Genetic engineers enjoy fascinating and generally well-paid careers at the intersection of biology and engineering, literally helping to design new life forms or modify existing ones by making changes to the structure of DNA.
What Does a Genetic Engineer Do?
Their work is overwhelmingly conducted in laboratories, although senior engineers may have administrative or teaching roles as well, managing a team working on a project or appearing at conferences to present their work. Most work for corporations, although there are still opportunities in academia and a limited number of government agencies, particularly agriculture. Along with the heavy ethical responsibility native to tinkering with the building blocks of life comes a high demand for those who are qualified, and the according benefits and compensation, including stock options for many workers at biotech startups. The genetic engineering scope in the United States is almost unlimited, as it is among the leading countries in the world in genetic research.
Industry and Job Growth Trend
With advances in genetic science, such as CRISPR, has come an exploding – and unanticipated – demand for such specialists. It was not expected that the field would have such powerful tools at its disposal so early in the game. Opportunities are growing much faster in this field than in most scientific areas, estimated at up to 20 percent growth. Yet, with a minimum of a four-year degree needed for entry, the development pipeline for genetic scientists lags behind the demand. If you have the credentials and have been idling in a related field like academia or lab work, a lateral move to genetic engineering could reward you with an immediate, and substantial, increase in income.
Because the sciences are a highly stratified culture, starting salary is dependent on the nature of your degree. Graduates of top genetic engineering colleges are in considerable demand, and can command a significantly higher salary. This is not a field for the autodidact, because credentials count.
The salary gaps between those in the field with a BSc and those with a master's degree become apparent immediately, and only widen as time goes on. Business Insider estimates that negotiating a good starting salary can make a difference of $1 million to your lifetime earnings. At the level of genetic engineers with master's degrees, the impact can be even greater.
Genetic Engineering Salary
The National Human Genome Research Institute and Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate the salary for a newly hired BSc Genetic Engineer at $44,320, while the top end for someone with a master's or Ph.D. is $139,440; the mean salary is $82,840, reflecting the fact that the vast majority of opportunities in the field are for those with post-graduate degrees.
Genetic Engineering Education Requirements
According to Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, "...less than half of the Ph.D.s who received their doctorates in the 'biological, biomedical sciences' in 2014 reported definite commitments for a job, a postdoc position, or a return to predoctoral employment." While this was prior to the CRISPR breakthrough and subsequent increased demand for highly trained personnel, the survey was also taken prior to graduation, so it's likely that the situation for Ph.D.s is not quite so bleak. Indeed.com says that they are the highest earners in the field, averaging $105,252.
Nonetheless, the best ROI in the field of genetic engineering education appears to be a master's degree, which opens the door to well-paid positions where you're empowered to lead and be creative, as opposed to the routine lab work that BSc recipients are relegated to.
The BLS estimates that a biological technician (such as a genetic engineer with a bachelor's degree) earned a median of $43,800 per year or $21.06 per hour doing the routine work of running lab experiments designed by the research scientists. The field as a whole is expected to grow at the rate of 10 percent over the next 10 years. One factor that might limit opportunity is increased mechanization of many of the routine lab tasks, which would result in reduced job opportunities for lab techs.
In a nutshell, if you want a straightforward job featuring a lot of routine, low stress work and decent professional pay, a bachelor's degree and a future as a genetic lab technician might be for you. If you're bright, ambitious and able to spend two extra years to invest in your future at a good genetic engineering college, you can design experiments that create new forms of life, or improve the lives of those already existing, by removing susceptibility to certain cancer triggers, for instance. If your ambition is to teach, you'll need a Ph.D., but the corresponding job security is not there.