What is a Biotechnology Degree?

Biotechnology – the manipulation of living organisms to produce or modify useful products – is at the forefront of human potential. The field goes back over 10,000 years. The original biotechnologists discovered ways to modify seed crops, selectively breed livestock, and invent bread, beer, and wine.

The biotechnologists of the 20th and 21st centuries count among their achievements the discovery of penicillin, the unraveling of the structure of DNA, the start of the mapping of the human genome, stem cell programming, and bioinformatics.

From optimizing food sources and renewable clean energy to sidestepping genetic defects, curing terminal diseases, and extending human life, the mandate of biotechnology is to change the limits of what’s possible. And starting with a foundation in biology, chemistry, microbiology, and biochemistry, the students pursuing a degree in the field will continue to stretch those limits.

Program Options

Associate Degree in Biotechnology – Two Year Duration
Associate level biotech programs emphasize the basic principles, concepts, and techniques of biotechnology and applied laboratory skills relevant to the industry. The curriculum begins with introductory coursework in biotechnology, biology, chemistry, and mathematics.

Some schools offer students the option to participate in an off-campus biotechnology practicum with partner biotech companies. Graduates of the associate biotech program are prepared to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in the field or for entry-level roles in the workforce.

Here are samples of core courses that make up a typical associate program in biotechnology:

  • Introduction to College Writing – a composition course that emphasizes the process of critical thinking, reading, and writing from an academic perspective; writing in response to reading; standard documentation procedures
  • Principles of Biology – the molecular and cellular basis of life, enzymes, photosynthesis, cell respiration, genetics, reproduction, and development
  • Introduction to Biotechnology – the concepts of biotechnology as they relate to working in the biotechnology industry; overview of product development; GLP (good laboratory practice), GCP (good clinical practice), and GMP (good manufacturing practice), employer expectations, basic laboratory math and statistics, buffer preparation ( buffer solutions are used as a means of keeping pH at a nearly constant value in a wide variety of chemical applications), handling equipment and reagents (substances or mixtures for use in chemical analysis or other reactions), introduction to experimental design, safety considerations, workplace ethics, introduction to relevant biotech databases
  • Principles of Chemistry – concepts of atomic structure, periodic system, chemical bonding, nomenclature, stoichiometry (the calculation of reactants and products in chemical reactions), weight relationships, kinetic molecular theory, gases, liquids, and solids, solutions, chemical reactions, and thermochemistry
  • Cell Culture and Cell Function – introduction to the fundamental methods used to grow animal cells in culture and associated principles of cell structure and function; topics include aseptic technique (using practices and techniques to prevent contamination from pathogens), preparation and use of various cell culture media, cell counting and dilution, cell lines, contamination, cell staining (a technique that can be used to better visualize cells and cell components under a microscope), and quality control
  • Protein Biotechnology – introduction to the characteristics of protein structure and function as they apply to biotechnology, especially in a drug discovery and therapeutic context; laboratory techniques used in protein laboratories; completing calculations routinely encountered in a protein lab; recording, analyzing, and evaluating data collected in a protein laboratory
  • Microbiology – an overview of microorganisms, emphasizing bacteria and the structure, metabolic activities, genetics, and mechanisms of control of microorganisms; the relationships of microorganisms to humans, the environment, disease, and immunity
  • Principles of Genetics – molecular organization of genetic information; the application of genetics in human health, medicine, and biotechnology
  • Basic Immunology and Immunological Methods – introduction to the components of the immune system and how they interact; how these components are utilized in biotechnology; laboratory tasks and calculations common to an immunology lab
  • Essentials of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry – introduction to organic chemistry, emphasizing basic concepts and applications to biological systems
  • Nucleic Acid Methods – introduction to basic molecular techniques used in the study of nucleic acids; topics include structure of DNA and RNA, DNA isolation and sequencing, genomics, and bioinformatics

Bachelor’s Degree in Biotechnology – Three to Four Year Duration
The Bachelor’s Degree in Biotechnology is a suitable foundation for admission to professional schools such as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, optometry, and veterinary medicine. It also prepares students to launch a career in biotech or for graduate studies in biotechnology or another life sciences discipline.

The curriculum at this level takes a more in-depth approach to the subject matter described in the associate degree section above. In addition, the biotech bachelor’s program places greater emphasis on technical laboratory proficiency in applying fundamental knowledge of biology and microbiology.

Beyond the core coursework described in the associate degree section, biotechnology bachelor’s students take courses in advanced fundamentals and applications, such as these:

  • Developmental Biology
  • Microbial Physiology
  • Medical and Veterinary Immunology
  • Medical and Veterinary Virology
  • Engineering Properties of Biological Materials with Laboratory
  • Livestock Breeding and Genetics
  • Dairy Microbiology with Laboratory
  • Principles of Crop Improvement with Laboratory
  • Infectious Disease Laboratory

Master’s Degree in Biotechnology – One to Two Year Duration
Doctoral Degree in Biotechnology – Three to Five Year Duration
While graduate programs may require completion of some compulsory coursework, biotechnology master’s and doctoral students focus their studies on supervised research of topics related to their thesis or dissertation. Different schools will offer different options based on the research areas supported by their faculty members. The areas described below are some of the more common examples.

