Biology degrees focus on the science of the natural world, the study of medicine and health occupations, and even niches in education. A biology degree might be the first step toward dispensing drugs at a pharmacy, making rounds as a seasoned doctor, creating a plan to help save certain wildlife or preserved areas, working with zoo animals, or teaching these wonders to students on every educational level – and that’s just for starters. This page focuses on what students can expect from their biology degree pursuit and the variety of jobs available to them when they complete their education.
The work of biologists can cover a wide range of professions, but they all do have something in common: Their work is somehow connected to the natural world via dozens of branches of biology including biomedical research, biophysics, cell biology, bioengineering, microbiology, physiology and more. From caring for animals to creating technologies that will help people extend their lifespan, biologists work to protect, preserve, change or modify the world around us. In many cases, this starts with a bachelor’s degree in biology or a closely related field.
The work of biology careers often puts individuals in contact with others, and they are often expected to work as a team. This means serious communication skills are necessary, as well as critical thinking, the ability to analyze situations, and the drive to research the field. Biology careers can take an individual outside into the natural world, where they work with plants, animals and even track weather phenomena. They might work in a laboratory, where they are constantly monitoring diseases or viruses in tiny test tubes and dishes. Or they might stand before a classroom and teach, sit down with families who need to understand their genetic makeup, or comb through thousands of research points to come to pertinent conclusions.
Like those in other scientific disciplines, those in the biology field can earn an excellent living, according to data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The following is a sampling of the salaries that biology careers can command.
No matter the biology careers a person might choose, it all begins with the appropriate biology degrees. Here’s how to move through the process.
Those who are interested in biology careers can be well-served by taking courses in biology, anatomy and physiology, environmental science, chemistry, and anything in the pre-med track. These courses will introduce students to the opportunities in the biology field, as well as knowledge that will come in useful during their college career.
Those who want to work in biology careers can begin narrowing down their options to a degree that will suit their future profession. Those who aren’t quite sure yet can simply major in biology, with the intention of specializing with the master’s degree if necessary. Either way, the first goal is the minimum degree for entry-level work; for most biology careers, this will be the bachelor’s degree.
After a few years of schooling, it’s time to look into specializations or declaring a major within the biology field. For some, that major is all they will need; for others, a master’s or PhD program will be required. For example, biomedical engineers will need at least a bachelor’s degree, while genetic counselors will need a master’s degree. For microbiologists, anything from a bachelor’s to PhD might be needed, depending upon professional goals.
Once the education is done, it’s time to meet the other requirements that will allow a person to practice their profession. For example, a physician must serve a residency, become licensed to practice, and more. Those who intend to teach must earn their teaching license. Certifications and various credentials might be required; students should look into those requirements well before graduation to ensure that they will be able to begin work as soon as they graduate.
As with most other professional fields, biology changes quickly, and staying up-to-date on recent developments, technologies and discoveries is paramount. Some professions require a certain number of hours to keep a license current – nurses are a prime example. Others don’t have a clear-cut requirement, but those who want to stay relevant must pay attention to research, publications and other important “need to know” points of their work.
Deciding which degree is necessary depends greatly upon the professional requirements. But what if those requirements aren’t clear-cut? What if a master’s degree is great for entry-level work, but a PhD is best? What if there is no time to take classes in a traditional sense, or what if a student isn’t entirely sure of their career path? This chart breaks down which degree might work for each situation.
|Career Goals & Educational Needs||Associate||Bachelor’s||Master’s||Phd||Online|
|I am ready to jump into my college education, but I don’t have a lot of money for college tuition. Besides that, I’m not entirely sure what career path I want to take. I need an option that will give me time to try out some classes as well as save some cash.|
|I’ve been working as a biophysicist for years, but I have been passed over for a promotion one too many times. I’m ready to take my education further and ensure that I really can reach the top of my profession.|
|I want to work at my local zoo, handling the big cats. I know that I need a combination of education and experience, so I want to get started on schooling and gain experience as I go. Later on I will advance my education to take on more responsibility.|
|I have always been fascinated by genetics. I want to go into the field, but it doesn’t seem as though my bachelor’s degree is opening many doors. I need something that will allow me to do the work I love while also offering opportunities for advancement.|
|I am already working full-time in a laboratory, and pulling overtime hours is not unusual. Sitting in a classroom to get the degree I need is absolutely impossible. I need a program with flexible scheduling and courses that can be taken from the comfort of home during my rare days off.|
There are numerous possibilities in the world of biology, and almost all of them begin with a solid education. The degree level usually depends heavily on professional goals. Here’s what to expect from each level of the educational pursuit.
There are a variety of certificates available in biology and related fields. These certificates are typically graduate certificates that require students to already have some higher education, usually a bachelor’s degree. Either way, the certificate program rarely takes more than one year to complete. Though these can be found at community colleges and universities, they might also be offered through research centers.
Certificate programs will have a varied curriculum, depending upon the professional path chosen; however, most will have a few core courses, including those listed below.
This is an introduction to the basic principles of modern biology, including an advanced look at biomacromolecules, cell structure and more.
