How to become a genetic engineer: steps and job duties

Updated 30 September 2022

If you enjoy the sciences and are interested in research, then a career as a genetic engineer may suit you. Genetic engineers study and modify genes to improve or increase their function in living organisms. Learning about the different routes to becoming a genetic engineer may help you decide if pursuing this role is right for you. In this article, we define a genetic engineer, provide a step-by-step guide on how to become one, discuss their job duties, outline their skills and highlight their specialities.

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What is a genetic engineer?

A genetic engineer is an individual who carries out scientific research on the genes of living organisms. They rearrange segments of DNA to alter the genetic makeup of organisms, and their work is often influential in human medicine, animal medicine and the food industry. It involves finding new ways to treat medical conditions and improving the health and yield of plant and animal products. There are various types of genetic engineering, including:

  • Analytical genetic engineering: Using computer software to create genetic models and study their implications for practical use.

  • Chemical genetic engineering: Splitting DNA into fragments to understand the specific genes responsible for diseases and find genetic therapies.

  • Applied genetic engineering: Applying genetic engineering tools to modify genes to improve their function.

Related: 12 biotechnology careers (including duties and salaries)

How to become a genetic engineer

To learn how to become a genetic engineer, you can review their academic qualifications. These typically involve pursuing research at higher education institutions. Here are seven steps you can take to become a genetic engineer:

1. Complete your secondary school education

To become a genetic engineer, you require at least five GCSEs, including maths, English language and one science, with grades ranging from A* to C or an equivalent. You also require three A-levels or an equivalent, including at least one science. These secondary school qualifications allow you to apply for relevant degrees in this field.

Related: GCSE equivalent qualifications

2. Earn a bachelor's degree

There are several undergraduate degrees you can apply for to help you become a genetic engineer. These can often help you get an entry-level job as a genetic engineer. It can take 3 to 4 years to complete your undergraduate education in genetics. Degree courses to consider include:

  • Molecular Biology and Genetics BSc (Hons)

  • Genetics BSc (Hons)

  • Medical Genetics BSc (Hons)

  • Biomedical Genetics BSc (Hons)

  • Biological Sciences (Genetics) BSc (Hons)

Related: How to become a geneticist in 4 steps

3. Apply for apprenticeships

If you're not sure what type of genetic engineer you want to become, you can look for apprenticeships to help you decide. Apprenticeships can offer you work experience in this field and show you the daily tasks you may perform in different areas of genetics. This experience may help you decide on a field of genetic engineering and allow you to choose a master's degree that suits you.

Related: 12 jobs in genetics (with duties and salary information)

4. Advance your studies

Getting an advanced degree can help you specialise in a particular area of this field. Many genetic engineers require a master's degree to advance their careers, and you could even pursue a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree. Advanced degrees may help you to get research work on the topics that most interest you. You may also find opportunities to teach at universities with advanced degrees. Pursuing a master's degree can take one year full-time and two years part-time. Examples of master's degrees you can apply for include:

  • Master's degree in advanced cell and gene therapies: Involves studying the genes relating to inherited diseases and how cell and gene therapies can treat them.

  • Master's degree in genetics: A course focusing on research, which involves studying the diagnosis and prognosis of genetic diseases.

  • Master's degree in molecular plant and microbial sciences: Involves studying the biochemistry of plants and their applications in genetic engineering.

  • Master's degree in molecular biology and biotechnology: Involves learning how to carry out experiments in microbiology and biotechnology.

  • Master's degree in biotechnology: Involves learning how to use biological systems to design technology and other products for research and development.

5. Get work experience

To gain practical skills, you can decide to find work after getting your bachelor's degree and then apply for a master's degree at a later date. Alternatively, you can gain work experience after completing all your degrees. Work experience is available in several institutions, such as research and development organisations, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, universities and government agencies. Jobs you can apply for include:

  • genetic counsellor

  • academic researcher

  • research scientist

  • clinical research associate

  • geneticist

  • forensic scientist

  • biotechnologist

  • clinical scientist

Related: What is genetic counselling and genetic counsellors?

6. Join a professional organisation

Professional organisations give you a platform to network with other professionals in genetics. You can access continuing education, training opportunities and information on genetics-related events through professional organisations. These organisations may also provide resources to help you stay updated on the latest scientific methods and research.

7. Update your CV

A CV is a document that contains all information relating to your career, including your educational background and work experience. Ensure that you update your resume with the academic qualifications, skills and licences necessary to work as a genetic engineer. Keeping your resume up to date can help you prepare for job opportunities in this field when they arise.

Related: A step-by-step guide on how to write a science CV

Work roles of a genetic engineer

Geneticists often work in laboratory settings and train using different types of equipment. Their work involves collaborating with genetic therapists, microbiologists and biochemists. They also write research articles regarding their studies and read relevant literature to stay up to date on current scientific methods. Here are some duties a genetic engineer may help fulfil:

Finding cures to existing diseases

There are many diseases that link to specific genes. As a genetic engineer, you can identify and alter those genes so they no longer lead to illness. Genetic engineering can potentially cure cancer, cystic fibrosis and blood disorders.

Increasing the yield of crops

Genetic engineering has applications in the food industry, where it can increase the production value of crops. As a genetic engineer, you may analyse the genes responsible for the growth rate of crops and alter them to grow faster. Increased growth can mean that the crop then has a higher yield.

Increasing resistance to diseases

As a genetic engineer, you can genetically alter plants to be resistant to diseases and pests. This means that farmers can reduce their spending on pesticides and herbicides. Using less of these harsh chemicals can also improve water quality.

Creating vaccines to prevent illnesses

Genetic engineers can study microorganisms' genes and understand their mechanisms of causing disease. They can create vaccines that fight against these microorganisms, leading to disease prevention. Pursuing genetic engineering to prevent diseases may help you contribute to research that increases life expectancy globally.

Related: What does a medical engineer do and how do you become one?

Genetic engineer skills

If you're wondering how to become a genetic engineer, here's a list of skills that can help you succeed:

  • Technical skills: These are the skills you use in the lab. They include knowing how to operate equipment such as spectrophotometers and centrifuges.

  • Analytical skills: Analytical skills can help you design experiments, evaluate and interpret results and write reports and research papers.

  • Mathematical skills: Maths skills can help you generate formulas and solve equations.

  • Critical thinking skills: Critical thinking allows you to identify problem areas or challenges and find ways to improve them.

  • Computer skills: Having basic computer skills can help you use software programs in genetic engineering and facilitate your writing of research articles.

  • Communication skills: Verbal communication skills can help you collaborate with colleagues and students effectively, and written communication skills can help you write research proposals and articles.

Related: Bioinformatician skills and qualifications (plus duties)

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Specialities in genetic engineering

There are different fields of genetic engineering you can specialise in after completing your degrees. These include:

  • Human medicine: This speciality involves studying the human genome and designing gene therapies to treat illnesses. It also involves genetic fingerprinting for use in forensic sciences, genetic screening to look for inherited conditions and studying population genetics.

  • Microbiology: This speciality involves studying living organisms to design vaccines, medications like insulin and consumables like yoghurt and wine.

  • Animal medicine: This speciality involves studying genetic components in animals and enhancing them to increase their production value. An example is the genetic modification of insects to act as a biological pest control.

  • Botany: This speciality involves studying the genetic components in plants and crops and finding ways to increase their yield.

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