How to Become a Molecular Biologist
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
- 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
Meisher isolates DNA from white blood cells
Morgan publishes 'Theory of the Gene'
Chargaff's Rules published
Franklin and Wilkins perform X-ray Crystallography on DNA
Berg creates first recombinant DNA molecule.
First successful cloning experiments
Various methods for sequencing DNA announced
Edwin Southern develops 'Southern Blotting'
Mullis invents the Polymerase Chain Reaction
Alec Jeffreys develops DNA fingerprinting
Human Genome Project launched
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 BiologyClick thumbnail to view full-size
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;
- 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
Salary per annum (US)
$21,000 to $49,355
$44,699 to $68,748
$61,020 to $97,850
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)
Salary range: $44,219 - $240,162
Salary Range: $45,913 - $88,500
Salary Range: $41,116 - $58,958
Salary Range: $42,000 - $85,000
Salary Range: $38,660 - $53,687
Salary Range: $34,000 - $72,000
Molecular Biology - Professional Bodies
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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).
Where Next? - Molecular Biology
- Biochemical Techniques
A list of biochemical techniques that most Molecular Biologists have to be familiar with.
- Molecular Biology
An in depth exploration of Molecular Biology from Stanford University. Includes the history, key concepts, and how molecular biology fits in with the rest of science
- Laboratory of Molecular Biology
MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge University, UK. Includes information on current publications, vacancies and Summer Studentships (found in the 'Students' tab)
- Princeton University Molecular Biology - Home
A look at the Molecular Biology Department at Princeton University, including current graduate, undergraduate and post-doc opportunities