Good questions – congratulations on planning ahead! Each academic program will be slightly different, but generally speaking, the specific life science or engineering bachelor’s degree obtained does not matter as much as the skill sets you acquire during your undergraduate training. Look for STEM majors that offer a broad, solid foundation in biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, with the opportunity to get hands-on experience in laboratory settings.
During sophomore or junior year, once core science classes are completed, students should look for a research internship in an academic laboratory or other “real world” research setting outside of the classroom. Working in an academic research lab is one of the best ways for undergraduates to find professional research mentors (professors, post-doctoral scholars and graduate students) and acquire “transferrable skills” for the biotechnology industry. Biotech job opportunities, along with the other STEM fields, are projected to grow for the foreseeable future and are highlighted in the National Bioeconomy Blueprint published by the White House in 2012.
At UC Davis, students interested in biotechnology career paths have many degree options. The Biotechnology undergraduate major offers training across four concentration areas: fermentation/microbial biotech; animal biotech; plant biotech; and bioinformatics. Biotech-related majors are also found throughout the College of Biological Sciences (9), the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, and the College of Engineering (Biological Systems, Biomedical, Biochemical, Chemical Eng & Material Science). Most universities will have a number of similar biotech-related STEM majors suitable for students pursuing biotech career paths.
Great online resources for high school and college students considering biotech careers include the “Guide to Life Science Careers” at Scitable (by Nature Education) and the Biotechnology in California report by the State of California Employment Development Department (much of the information is widely applicable to other geographic regions, such as the “Profiles of Key Biotechnology Occupations” section). For students particularly interested in agricultural biotechnology, the AgCareers.com website provides a user-friendly suite of online tools for global job hunting.
Here are a few key strategies for getting an entry level job in biotech and other STEM fields. 1) It is a good career planning exercise to occasionally browse job ads and note the academic degrees, technical skill sets and professional experiences required by employers – note the recurring themes and highlight matching expertise on your resume. 2) Keep in mind that having all of the required training and skills on a nicely prepared resume may get a job seeker an interview, but the ability to communicate and engage with other people is critical for getting a job. Do your homework on the company or academic lab you are seeking to join. Read their recent publications and website, and have a few intelligent questions prepared for the interviewers. 3) Spend some time brushing up on soft skills, including presentation style and business etiquette, before leaving undergraduate years behind.