I am thinking about a career in synthetic biology, but I am not sure what route should/needs to be taken. I don't want to do technician work--I want to be involved in the planning. Y'know, the exciting stuff. :)

[By 'planning' I mean things like, for example, looking at symptoms (assuming we are looking at a person), pinpointing underlying causes, designing a molecule that stimulates X, modifying it to avoid inadvertent binding to Y, etc]

I'm wondering whether I should go for a Master's or a PhD (or is a Bachelor's enough?)

It's a young field, so I'm having trouble finding this kind of information online. Any help would be much appreciated!

  • The drug design part of your definition of synthetic biology sounds a lot like pharmacology
    – Luigi
    Mar 17, 2016 at 17:55

2 Answers 2


Generally speaking, if you wish to be involved in designing, proposing, and interpreting experiments, you need to be a PhD. (This isn't specific to synthetic biology.)

That's not a hard and fast rule. There are certainly Masters and Bachelors out there who will propose experiments and do analysis, and any organization worth their salt will consider intelligent proposals for experiments from technicians. However, a PhD is usually taken to be the sign that someone is capable of designing and executing an independent research program. -- In some respects, that's what a PhD degree is. It's a certification by your peers that you are able to intelligently propose and carry out an independent research plan that is sufficiently novel. (Cue grumbling from older PhDs about the dumbing down of modern degree programs and lack of intellectual rigor these days.)

So that's where the line is usually drawn. The PhDs design the experiments, and the Bachelors and Masters (and lower-ranking PhDs) carry them out. The Bachelors and Masters may do some routine post-analysis, but ultimately they hand the results back to the PhDs to interpret and plan the next round of experiments. It's not that you can't find positions where Bachelors or Masters are significantly involved in planning and analysis, it's just that if you want your primary responsibility to be planning, you should probably shoot for a PhD.


From what I personally know, biology in general is a very competitive field.

Being involved in planning tasks always requires from its holder a deep insight and valuable experience in its field.

These two elements lead me to think that you will need at least a Master+some years of experience with demonstration of excellence, or a good PhD+some years of experience too, but PhD will already be a strong asset. Either way you will need to practice some "technical work", it's an imperative in order to get to higher levels.

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