Preparing for a Career in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
- Biochemistry and Molecular Biology are exciting developing fields that encompass careers in academic, industrial, and government positions. A career in Biochemistry or Molecular Biology is a career that demands a broad scientific background across several disciplines in the life and physical sciences, including genetics, cell biology, and organic chemistry, among others. To prepare for a career in Biochemistry or Molecular Biology, you will need to develop extensive experience as a scientist...this does not mean just memorizing facts, but rather learning how scientists think and work both independently and collaboratively to solve complex problems.
- Biochemists and Molecular Biologists do not shy away from academic challenges and from tackling problems that require collaboration with experts from other fields. Therefore, you will want to have a strong academic background across the sciences but also the ability to work well - socially and diplomatically - and to develop the professional relationships across disciplines that are necessary for scientific success.
- Students interested in a career in Biochemistry or Molecular Biology will obviously require a significant amount of coursework drawn from the departments of Chemistry and Biology. While there is no single checklist for a list of courses to take to prepare for a Biochemistry or Molecular Biology-based career, there are several courses that are necessary to provide a foundation for future success. From the Department of Chemistry, students will need at minimum a year of General Chemistry, a year of Organic Chemistry, and a semester of Biochemistry. For a more concentrated study in biochemistry, an additional semester of coursework in this subject as well as a semester of Physical Chemistry is suggested. In Biology, the College's Principles of Biology lecture and lab plus Genetics and Cell Biology are essential courses. Depending on the student's particular interests, additional coursework in Anatomy and Physiology, Molecular and Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, Microbiology, Immunology, or Virology may be selected.
- A successful scientist amoung others can effectively communicate and defend his findings in both written and oral presentation. Therefore, coursework above and beyond the College's requirements in Rhetoric, including Public Speaking, may be considered as solid preparation for a future in Biochemistry or Molecular Biology.
Programs and Extracurricular Activities
- Seek out independent research experience--one of the most important things to do in preparation for a career in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is to obtain experience conducting independent research. While Hampden-Sydney classwork certainly provides an avenue for this, graduate and professional schools will be looking for independent experiences gained over the summer or during the academic year in addition to classwork.
- Talk to faculty in the Biology and Chemistry departments about developing research projects that can be developed over a long period of time. For instance, a project could be started in the summer between sophomore and junior years and developed throughout a student's junior and senior years, potentially culminating in a thesis paper and presentation. Summer research opportunities are available through both the College's Honors Council and Professional Development Committee, but both require the student to be proactive in making contact with a faculty mentor and developing research proposals during the spring semester.
- Several off-campus opportunities also exist to gain research experience in support of a career in Biochemistry or Molecular Biology. Talk to faculty about how to locate these opportunities and develop applications.
The type of graduate study a student would pursue following graduation from Hampden-Sydney depends on the career he wishes to pursue. A student can obtain a laboratory technician position immediately after graduation with his bachelor's degree; however, career advancement in Biochemistry or Molecular Biology fields is difficult without a graduate degree.
Many permanent laboratory scientist positions require a master's degree, which usually requires 2 years of additional study beyond Hampden-Sydney and potentially the generation of a thesis. While group leader positions are often not available to master's level scientists, many stable and well-paying positions that enable one to pursue a fulfilling career in laboratory research are available at this degree level.
Jobs in research and teaching at colleges and universities will require a doctoral degree, which entails 5-6 years of research after Hampden-Sydney and the generation of a dissertation. A doctorate is also required for research group leader positions in the biotechnology and biochemistry industries. In Biochemistry and Molecular Biology disciplines, students do not pay to go to graduate school for a doctoral degree but rather receive tuition grants plus a modest living stipend and health insurance for the duration of their time in training. Increasingly, a doctoral degree is followed by a postdoctoral assistantship of 1-3 years in which newly-minted Ph.D.s further hone their research skills prior to entering a permanent position.
Preparation For Employment
Many times, a student will not discover a passion for Biochemistry or Molecular Biology until it is too late to gain the necessary experiences in time to enter a graduate program immediately after graduation from Hampden-Sydney. In this case, a common scenario is to take a laboratory technician position or a teaching position in a setting where a masters degree is not necessary. This path provides the necessary time to fully assess one's career interests and to come to a fully informed decision as to what type of graduate degree, if any, is right for them.
There is no reason to be concerned about not having a definite long term plan prepared before graduationfrom Hampden-Sydney. Graduate school is not something to be entered into lightly since it entails a considerable investment of time as well as a considerable delay in lifetime earning potential. One should pursue a graduate degree in Biochemistry or Molecular Biology only as a means to expand one's skill set and experiences in support of a developing career, not as a "holding tank" to figure out if these fields are interesting. Again, prior research experiences during a Hampden-Sydney education or afterwards in a laboratory setting are the best means of discerning whether graduate school is a good option. Take whatever time is necessary to build those experiences to make a careful decision about what pathway in Biochemistry or Molecular Biology will provide the greatest level of personal satisfaction. Take advantage of the resources available at Hampden-Sydney among faculty and senior students...they can provide invaluable insights on career interests and serve as an informed resource to develop a tailored plan for preparing for a career in Biochemistry or Molecular Biology that best fits one's specific interests.