Becoming a Molecular Biologist: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a molecular biologist career? Get real job descriptions, salary info and career prospects to see if becoming a molecular biologist is the right career choice for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Molecular Biologist Career

Molecular biologists conduct experiments on cells and study life at the molecular level. Check out the pros and cons below to see if becoming a molecular biologist is right for you.

Pros of a Molecular Biologist Career
Annual salary of $35,756-$90,939 (10th-90th percentile)***
High-growth field (19% from 2012-2022)*
Some entry-level jobs only require a bachelor's degree*
Can work in multiple fields, including medical, pharmaceutical and forensic sciences**

Cons of a Molecular Biologist Career
Need an advanced degree to teach or direct research in a lab**
Possible exposure to biological hazards*
Entry-level positions may be competitive*
Competition for research funding*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, ***PayScale.com.

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Molecular biologists study cell processes at the molecular level, often working with DNA, RNA and proteins in order to better understand how these molecules function. Much of your time is spent in a laboratory performing various experiments; the type of experiments vary depending on your chosen field. For example, you may develop new medications or study ways to improve agricultural processes. Laboratory work often requires you to take a multidisciplinary approach, pooling your knowledge of math, biology, chemistry and computer science in order to devise and carry out experiments. Depending on your experience and education, you may complete basic tasks or direct a research team.

Salary Info and Job Prospects

In July 2015, PayScale.com reported that most molecular biologists earned between $35,000-$90,000. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected a 19% increase in employment for biophysicists and biochemists, which are job titles in the same realm as molecular biologists, from 2012-2022. This faster-than-average job growth may be fueled by increased demand for biomedical research. Advancements in the agricultural, environmental science and clean energy industries may also create jobs. Career prospects should be best for individuals with prior laboratory experience, though competition for entry-level positions and government funding may be tough.

Education Requirements

There are various levels of work within molecular biology labs that have different educational requirements. Most molecular biologists have at least a bachelor's degree in biology or molecular biology. These 4-year programs may include coursework in physics, calculus, cell biology, biochemistry and genetics.

If you'd like to teach or want to direct research in a molecular biology lab, you need to earn an advanced degree. Master's programs in molecular biology usually take two years to complete and may include one year of coursework and one year of independent research. Ph.D. programs can take four or five years to complete and culminate in an original thesis documenting your research and findings.

Essential Skills

Strong problem-solving skills and the ability to think critically are important for molecular biologists. Good public speaking and writing skills are vital as well, since researchers are responsible for communicating their findings.

What Employers Are Looking For

Depending on the position, employers may seek candidates with a range of degrees as well as laboratory experience. They sometimes mention specific lab techniques in which you should be proficient, such as polymerase chain reaction and molecular marker technology. Check out the following job postings from May 2012 to get an idea of what employers may be looking for:

  • A consumer products testing laboratory in Ohio was looking to hire a molecular biologist to run various tests and data analysis for clients. The candidate needed to have an associate's, bachelor's or master's degree in molecular biology or a related field, 1-3 years of experience in a molecular biology lab and the ability to work with fragrances and live cultures.
  • A plant biotechnology company in Indiana was searching for a molecular biologist to work on genetic improvements to corn crops. The ideal candidate needed to have a bachelor's or master's degree, a strong background in genetics and computer skills.
  • A biotechnology company in California was looking for a molecular biologist to work with bacterial cloning for gene expression studies. Requirements included a bachelor's or master's degree, at least two years of experience and the ability to work well with a team.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Because lab experience is important in this field, you should take advantage of any opportunities to gain extra laboratory skills. You may also choose to work for a few years between your undergraduate and graduate programs. This can help you gain additional lab skills as well as experience that graduate schools may want.

You can show employers your dedication to the field by joining a professional association, like the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. As a member, you may have access to current research publications, job postings and industry events.

Other Careers to Consider

If you'd like to work in a biology laboratory but don't want to work with DNA and other molecular structures, consider a career as a microbiologist. Microbiologists work with very small organisms, like viruses and bacteria, for pharmaceutical manufacturers and federal agencies. A bachelor's degree is typically required for entry-level work in this field; a Ph.D. is necessary for independent research and teaching jobs. In May 2011, the BLS reported that microbiologists made a median annual salary of about $65,000. The number of employed professionals in the field was expected to grow 13% from 2010-2020.

If you're interested in biological research but don't want to spend all of your time doing lab work, you could become a natural sciences manager. These professionals direct research and development activities in different scientific fields; supervisory responsibilities are a key component of the job. At minimum, you need a bachelor's degree in a scientific specialty and a few years of experience in order to become a natural sciences manager. In May 2011, the BLS reported that natural sciences managers made a median salary of about $115,000. However, the BLS indicated that employment growth was slower than average - just eight percent from 2010-2020.

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Grand Canyon University

  • BS in Health Sciences: Professional Development & Advanced Patient Care
  • Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Science

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American InterContinental University

  • Master of Healthcare Management
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  • Bachelor of Business Admin: Healthcare Management

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Colorado Technical University

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Fortis College

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CDI College

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  • Diploma in Medical Laboratory Assistant/Technician

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Kaplan University

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Indiana Wesleyan University

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  • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
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