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How to Become a Molecular Biologist

Updated on April 28, 2012
Molecular Biology is concerned with DNA and other biologically active molecules.
Molecular Biology is concerned with DNA and other biologically active molecules. | Source

What is Molecular Biology?

My 16 year old Biology students often ask me if they should take biology at A-level (16-18 yrs old) and what they can do with biology when they leave school. My response is usually 'anything,' but a more specific answer could be: Become a Molecular Biologist.

Molecular Biology is the study of (primarily) DNA, RNA and proteins, how they relate to one-another and their roles and effects on an organism. Molecular Biology took it's first tentative steps as a field in the 1930s, and has been the inspiration of some of the most important technological and scientific advancements of all time. Whilst most perople are perhaps unsure of the advancements made by molecular biology in the last 100 years, the innovations made by this field are household names:

  • The discovery of DNA and RNA
  • DNA Fingerprinting
  • Genetic Modification
  • Cloning
  • Human Genome Project

More specific than cell biology, molecular biology is one of the true linking fields between chemistry, physics and biology.

Molecular Biology Timeline

Date
Event
1869
Meisher isolates DNA from white blood cells
1926
Morgan publishes 'Theory of the Gene'
1933
Electrophoresis invented
1950
Chargaff's Rules published
1952
Franklin and Wilkins perform X-ray Crystallography on DNA
1972
Berg creates first recombinant DNA molecule.
1972
First successful cloning experiments
1974
Various methods for sequencing DNA announced
1975
Edwin Southern develops 'Southern Blotting'
1980
Mullis invents the Polymerase Chain Reaction
1984
Alec Jeffreys develops DNA fingerprinting
1990
Human Genome Project launched
2000
Human Genome first draft published

What Does a Molecular Biologist Do?

A molecular biologist is a catch-all term that refers to scientists who work with DNA and other biologically active molecules, such as RNA and proteins. This results in a wide range of different occupations. Molecular biologists can be involved with investigations into genetic disease, inheritance, genetic modification, and forensics to name but a few.

But who hires molecular biologists? Similarly to any scientific degree - a wide range of sectors and industries are interested in securing the services of molecular biologists. Government bodies, teaching institutions, agricultural companies, forensic services, and lawyers all require the services of molecular biologists.

Molecular biology centers around the design and execution of experiments to investigate a specific problem. Depending on experience, you may be partnered with a mentor, or you may be mentoring someone else. Most positions within research expect you to keep abreast of the latest news in the field. There are also opportunities for teaching and travel to international conferences.

As with other scientific jobs (e.g. Cell Biologist), there is a significant paperwork factor. Experimental results must be recorded, analysed, written up, and presented at staff meetings (see video). Much of this requires capability in the fields of ICT and Mathematics/Statistics.

Take a look at an interview with a molecular biologist to get a flavour of the profession. As he explains, the specifics of the role depend on your experience and the sector you work in.

A Day in the Life of a Molecular Biologist

Equipment for Molecular Biology

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A thermal cycler - a key piece of equipment used in the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR - sort of molecular photocopying), which in turn is a key technique in Molecular BiologyIf you have a mixture of different sized molecules, you can use Gel Electrophoresis to separate out the molecules for analysisWhich results in something like this....(who said molecular biology couldn't be beautiful? - this is taken under UV light)...or the more familiar DNA fingerprint.X Ray Crystallography is another key tool of the molecular biologist; it can reveal detailed, 3-D structures of proteins. Here we see crystals of the protein DNase being prepared
A thermal cycler - a key piece of equipment used in the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR - sort of molecular photocopying), which in turn is a key technique in Molecular Biology
A thermal cycler - a key piece of equipment used in the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR - sort of molecular photocopying), which in turn is a key technique in Molecular Biology | Source
If you have a mixture of different sized molecules, you can use Gel Electrophoresis to separate out the molecules for analysis
If you have a mixture of different sized molecules, you can use Gel Electrophoresis to separate out the molecules for analysis | Source
Which results in something like this....(who said molecular biology couldn't be beautiful? - this is taken under UV light)
Which results in something like this....(who said molecular biology couldn't be beautiful? - this is taken under UV light) | Source
...or the more familiar DNA fingerprint.
...or the more familiar DNA fingerprint. | Source
X Ray Crystallography is another key tool of the molecular biologist; it can reveal detailed, 3-D structures of proteins. Here we see crystals of the protein DNase being prepared
X Ray Crystallography is another key tool of the molecular biologist; it can reveal detailed, 3-D structures of proteins. Here we see crystals of the protein DNase being prepared | Source

Skills Needed for Molecular Biology

Molecular Biology deals with a huge amount of data. Due to the nature of what you are working with (very few molecules can be visualised directly), you need to be confident working with computers in general, and statistical software in particular.

More generally, prospective molecular biologists need to develop the following traits:

  • Strong communication skills;
  • Patience;
  • Open to critical feedback and assistance - particularly early on in your career;
  • Competency with ICT and basic molecular techniques (PCR, X-Ray crystallography, Electrophoresis, chromatography and protein purification...to name but a few key techniques)
  • Strong numeracy

Furthermore, molecular biology requires good critical-thinking and analysis skills. Joining science clubs and science fairs can help develop these skills, as can debate clubs. As many of the biochemical tests conducted in this field are colour based, it is important to be able to distinguish colours clearly.

