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How do I Become a Molecular Biologist?

By D. Jeffress
Updated: May 17, 2024

Molecular biology is a broad subject of life science that aims to understand living things on the cellular level. Scientists who specialize in molecular biology conduct detailed studies to learn about functions of different types of cells as well as the internal mechanisms that drive metabolism, genetic changes, and replication. A person who wants to become a molecular biologist usually needs to obtain a doctoral degree in the specialty. In addition, a new scientist typically spends several years as an assistant or associate researcher before he or she can begin conducting independent studies.

A high school graduate who wants to become a molecular biologist can apply to an accredited four-year university or college. It is helpful to choose a school with a respected science program and up-to-date laboratory facilities to ensure the best chances of receiving a quality education. Some schools offer bachelor's degrees specifically in molecular biology, but most programs feature general biology curricula. In addition to taking biology classes, a person who wants to become a molecular biologist can benefit from advanced chemistry, physics, mathematics, and communications courses.

As an undergraduate, a student has the opportunity to learn a great deal about the scientific method, research techniques, and the history of molecular biology. Laboratory courses provide the chance to gain firsthand experience with the equipment and procedures that a student will use throughout his or her eventual career. Many hopeful molecular biologists choose to pursue research assistant positions at their schools to gain additional laboratory experience working with skilled professors and scientists.

Near the end of a bachelor's degree program, a person who wants to become a molecular biologist can begin applying to biology graduate schools. A student can determine the best schools by looking into the credentials and research interests of professors. There is often strong competition for admissions into doctoral programs, and schools usually prefer to accept students who have excellent grades, practical experience, and clear research goals. Once accepted into a program, a student is typically assigned a mentoring professor to aid him or her in developing a degree plan and determining a specific research focus.

A doctoral program in molecular biology usually takes about four years to complete, during which time a student takes a number of highly-detailed classroom and laboratory courses. The last two years are typically spent conducting actual research with a mentoring professor and other students. While conducting research, an individual learns how to apply for grants, design and execute a project, and publish results. A successful student is awarded a Ph.D. and allowed to pursue a career at a university, government agency, or private research institution.

An individual who is able to become a molecular biologist is not usually given the chance to conduct independent research right away. In general, recent graduates work as associate researchers for several years to gain professional experience before designing and leading original studies. Frequent innovations in experimental techniques and laboratory technology mean that the field of molecular biology is constantly evolving, and scientists have the ability to enjoy exciting, lifelong careers.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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