How to become a cell biologist (with steps and skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 24 November 2022

Published 30 November 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Cell biologists study the structure and function of cells, which are the fundamental building blocks of all living things, including humans, animals, microbes and plants. As a cell biologist, you study cells to understand how organisms function and apply that knowledge to scientific studies, like how diseases function. The path to being a cell biologist is complex, so knowing how to become one can help you to decide if it's right for you. In this article, we explore how to become a cell biologist, what they do and what skills can help them to be successful.

How to become a cell biologist

If you're passionate about biology, may wish to know how to become a cell biologist. Cell biologist jobs exist in many different organisations, so there are multiple routes into the industry. The most logical steps to follow include:

1. Choose relevant subjects at school

Students who want to pursue a higher education qualification in biology usually have A-levels in several science subjects. A combination of biology, chemistry and maths can provide many of the important skills you rely on in further education. Specific universities have individual requirements for degree courses, so if you're set on a particular course, it's worth researching this in advance.

2. Select your undergraduate degree

Some universities offer a degree that specifically focuses on cell biology. If you're certain that this is the career path you want to follow, you can gain a highly focused education by choosing a degree that covers this area exclusively. Careers in cell biology are not solely available to people who hold cell biology degrees. It's also possible to take a general biology degree and later specialise in cell biology. Other degrees, like natural sciences or genetics, can also lead to a career in cell biology if you follow them up with relevant post-graduate studies.

Related: What Is a Biology Degree? A Guide (With Career Options)

3. Continue in further education

The majority of research jobs available for cell biologists expect you to hold post-graduate qualifications. This might include research masters or a PhD. Some post-doctoral research roles in cell biology allow you to continue your studies whilst also being a part of academic work like teaching and supervising less experienced students.

4. Identify the kind of career that you wish to pursue

Some cell biologists stay in academia for their entire careers. They conduct research for an academic organisation, like a university, and lecture or tutor students. Others seek a research career in a laboratory setting. This might be for a medical research institute or for a private company, such as a pharmaceutical company. There's also a whole area of cell biology dedicated to plants. A career in this could focus on the conversation of plants, including researching microbes that attack and damage plants. It could also relate to improving crop yield by understanding the genetics and properties of food-bearing plants.

Related: How to choose a career path in 8 steps

5. Join an appropriate industry body

There are a number of organisations that cater to the professional interests of biology professionals. This includes societies like the Royal Society of Biology. These organisations advise and influence government policy, but they also exist to advance the professional development of their members. This can include the provision of research grants and bursaries and the opportunity to attend networking and continuous professional development events.

Aside from the formal training and development they offer, the networking opportunities these kinds of organisations can provide may be valuable for your career. They provide the chance to meet and work alongside other professionals, including senior academics and experienced researchers. This provides the chance to learn more about their roles and organisations and identify roles and get help applying for jobs in the area.

What is a cell biologist?

Cell biologists are experts in the individual cells that make up living organisms. There are many types of sub-specialism, including anything from single-celled organisms like bacteria right through to understanding how genetics and cell division influence diseases like cancer. A large number of cell biology jobs are in the medical field, but there are also roles in academia, conservation and biodiversity.

There are several major subfields of cell biology, some of which focus on single-celled organisms, plant or animal cells. Some study the cell as a standalone entity and others, such as systems biologists, seek to understand how groups of cells operate together to create a functional organism.

Related: How to become a biomedical scientist

Cell metabolism

This is the study of how cells use energy. Each cell is effectively a functional unit in its own right and has sub-structures such as mitochondria which support cell metabolism. Studies in this area may also focus on the creation of energy in the original primordial cells that all modern organisms evolved from.

Genetics in cell biology

Genetics is a major research area in the broader field of biology. Some cell biologists focus on the genetics of a cell and the proteins contained within to discover genetic information. Understanding how cell nuclei code for proteins is an important part of understanding genetic diseases and other medical conditions.

Related: How to become a microbiologist

Cell communication

Aside from single-celled organisms, the cells of plants and animals are part of a network. These cells send messages between each other in various ways, such as through the release of proteins. The study of these mechanisms might seek to answer big questions about cell evolution or focus on specific medical research, such as auto-immune diseases or the treatment of nerve damage.

Cell systems biology

Cell systems biology asks complex questions about how gene regulatory networks interlink or how different cell signal networks interact with each other. It's a cross-cutting discipline that might involve working with specialists in many different areas of biology. Roles in this field can focus on evolution, medical sciences or understanding the interaction between pharmaceutical compounds and a biological organism.

What type of organisations employ cell biologists?

A number of different types of research institutions employ cell biologists to conduct academic or industrial research. They include:

Universities

Many cell biologists start their careers working in a post-graduate position at a university. Some choose to spend their entire career in this setting. In this kind of organisation, cell biologists may conduct specialist academic research whilst also lecturing and supervising students.

Medical research institutes

Almost every disease, from cancer to auto-immune conditions and many other medical conditions, is the subject of research by cell biologists. This helps them to understand conditions and develop effective treatments. The aim of this research may be to understand a condition to provide better treatment or alleviate the symptoms of long-standing chronic conditions.

Related: 7 jobs in life sciences (examples and average salary)

Pharmaceutical manufacturers

The work done by cell biologists within pharmaceutical companies is usually alongside medical research. Pharmaceutical companies research and develop compounds that may interact with diseased cells in a way that remedies the condition. The research and development process involves laboratory experiments to understand how these compounds interact with cell tissue cultures prior to any further experimentation on animal or human subjects. For later-stage testing, cell biologists work closely with other scientists and medical staff to understand how a drug is interacting with a patient and whether any unintended side effects occur.

Related: Jobs in pharmaceutical companies (with salary and duties)

Agriculture

Plant cells are different from the cells that make up humans and other animals. The study of plant cell structure is a discipline in its own right. Cell biologists may study how agricultural chemicals interact with plant cells. They may also seek to develop innovative new fertilisers or other chemical compounds which interact with plant cells in a way that improves the strength, quality or yield of the plant.

Another important aspect of agriculture that involves cell biologists is pest control. Plant cell biologists may focus on examining pathogenic organisms to understand how they damage plant cells and cause common plant diseases. This can also involve working with geneticists to understand how plants fight off infections. It may involve developing treatments for plants to improve disease resistance or genetic engineering of harmful organisms to weaken the impact they have on plant crops.

What skills do cell biologists use?

Along with a strong scientific background, cell biologists often have a detailed understanding of analysis and mathematics. Many roles involve dealing with large amounts of data and conducting research to test hypotheses. Other skills that are valuable for those seeking a career in cell biology include:

  • Problem-solving: Many cell biologists use problem-solving skills to structure experiments and understand why unexpected results occur.

  • Strong written communication: Another important skill is writing, since a common job duty is to write up experimental results in a clear and concise way.

  • Verbal communication: Besides research, cell biologists often present and explain results in a manner that helps project stakeholders understand them.

  • Interpersonal skills: Most cell biologists work alongside others on collaborative research projects, so it's necessary for these professionals to have stellar interpersonal skills.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Related articles

How to Become a Biologist (With Average Salaries)

Explore more articles