Average Salary for a Molecular Biologist

Experience
Salary per annum (US)
0-4 years
$21,000 to $49,355
5-9 years
$44,699 to $68,748
10-20 years
$61,020 to $97,850
Data collected from the 2010 PayScale survey (www.payscale.com)

Molecular Biologist Salary

Molecular Biologist salaries are around those of most technical scientific jobs. Salary depends on experience, qualifications and location, however a range of $30,322-$94,425 is quoted on the PayScale website (10th-90th percentile) for the US, and £15,392 - £76,026 in the UK. In addition to this salary, only 12% of those surveyed reported they received no health benefits. The most common benefits reported were:

  • Medical (85%)
  • Dental (71%)
  • Vision (55%)

As with many positions within science, academia traditionally pays much lower than the industrial sector . University median salary is quoted at around $29k to $52k per annum; a similar position in a hospital earns a median wage of between $45k and $99k per annum.

Top Salaries by City (PayScale.com)

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A markerBoston -
Boston, MA, USA
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Salary range: $44,219 - $240,162

B markerBaltimore -
Baltimore, MD, USA
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Salary Range: $45,913 - $88,500

C markerSt. Louis -
St Louis, MO, USA
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Salary Range: $41,116 - $58,958

D markerSan Francisco -
San Francisco, CA, USA
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Salary Range: $42,000 - $85,000

E markerDenver -
Denver, CO, USA
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Salary Range: $38,660 - $53,687

F markerSan Diego -
San Diego, CA, USA
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Salary Range: $34,000 - $72,000

How to Become a Molecular Biologist

The path to this career must start from an early age, and there are many steps to securing this career:

  1. High School: you need to focus on, and secure good grades in, the sciences and mathematics. This is also the time to try to secure some work experience: many labs - particularly in Universities - offer work placements during the summer. These are very competitive and fill up early - contact your school's career advisor or contact a local University to find out more.
  2. College/University: Here in the UK, many Universities offer BSc courses in Molecular Biology - try and secure a place on one of these. In the US, very few colleges offer a bachelor's degree in molecular biology. Instead you should take a biology course and major in biochemistry, genetics or microbiology. You should also take a few courses in cell biology and statistics.
  3. During your degree: Get into the lab as much as possible! Also, try and secure a placement working in Industry. In the UK many courses offer a 1 year industrial placement as part of the degree - this is highly recommended. If you are not keen on taking a PhD, this will also get around the old "no job without experience; no experience without a job" problem. In the US, this may not be an option, so try to get some work as a molecular biology technician - it may not be glamorous, but it is that crucial first step on the employment ladder.
  4. Graduation: Decide on whether to take a graduate degree (PhDs are more useful than Masters). At this point you should consider registering with a professional body (although joining as an undergrad student shows your dedication - student membership is often available at massively reduced rates)
  5. PhD: Usually a staple for anyone who wants to continue in research, those in the US should look for courses accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS).

Comments

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    • Nare Anthony profile image

      Nare Gevorgyan 5 years ago

      Excellent! Everything is so well researched and organised! Only are you sure the last number of salary is correct?

    • TFScientist profile image
      Author

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      Nice catch - all changed :)

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      Nice hub!

      Speaking as a molecular biologist here in the U.S., the skills typically do not include X-Ray crystallography and chromatography. Those are very specialized skills that aren't needed unless someone is going into one of those niche fields. Protein purification is not always a must either - it depends upon the lab or company one may be applying too. But it can't hurt to have basic protein purification skills though!

      PCR, DNA purification and electrophoresis, good organizational skills are a must. Basic familiarity with computer DNA programs (something like Vector NTI or MacVector) and at least some experience in bioinformatics is highly favorable!

      For young students, I personally think it's important to think of the end goal in mind. Does one want to be a molecular biologist in an academic research institution or in a commercial company? And then try to find internships in those settings during the summer months or volunteer during the school year.

      As TFScientist pointed out, "get into the lab as much as possible"...that advice is priceless!

      Experience trumps any coursework when I'm filling molecular biology positions!

    • TFScientist profile image
      Author

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      Thanks Kris for your expert view - I will tidy up a few points in light of your comments. Is there anything else you think I need to include?

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      I think you've hit all the major points! The Molecular Biology field is broad and there are many opportunities out there right now. When I'm hiring (in academics), I often don't have enough qualified applicants, so that's a really good sign for anyone reading this article that is thinking about entering this field of study!

    • TFScientist profile image
      Author

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      That's great. I wish the employment market was so rosy over here :(

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      In recent years, I've seen an increase in DNA and Genotyping in the drug studies we review for the firm I consult with. It seems to me the field is rapidly growing, and there may even be additional spin-off fields in the future.

      This is a very informative hub - thanks! Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • pinkhawk profile image

      pinkhawk 4 years ago from Pearl of the Orient

      I still can't decide if I'm going to pursue MBB or not...but this article help me to visulize the possible things that may happen... thank you for the idea. ^_^

    • profile image

      nerd niz 4 years ago

      thanx for the help

    • WritingPrompts profile image

      Karen 4 years ago from The Garden of Eugene (Oregon)

      Great hub. My son wants to do something like this - so he can "invent" real pokémon, and dragons, not necessarily in that order. This gives me some great information as a parent in what to encourage him to do when he hits high school if he's still interested once he outgrows the pokémon.

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