The Career Paths of Bioengineering

Author:  Jessica Johnson

Institution:  University of Washington

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Bioengineering has origins dating back thousands of years in the form of devices such as artificial limbs and crutches meant to assist movement. Although prosthetic development remains a focus of contemporary bioengineering, the field has greatly expanded to combine engineering, biology, physics, mathematics, and medicine in order to solve biological problems.

The field of bioengineering places heavy emphasis on interdisciplinary proficiency; however, each area emphasizes specific principles.  The ancient practice of prosthetic development has evolved into modern rehabilitation medicine, which focuses on ways to improve the lives of individuals with physical and cognitive impairments.   The field of biomechanics focuses specifically on physical impairments by studying the mechanics of movement.  For example, biomechanics may study muscle and skeletal problems in athletes.

Focusing more on the molecular biology sides of bioengineering are the fields of biomaterials and cellular and tissue engineering.  The field of biomaterials focuses on combining living tissues and artificial materials.  An early development within biomaterials was the artificial hip joint.  A more recent development within biomaterials is the use of 3D printers to print tissue and organs.  Because a common issue within biomaterial scientists is rejection of foreign materials within the body, using 3D printed organs that combine the patient’s cells could circumvent this problem.  Biomaterials often overlaps with cellular and tissue engineering.  Cellular and tissue engineering revolves more around the biology of cells and often incorporates synthetic materials to promote the development of cells.  A large part of cellular and tissue engineering is stem cell work, where cells can be differentiated into a particular cell type.      

With the diversity that exists in bioengineering there are many career paths available.  Within the public sector bioengineers often conduct research for a university, while also teaching.  Teaching usually requires a Ph.D.  Those without a Ph.D. often have less flexibility and conduct research under a PI who has a Ph.D.  Other bioengineers choose to go into the private sector.   The private sector can involve concrete product development, such as designing prosthetics, or more abstract projects, such as improving hospital efficiency.  Within the private sector, bioengineers work for biochemistry, biological, or other engineering companies. Some bioengineers choose to go on to medical school because their engineering background provides a creative outlook that is often an advantage.  For similar reasons, bioengineers sometimes choose to pursue hospital administration because their broad education helps them solve complex issues.  This creativity also helps bioengineers pursue careers in law and business.    

For students willing to obtain a graduate degree, the field of bioengineering provides a wealth of career paths.  Depending on the position income for bioengineers can vary from $70,000 to 100,000 per year.   In addition, bioengineering is expected to have 23% job growth by 2020.  An undergraduate curriculum in bioengineering is broad so bioengineers often choose to pursue graduate school to develop their niche within the field.   Either option allows bioengineering majors to pursue careers in industry or academia.  For those who want a dynamic environment, bioengineering could be an excellent career.