step 2: Earn a Graduate Degree

Some students may choose to obtain a master's degree before pursuing a Ph.D. in cell biology or a related field, although it is perfectly acceptable to go from a bachelor's degree to a Ph.D. program. The Ph.D. program includes laboratory rotations as well as coursework in research techniques and literature review, lab group meetings and attendance at cell biology seminars. Students will likely be required to pass exams throughout the program and serve as a graduate teaching assistant (TA), facilitating undergraduate classes. After completing candidacy exams, students begin independent research for their doctoral dissertation and eventually defend their thesis and present their dissertation to a supervisory committee. The dissertation process can several years to complete.

Step 3: Get Published.

It is important for scientists to publish their research results in credible peer-reviewed journals throughout the course of their work. In some cases, being published may be required. Students can co-author a paper with a senior researcher or submit their own individual research results for publication.

Success Tip:

  • Sharpen interpersonal skills. Although graduate students will spend most of their time in a lab, it's important that they develop the interpersonal skills to thrive in a work environment and manage a research team. Students can work on their interpersonal skills by becoming a teaching assistant, even if it is not required, or joining a student or professional organization.
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