Medical Sciences
Examples of research:

  • the development of drugs for the treatment of cancer and psychiatric disorders
  • novel antibiotic innovation
  • design and development of sensors for application to disease diagnosis

Biological, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences
Examples of research:

  • the search for and discovery of commercially significant natural products
  • the production of crops with novel traits
  • the role played by micro-organisms in the turnover of pollutants and the production of novel compounds, including pharmaceuticals and pesticides

Marine Science and Technology
Examples of research:

  • the development of novel antibiotics and omega-3 oils from plankton
  • the industrial applications of marine organisms, such as the development of environmentally friendly antifouling coatings (specialized paints applied to ships’ hulls to slow the marine growth on the underwater area, protecting the structure from corrosion and abrasion and keeping ships looking good)

Degrees Similar to Biotechnology

The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.

Biomedical Engineering
Simply stated, biomedical engineering uses engineering to solve health and medical problems. For example, a biomedical engineer might look for chemical signals in the body that warn of a particular disease or condition.

Clinical Laboratory Science
Degree programs in clinical laboratory science prepare students to work as laboratory technicians, who use chemicals and other substances to test body fluids and tissues for the purpose of diagnosing diseases. The curriculum combines chemistry, biology, and medicine.

Genetics is concerned with how traits such as hair color, eye color, and risk for disease are passed or inherited from parents to their children, and how these inherited traits differ from person to person. At the center of the study of genetics is the genetic code or ‘genome.’ This genetic information is made up of a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and is stored in almost every cell in the body.

Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. These ‘microbes’ include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa, and algae.

Molecular Biology
The field of molecular biology is concerned with genetics, with the structure and the relationships between four molecules in the body: proteins, fats, carbohydrates, nucleic acids.

Pharmaceutical Science
Pharmaceutical science is concerned with the discovery and development of new drugs and therapies. The main categories of the field are drug discovery and design, drug delivery, drug action, clinical sciences, drug analysis, cost effectiveness of medicines, and regulatory affairs.

Skills You’ll Learn

Individuals who study and work in the field of biotechnology develop a set of skills that are transferable to a variety of careers. Among these skills are:

  • Attention to detail
  • Investigation, research, analysis, and complex problem-solving
  • Technical savvy
  • Creativity / innovative thinking
  • Product design, development, testing, and modification
  • Three-dimensional conceptual ability
  • Appreciation for product marketability
  • Communication and teamwork skills developed through the need to collaborate with professionals in the medical, scientific, and engineering fields
  • Report writing and documentation

What Can You Do with a Biotechnology Degree?

Due to the specific nature of the biotechnology degree, most graduates of the discipline work directly in the growing life sciences industries, filling increasing demand from employers utilizing technologies such as molecular biology, genetic engineering, tissue culture, reproductive intervention, and biomass conversion (plant or animal material used as fuel to produce electricity or heat). Biotech grads apply these technologies in a variety of applications, including:

  • Vaccine and pharmaceutical development
  • Biomedical research
  • Genetic diagnostic testing
  • Bio-renewable product development
  • Agronomic seed production
  • Livestock breeding
  • DNA analysis / parentage testing and verification of identity
  • Food science
  • Criminal forensics

Some of the specific roles held by biotechnologists include:

  • Genetic Engineer – by manipulating an organism’s genes, genetic engineers can make a plant more resistant to disease or pests, or modify bacteria to carry drugs to targeted tissues
  • Bioinformatics Scientist – merges biological science and computer science, taking massive amounts of biological data and gaining applicable insights from it
  • Biopharmaceutical Specialist – discovers, designs, manufactures, and commercializes DNA-derived biotech products that include antibodies, vaccines, biosimilars (biologic medical products highly similar to another already approved biological medicine), and cellular immunotherapies
  • Biomedical Engineer – designs products such as artificial limbs, internal organs, devices that regulate insulin, and laser systems that can be used in corrective eye surgery
  • Clinical Research Coordinator – makes sure new medicines are safe through clinical trials and scientific research
  • Plant Biotechnologist – modifies the genetic makeup of a plant to foster more beneficial traits, such as resistance to pests, disease, droughts, and herbicides
  • Animal Scientist – genetically manipulates laboratory animals, such as mice and rats, in the interests of human health and development; studies livestock productivity and welfare
  • Biomedical Researcher – conducts research to improve overall human health; designs and conducts studies to investigate human disease; standardizes drug delivery methods for mass manufacturing and distribution; develops programs with health departments to improve patient outcomes
  • Craft Beer Brewer – applies biotechnology to identify the right dosage and strains of yeast, barley, and hops in beer production
  • Environmental Biotechnologist – develops, uses, and regulates biological systems to repair contaminated environments and establish environment friendly processes; looks for natural solutions to environmental hazards


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