Genetic engineers alter material in the cells of living organisms that passes the organisms' traits from one generation to the next. People using genetic engineering techniques occupy a wide range of job titles in many different scientific and medical fields, including biotechnology, molecular biology and microbiology. Their salaries depend on the degrees they earned in a particular specialty. Few people who use genetic engineering techniques are called "genetic engineers."
Origins of Genetic Engineering
Genetic engineering began early in human civilization, when people crossbred different types of plants or animals to create crops and herds with certain desired traits. In addition to these older practices, modern genetic engineering also uses laboratory techniques that alter, combine or clone segments of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecules carried by all living organisms that contain their inherited traits. Genetic engineering techniques are used in agriculture, medicine and many other fields, with applications ranging from creating new crops to paternity testing.
Choosing a Genetic Engineering Program
As of 2014, Cedar Crest College of Allentown, Pennsylvania, offers one of the few genetic engineering bachelor's degree programs. Some graduates of the program have become lab technicians in university or industrial laboratories. Other graduates enter master's or doctoral degree programs leading to careers as cancer researchers, genetics counselors and forensic scientists. Because only a small number of academic programs specifically train genetic engineers, students usually enter programs where genetic engineering is taught as part of preparation for other careers. These programs include bachelor's degrees in genetics, microbiology with a genetic engineering concentration, genetic biology, plant genetics, chemical and biomolecular engineering and similar master's degree and Ph.D. programs.
Salaries for genetic engineers vary widely. The U.S. Department of Labor's O*Net database found in 2012 that 88 percent of genetic technologists have bachelor's degrees and 12 percent have master's degrees. A genetic technologist earned an average yearly salary of $57,580. Agricultural and food scientists, some of whom start careers with bachelor's degrees, while others obtain doctorates, took home an average paycheck of $58,610 per year in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
People holding doctorates earn the highest salaries in genetic engineering careers. Molecular biologists, who usually have doctoral degrees, were paid an average salary of $72,700 in 2012, according to the O*Net database. Scientists possessing Ph. D. and M.D. degrees who led some of the most important U.S. genetic research institutes in 2010 earned $240,601 to $1,476,406 per year, according to a 2012 "Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News" report.
Predictions for job growth differ for each genetic engineering profession. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor's O_Net database predicted in 2012 that genetic technologist jobs would grow by 10 percent to 19 percent between 2010 and 2020, an average rate of growth. The O_Net database warned that molecular biologists could expect a job growth of only 3 percent to 9 percent between 2010 and 2020, a rate that is slower than average.