Structural Biology

Structural biology is the analysis of the structures of living biological material, from atomic to super-molecular viewpoints. Find out about career options and education programs in this field.

Is Structural Biology For Me?

Career Overview

As a structural biologist, you could study cells, compartments, organelles, tissues, membranes, nucleic acids and proteins by using techniques such as x-ray diffraction, digital image processing, electron microscopy, light microscopy and computational techniques.

You could find employment with research facilities, the government and academic institutions. Common job duties include supervising, organizing and directing the activities that take place within biological research facilities. Structural biologists use their knowledge of computers, math, physics and biology to prepare reports, analyze data and implement new technology as part of their work.

Employment

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), biochemists and biophysicists earned median pay of $84,320 in 2013; jobs for these kinds of biological scientists are expected to increase 19% from 2012-2022 (www.bls.gov). The median wage for postsecondary biological science teachers was $75,740 in 2013, and the BLS projects that jobs in this field will increase 19% from 2012-2022. Some structural biologists also work as medical scientists. The median annual wage for that career in 2013 was also $79,840, and jobs in this field are expected to increase 13% from 2012-2022.

How Can I Work in Structural Biology?

High School and Undergraduate Education

At the high school level, taking as many classes as possible in organic and physical chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics can help you prepare for further education in biological science. At an accredited 4-year university, you can major in an area that covers or introduces structural biology.

As a prospective structural biologist, you could get your undergraduate degree through a biochemistry, molecular biology or biophysics department. At this level, courses typically cover the basics in life sciences, mathematics, physics, chemistry and laboratory methods.

Graduate Education

Next, most structural biologists pursue either master's or doctoral degrees. Many Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs in structural biology can be interdepartmental or offered in association with graduate departments in cellular biology, genetics, physiology and biochemistry. Common courses at this level cover topics such as nano-machines, macromolecules, computational structural biology, nuclear acid structures, cancer biology and the biology of aging.

Qualifying exams, independent research and a dissertation will likely accompany these classes, all of which can culminate with your degree in an approximate 5-6 year time frame. Rarely, if you want to pursue a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree, joint medical school programs that coordinate with structural biology Ph.D. programs are available.

Upon graduation, many biological scientists have had at least one academic publication and can then move on to post-graduate research, assistant and associate professorships within academia, or entry-level posts in government and research facilities. If your research is among the most cited, prolific, advanced and creative in the field, higher managerial positions could be possible.

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