What Is the Outlook for Research Positions in Plant Biotechnology?

Published: Nov 27, 2009


Plant biotechnology is considered equal parts science and art. It involves the genetic modification of plant material for the benefit of both the plant species and human kind. This could be as simple as breeding two specific plants for their dominant characteristics or as complex as altering plants on a genetic level to produce insect and disease resistant varieties of common fruits and vegetables. While plant biotechnology is a relatively new term in our culture, varying degrees of plant modification have been happening for centuries. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, new advancements in plant biotechnology, changing climates and increased interest in bio fuels are just a few factors that will likely contribute to an increased need for plant biotechnology professionals in the future.

Research Outlook

The outlook for research positions in biotechnology varies by industry, however, researchers comprise one of the smallest subsets of plant biotechnology. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only nine percent biotechnology professionals work solely in development and research, however, this number doesn't reflect the fact that research is commonly completed by nearly all biotechnology professionals. The field as a whole, including all disciplines, will experience a nine percent increase in job growth through the year 2016, which is about the average national rate.

Outlook by Industry and Employer

In a report for the U.S. Department of Labor, Azure Reaser states that scientists dealing specifically with food and agriculture experience the highest employment and the highest rate of growth, holding approximately thirty two percent of plant biotechnology positions. A large majority of these scientists work for the state or federal government, particularly the United States Department of Agriculture, however, according to the Department of Labor, this is expected to shift due to budget cutbacks and an increased interest in biotechnology in the private sector. Second are self-employed plant biotechnology professionals. This accounts for twenty three percent of biotechnologists, who work as self-employed consultants. Consultants may have a particular advantage as a wide range of private companies look for ways to improve the profitability of their crops in changing climates.

Contributors to Outlook

Climate change is one of the largest expected contributors of growth in the biotechnology research fields. According to a research study by Robert Evenson for Harvard University, new research and development is needed to ensure plant survival in harsher climates with less water and changing soil conditions brought on by global climate changes. Increased interest in bio fuels oil over fossil fuels may also cause an increase in biotechnology research. Finally, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the economy has a direct affect on employment outlooks for biotechnology research professionals, as a poor economy leads to increased concern for a stable, affordable food supply.

Education and Outlook

As with most disciplines, employment opportunities increase with education and experience. Most plant biotechnology professionals have at least a Master's degree and those in highest demand with the highest pay have PhDs. There are opportunities for Bachelor level professionals, however advancement is usually limited to professionals with more education. In addition to college work, there are a number of certifications scientists are required to have, depending on their specialties. Some of these certifications require a Master's degree or higher.

Ethics and Outlook

Job growth in plant biotechnology could be potentially hindered by ethics. The new scientific and genetic based plant biotechnology practices garner both praise and controversy from the public. Many question the safety and ethics of genetically modified foods, while others appreciate the stability these practices can add to our food supply. Because of the ethical dilemmas surrounding the issue, genetically modified foods are very heavily regulated by the government. As regulations fluctuate, so could the potential employment outlook for research careers in biotechnology.

Salary Outlook

According to the United States Department of Labor, the average plant biotechnology employee made approximately $52,000 annually in 2000. Those in the top of the income bracket made well over $100,000. Plant biotechnologists who work for the federal government were paid slightly higher than the median salary, at $63,000. It is anticipated that federal government jobs will continue to pay competitively even as the number of available jobs decreases. Salary outlook is also influenced by specialty. For example, agronomists earn a median salary of around $60,000, while entomologists earn over $70,000. Those garnering the top salaries in each field were those with advanced degrees.


Biospace.com: Biotech and Pharmaceutical News & Jobs
Global and local implications of biotechnology and climate change for future food supplies by Robert Evenson
Jobs in Biotechnology by Azure Reaser
United States Department of Labor

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