Careers and Courses


Working in the field cell and molecular biology can be very exciting but it should be remembered that very rarely these days does a single person produce an ‘earth shattering’ cure for this or that disease. When announcements are made about leading edge research it generally means that lots of people in a team or teams have been putting together pieces of a ‘biological jigsaw’ and have most of the picture in place.
The excitement for an individual laboratory assistant or junior scientist lies in identifying the pieces of the jigsaw that fit, and getting them to the right space at the right time. As the scientist Professor Sir Hans Kornberg has put it “the role of the scientist is to see what others see and to notice what others DO NOT notice”.

You can be employed in cell biology with AS and A2 level qualifications or equivalent but true career development will depend, in the main, on your having appropriate higher level academic qualifications. Later your experience and ‘track record’ will impact on your career prospects. Almost everyone working in cell biology has a first degree, such as a Batchelor of Science (BSc.), and many have a further qualification such as Master of Science (MSc) or the newer degree of Master of Research (MRes) and/or a Doctorate. Most of the people leading or directing research will have a Doctorate (PhD, DPhil or DSc.) In universities some of those directing research will also be Professors.

Not everyone in cell biology qualified as a cell biologist – some switched to it.

Some very interesting work has been done by scientists who switched from other scientific disciplines and brought with them different skills. They had the ability to see a problem and its possible solution from a different point of view, a different perspective. Increasingly work in science is done in teams composed of people having different formal qualifications. If you have a degree in chemistry you could find yourself making a very important contribution to the work of the team through your knowledge of spectroscopy. If you first degree was in computer science, you could find satisfaction in working in the new field of bioinformatics.

….and some switch from it.

A bioscience qualification can lead to a range of career opportunities and a qualification in cell biology is no exception. Many employees value highly that bioscientists possess numerical, analytical and communication skills and are often computer literate. They appreciate that bioscientists are able to take different approaches to solving problems and bring to that approach a critical awareness that is perhaps not so keenly developed in others.

The knowledge gained through studying cell biology also gives one a personal and indelible insight into the workings of all livings things. It gives one a respect for life in general and for ones own life in particular. It enables one to empathize with those who are ill or who have inherited or other disorders in a way that is unique to those who have studied a bioscience. To have studied a bioscience adds enormously to ones education for life about life.

COURSES – What’s in a name?

Finding the appropriate university and course that is just right takes some searching. It is interesting to look at the names given to appropriate university and college first-degree courses in the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) Handbook:

22 establishments offer ‘Cell Biology’,
42 offer ‘Molecular Biology’, and
5 offer ‘Molecular Cell Biology’.

Some courses offer combinations such as ‘Cell and Molecular Biology with Spanish or Geography’. At Cambridge some specialisms in the Natural Science degree are labelled ‘Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’ and ‘Biology of Cells’. At Oxford the nearest offering to cell biology by name is ‘Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry’. All these are variations on a theme so it is very important to look carefully at the individual university or college prospectus and where appropriate the Departmental Prospectus, to find out just what’s in a name.
Do bear in mind that even if the course is called ‘Cell Biology’ it will contain components such as genetics, microbiology, developmental biology, as well as chemistry, cell physiology and molecular biology.

In the UCAS Handbook there are also about 40 courses listed under ‘Biotechnology’. Some of these have sub-titles such as ‘Biotechnology (applied molecular biology)’ so clearly these are also worth exploring.

Information and staff in a careers office or careers section of a library should be consulted for the latest information. DO NOT assume information from a previous year is valid.

There is of course much more to going to university than selecting a course and the Biology4all website:

will provide lots of help for would be bioscientists. The site has many links including the following:
UCAS (University and Colleges Admissions Service)
UK University Bioscience Departments
UK University Bioscience Department Ratings
REDmole Alternative University Ratings
QAA Reviews – Reviews produced by The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
Higher Education Funding Council for England.