Looks at the ecological structures that pertain to plant, animals and microbial populations, and how one influences another.
The fundamentals of genetic science and analysis are introduced in this course.
This class is an exploration of human structure, function and adaptations of the body, and maintenance of homeostasis and human health.
Since most entry-level positions in the field of biology require a bachelor’s degree, most associate programs are designed to prepare students to move up to the four-year college upon graduation. These degrees typically require two years to complete and are made up of about 60 credits, though that might vary depending upon a specific school’s requirements. The degree often focuses on the fundamentals of biology, which will later serve as a firm stepping stone to the bachelor’s degree courses. Some classes students might take include:
This course focuses on the basic rules of chemistry, including structures, classification, reactions and properties.
Students in this course will learn about microbiology, including the life and actions of bacteria and viruses.
This course provides students with the knowledge and skills necessary to perform laboratory work that is vitally important in the biotechnology industry.
Focuses on the intersection of chemistry and biology, this course is ideal for student who intend to work in the medical or pharmacology field.
Most bachelor’s degrees take four years of full-time study and can help prepare students to move into a wide variety of career paths. For some, the bachelor’s is the degree they will earn in order to score an entry-level job. For others, this level is only the beginning, as they will build on their education with the master’s or PhD. Given the fact that students will take numerous trajectories upon graduation, the bachelor’s degree program in biology allows for a high level of specialization. However, some points will remain universal, such as an in-depth look at laboratory work. Here are some of the courses students can expect to take in a biology bachelor’s program.
Students in this class will learn about various immunology mechanisms, including points that relate to transplants and cancers.
This course focuses on the histology, ecology, structure and physiology of plants, as well as their economic importance in various ecosystems.
The course of development of biological entities will be studied in this class.
For many positions in the biology field, a master’s degree is required. This is true of epidemiologists, natural science managers, wildlife biologists, biophysicists and more. The master’s degree usually takes two years of full-time study to complete. Many master’s programs are available online, aiming to cater to those who are working full time and can’t take a few years away from their career to go back to the classroom. The master’s degree usually requires a comprehensive written examination, an in-depth research thesis, or both.
Though the classes taken will depend upon the particular program, the following are some of the few courses that students can likely expect to see in their master’s program:
This course builds on the knowledge of cell physiology and genetics to offer a well-rounded view of cell transformations, specifically in the realm of cancer diagnosis and treatment.
An overview of common drugs and how they interact with the body tissues to form the desired result will be examined in this class
Students in this course will learn the higher-level intricacies of human anatomy and physiology
This class offers insight into the use of DNA as forensic evidence, and how it is presented in the context of the law and literature
Most PhD programs take two to four years to complete, though some schools might allow as much as eight years. Students tend to take a class or two each semester, fitting in their education while they continue to work and build experience in the field. In addition to the coursework, students will also have to complete a dissertation, and might also have to work in an internship. Some professions, such as that of bioinformatics scientist, require the PhD; others, such as that of microbiologist, might find that their job advancement and pay could go up with the terminal degree.
The coursework found in the PhD program is strongly targeted toward the student’s chosen concentration. Here is a sample of what students might find in the PhD in biology program:
This course drives home the importance of ethical research during every phase of the scientific career, especially when dealing with patients who have a significant, serious or terminal illness.
This combination of laboratory work and classroom time teaches students to analyze large amounts of data.
This course focuses on current issues in genetics and how those issues are played out in society
Students will be presented issues and developments in the biomedical informatics sphere for in-depth study
Whether biologists are concerned with studying animals, designing medical devices, or educating families about birth defects, there is a place in the profession to explore those interests. Biology is a broad field that accommodates many interests and allows professionals to make a number of scientific contributions. The following are examples of career paths in biology.
The work of these professionals can lead to an understanding of how drugs, hormones, and foods can impact living organisms. This can be done by isolating and analyzing molecules like proteins, DNA, and enzymes. In addition, biochemists and biophysicists manage laboratory workers to ensure that they are performing to high scientific standards; plan and execute applied and basic research projects; and draft technical reports. In addition, people in this job may write up the results of their research for publication or present information at professional conferences.
These professionals combine biology with technology to create programs that are designed to gather and manage biological information. This work involves creating and maintaining analytical tools to assist with biological research, developing databases, and crafting web-based bioinformatics tools. In addition, bioinformatics scientists may conduct research studies and supervise the work of technicians.
From prosthetic limbs to artificial internal organs, biomedical engineers design the devices that are used to help patients who have suffered from illnesses and injuries, as well as the equipment used by doctors to diagnose medical issues. Their work includes determining whether or not a medical device is safe to use, installing and maintaining biomedical equipment, and conducting research designed to address a specific clinical issue.
When couples are concerned about passing down birth defects and genetic disorders to their children, they turn to genetic counselors to determine what the risk factors are. These professionals analyze genetic information, interpret the results of tests, and communicate findings to people who have these concerns. In addition, genetic counselors also review patients’ medical history, write reports, and educate people about the risks associated with inherited conditions.
