Biotechnology is the manipulation of microorganisms to create new drug and biological products. It is a sub-sector of the life sciences sector, which in the UK is one of the strongest and most productive in the world.
Other related sectors you may wish to explore further are:
Cogent, the UK's strategic body for skills in the science industries, has worked with employers to develop the Career Navigator to help you explore the huge range of roles available.
Explore the sector
There are three commonly defined branches of biotechnology:
Sometimes known as 'red biotechnology', this involves working with the cells, proteins or genes of living organisms to manufacture products that help to diagnose, treat and prevent human disease. The majority of biotech companies work within the healthcare field. The UK Government’s Office for Life Sciences has produced an infographic on the scale of the biopharmaceuticals sector.
One of the key differences between the medical biotechnology and pharmaceutical sectors is the basis of their drug development processes, i.e. the biotech industry uses living organisms or their products, and the pharmaceutical industry uses chemical-based materials and processes. Many of the larger pharma companies are increasingly involves in both.
For the latest industry news, visit the UK BioIndustry Association.
Sometimes known as 'white biotechnology', this is the application of biotechnology to industrial or manufacturing processes, e.g. using enzymes and micro-organisms to make bio-based products in sectors such as chemicals, food ingredients, detergents, paper, textiles and biofuels. The UK leads Europe in this rapidly developing branch of biotechnology.
The Centre for Process Innovation has a blog post describing 10 everyday uses of industrial biotechnology.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has a dedicated webpage sharing the latest industrial biotechnology news.
Sometimes known as 'green biotechnology' or 'agritech', this branch can be further split into two areas:
- Biotechnology in plant agriculture can improve crop insect resistance, enhance crop herbicide tolerance and facilitate the use of more environmentally-sustainable farming practices
- Biotechnology in animal agriculture is used to genetically engineer animals to improve their suitability for pharmaceutical, agricultural or industrial applications
To investigate the latest developments in the UK agritech industry, the Government maintains a useful Twitter account @AgriTechGov.
Employers and roles
Employers are typically research-focused companies and organisations, or those with research departments, for example:
In industry, there are roles within research and development (R&D), operations, quality, business development and project management.
R&D will almost always require a postgraduate qualification, usually a PhD, following by some post-doctoral research experience.
Alternatively, you can shape your career as a bio-entrepreneur and set up your own business.
Start by exploring schemes such as the Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme – Biotechnology Yes. This is a competition to raise awareness of the commercialisation of bioscience ideas.
Entry-level jobs may typically by at technician, analyst or assistant level, or may have 'junior' in the job title.
CK Clinical have created a great selection of articles and video resources on areas that are currently experiencing skills shortages and how job-hunters get their foot in the door.
Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) is a scheme where graduates work with an academic or research organisation to support a UK business on a specific project focused on innovation for 12 – 36 months, Innovate UK list vacancies and have a ‘landscape map’ showing funders, innovation centres, networks and research & training programmes.
Finding a job and sources of vacancies
Finding a job
Employers will look for experience that has given you relevant technical and personal skills, ideally gained through industrial placements or internships.
In an industry that is so dependent on obtaining funding to support research, commercial or industrial awareness is a key attribute that is often lacking in applicants. Visit our webpage to find out more about commercial awareness.
Industrial placement and internships are very beneficial, but if you don't yet have that directly relevant experience, keeping up to date with industry developments through news items on key websites, or perhaps following a particular organisation's social media feeds can all help to build your commercial awareness. Our resource on laboratory work has tips on where to look for work experience and jobs.
Working in retail or fundraising for charities, etc., can also be useful in helping you develop commercial awareness through understanding how important the financial aspects of a business are.
There are many roles available across the biotechnology sector and some, particularly those in R&D, will have specific degree subject requirements.
In general, desirable degree subjects include microbiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, immunology, biological and chemical engineering.
Research roles will almost always require a postgraduate qualification, often a PhD. Some of the subject areas you could study at postgraduate level include:
- industrial biotechnology
- molecular microbiology
- synthetic biology
- biopharmaceuticals and enterprise
- medical biotechnology
- plant biotechnology
- animal biotechnology
- regenerative therapies
- environmental biotechnology
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has information about research, funding and institutions.
Specific skills requirements will be role dependent, but in general employers will be looking for:
- evidence of your interest in science
- curiosity and a receptiveness to new ideas
- strong data analysis and problem-solving skills
- a high level of accuracy and attention to detail
- strong communication skills and the ability to work in a multidisciplinary team
- networking skills, with the ability to build effective relationships
- commercial awareness
Some of the larger organisations run formal graduate recruitment programmes, e.g. AstraZeneca or the NHS Scientist Training Programme, but as so many of the employers are small companies, their recruitment processes are often less formal.
Networking can play an important role in your job search. Joining relevant online networks such as LinkedIn or Facebook could be an excellent way to identify potential employers, participate in discussions, make useful contacts and find out about upcoming vacancies.
Visit our networking page to find out more about networking effectively.
If you can identify a small number of companies working in fields that particularly interest you, make contact to find out more about them and consider sending in a speculative application.
Commercial research organisations often use recruitment agencies.
Our source of vacancies from local, national and international companies and organisations
Specialist recruitment agencies are a good source of vacancies. Use the search term 'biotechnology' to start your search. Scientific agencies include:
Science Recruitment Group
Jobs in Science
Access Science Jobs
To identify other agencies, use the Recruitment and Employment Confederation's 'Find an Agency' tool, searchable under a number of criteria, including sector and region.
The following sites may also be useful:
Royal Society of Chemistry
How do I find work experience?
Internship programmes are offered by many of the larger employers, but a speculative approach will be more effective with smaller companies.
Networking is key as this will allow you to find out more about the industry and make contacts that could help you to secure work experience.
There are a number of places where you might start your search for internships and placements.
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