Genetic counselors also advise adults on the likelihood that they will develop cancer and other diseases by testing their DNA.
These biologists focus on the structure, growth, and development of organisms that are not visible to the naked eye—such as fungi, algae, parasites, and bacteria. They can find jobs in several different settings, such as pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, and colleges and universities. Job duties for this position include isolating and maintaining cultures that need to be studied; planning and conducting research projects; and collecting microorganism specimens from people and animals in order to identify and classify them. These professionals may also supervise the work of biological technicians.
Many people become interested in pursuing careers in the field because of their biology professors. Biological science teachers can help get students excited about biology and provide them with the foundation they need to advance in their studies and eventually get a job. These workers create the curriculum for biology courses, grade assignments and tests, and provide assistance to students who need extra help understanding course material. In addition, biology professors may conduct research that is published in industry journals or presented at conferences.
This broad field allows those who are interested in the biology of animals to focus on how different species respond to their ecosystems, and the impact of human factors on animal environments. In some cases, these biologists may study a specific species. For example, ornithologists focus on birds, ichthyologists study wild fish, and the work of cetologists is centered on marine animals. In addition, some biologists do not work with animals at all—entomologists work with insects, botanists study plants, and ecologists research entire ecosystems.
Professionals in these jobs have a number of duties, such as collecting and analyzing biological specimens, educating the public about animal conservation, and monitoring wildlife populations.
In order to thrive in a biology career, professionals need skills that will help them perform the duties of their jobs. The following are examples of the abilities these professionals should develop to be successful.
The need for good communication skills does not end with imparting information about research. In some cases, biologists may have jobs that require them to interact with the public—such as teaching a course at an aquarium or educating patients about the benefits of a new medical device. In addition, biologists need to hone their written communication skills to write reports that are geared toward other scientists, or information that explains complicated scientific principles to laypeople.
Critical thinking skills are imperative in this career, especially as biologists conduct research. During this process, they need to look at data and come to conclusions about what it means. Biologists are also regularly faced with scientific problems and questions, and they must be able to reason their way through them to find solutions.
Math goes hand in hand with science, so biologists must be able to use math to solve problems. For example, when conducting quantitative research, biologists have to use math to come to scientific conclusions.
Biology jobs can be research heavy, which requires that professionals understand how to conduct a study from start to finish. Biologists need to have good research skills that allow them to craft a theory about a scientific question, gather data, interpret what the information means, and come to a conclusion. They must also be able to communicate their research findings, whether they are presenting the information to colleagues in a meeting or writing an article for publication.
Work in a biology lab is a team effort. Biologists must be able to work well with members of their team to ensure that every piece of a scientific puzzle comes together and everyone working on a project is on the same page. These professionals need to communicate with members of their team about what they’re doing, as well as effectively voice questions and concerns about where a project is headed.
Biology professionals who want to become more marketable during their job search, or advance in their careers, often earn certifications. These credentials can help them demonstrate their knowledge and abilities, as well as their dedication to their careers and the biology field itself. The following are examples of some voluntary certifications that are available to biologists.
Genetic counselors can earn a certification through the American Board of Genetic Counseling. Professionals must have a master’s degree from a program approved by the Board and complete a comprehensive examination.
The American Board of Medical Microbiology offers a certification for microbiologists with a doctorate.
The National Registry of Certified Microbiologists provides certifications in food safety, biological safety, and pharmaceutical and medical devices.
Immunologists with a Ph.D. can earn a certification from the American Board of Medical Laboratory Immunology.
It takes a lot of tools and technologies for biologists to perform their job duties. The following are some of instruments that are used by those in the field:
The job opportunities that are open to biologists can vary, depending on where they live and what area of the field they have chosen. The following table outlines the growth of several biology careers, as well as which states have the highest concentration of job opportunities.
Much of the growth for this profession will come from pharmaceutical companies creating new vaccines and other medical treatments.
Demand in this profession comes from the need for biomedical research to find treatments for diseases that plague the aging population.
The rate of growth for this profession mainly hinges on the budgets of local, state, and federal governments.
Growth is expected because of the demand for medical devices and procedures to treat those with physical disabilities and injuries.
Advancements in genomics and lab testing are creating job opportunities for genetic counselors.
There are some professions related to biology that pay comparable salaries, depending on the specific job. The following are examples of what professionals in related occupations can make.
Careers related to biology can be a rewarding way for professionals to use their existing knowledge and skills in a different manner. The following chart gives information on some of these similar fields, including their required education and projected career growth.
This community of those in the biology field offers resource, peer review, publications, outreach programs and more.
Courses, lessons, up to date news and much more can be found at this site that is designed for teachers but can work well for anyone with an interest in biology.
This resource site for biology teachers and students offers numerous worksheets, labs, quizzes and more.
This helpful site includes an up-to-date forum and blog that focuses on current events and news in the world of biology.
Offered by the National Institutes of Health, this list of professional associations for those in the biology field is a comprehensive resource.
Created by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this comprehensive list of resources is perfect for someone who is either interested in working as a biologist or already in the field.