Biologists travel the world to research animals, investigate microorganisms in the laboratory, and develop medical advances in the life sciences. They work for scientific research and development organizations, government agencies, diagnostic laboratories, and pharmaceutical companies.
During a biology program, students gain the knowledge and skills required for biologist jobs, including laboratory training. Biology majors also specialize their training through coursework in immunology, marine biology, molecular biology, and genetics.
This page explores how to become a biologist, including job tasks, career paths, and salary information.
What Does a Biologist Do?
Biologists design and carry out experiments, manage research projects, and draw conclusions from their research. Their day-to-day tasks vary depending on their specialty. For example, clinical biologists work in a laboratory setting, while other biologists may work in an office or outdoors.
Many biology jobs require teamwork and coordination with other scientists. In labs, biologists supervise biology technicians and other workers. Biologists often apply for grants to fund their work, write research papers and reports, and present their findings. They may also make recommendations based on their research.
Biologists work in several specialized fields, including microbiology, wildlife biology, and biochemistry. A biologist's specialty shapes their working hours, work environment, and job tasks.
For example, microbiologists often work in laboratories or offices, where they conduct experiments. Wildlife biologists work in the field and in offices. Fieldwork may take these biologists to remote locations.
Biologists may run laboratories, work in academic settings, or collect samples in the field. As a result, the typical hours for careers in biology vary widely. Some biologists also specialize in management and work as laboratory managers or other natural sciences managers.
Biologist Salary and Job Growth
Biologists earn strong salaries in many different specialties, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For example, zoologists and wildlife biologists earned an annual median salary of over $63,000 in 2019, while microbiologists made more than $75,000. Other biological scientists earn a median annual income of $82,000 in 2019.
Several biology career paths offer even higher earning potential, including biochemists and biophysicists, who earned a median annual salary of nearly $95,000 per year, and natural sciences managers, who earned over $129,000 in 2019. Biologists also benefit from strong job growth projections, with a projected 5-6% increase in jobs in biology between 2018 and 2028.
Biology salaries vary depending on experience, education, and location. For example, biochemists typically hold a graduate degree, and experienced biologists earn higher salaries. As in other fields, certain specialties within biology offer a higher earning potential.
Four Steps to Becoming a Biologist
Careers in the biological sciences require education, specialization, and work experience. A bachelor's degree is the minimum educational requirement for many biology careers, although some require a graduate degree. Many career paths also require lab or internship experience.
By completing the steps below, students qualify for jobs in biology.
Step 1: Complete a bachelor's degree
Earning a bachelor's degree in biology is the first step toward becoming a biologist. Career paths like microbiologist and wildlife biologist require a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions. Biology technicians also need a bachelor's degree. Majoring in biology or a related field prepares graduates for careers in biology.
During a bachelor's degree in biology, learners study a variety of biological sciences, including genetics, molecular biology, zoology, and biochemistry. Many biology degrees also incorporate labs or internship opportunities to build career-ready skills.
Step 2: Find a speciality
Within the broad field of biology, scientists focus their career with a specialty. Biologists specialize in areas like cell biology, bacteriology, marine biology, and immunology. By finding a specialty, biologists prepare for focused career paths after graduation.
Many biology degrees let students specialize their training through their major, concentration, or electives. For example, some colleges offer majors in microbiology or zoology.
In addition, biologists specialize their skills by pursuing internships, laboratory experience, or work experience within their focus area.
Step 3: Complete an internship
Biology internships build the practical experience required for careers in biology. Biology interns work in laboratory settings as research assistants, in zoos as wildlife biology interns, and in offices assisting experienced biologists.
Internships offer career-focused training for biologists. Many biology programs incorporate internship opportunities for undergraduates. Biology students can find a summer internship or identify internship opportunities through their school.
Step 4: Consider graduate school
Some employers require or prefer candidates with a graduate degree. For example, biochemists often need a doctorate for research and development roles, and academic biologists typically hold a Ph.D. in biology. A master's degree in biology can help biologists specialize their skills and pursue career advancement.
When considering graduate programs, prospective students should research tuition costs, online options, and concentrations.
Preparing to Become a Biologist: Schools and Programs
Most jobs in biology require at least a bachelor's degree in biology. By researching the top schools and programs for biologists, prospective biologists can find the right program to meet their professional goals. Students considering a biology degree can narrow their options by researching the total cost of the degree, admissions policies, program length, and financial aid opportunities.
Most colleges and universities offer biology degrees. Some schools even offer online biology degrees, where students complete coursework in an online learning environment and meet any laboratory requirements virtually. For example, the University of Florida and Arizona State University both offer online biology degrees.
When comparing biology programs, prospective students should also consider factors such as a program's enrollment options, the number of start dates per year, and internship requirements. By evaluating these factors, future biologists can take the first step toward a career in biology.
Courses in Biology Programs
Students earning biology degrees take courses in biology, chemistry, math, and physics. These foundational science classes prepare learners for coursework in biochemistry, microbiology, ecology, and other subfields of biology. Bachelor's programs in biology also include laboratory courses to train students in laboratory methods.
Biology courses prepare students for careers in biology or graduate study in subfields like microbiology, zoology, biostatistics, and other areas. While exact courses vary depending on the program, the following list provides a sample curriculum for an undergraduate biology degree.
Introduction to Biology
Introductory courses survey the field of biology and the core principles of the field. Coursework examines biological diversity, evolution, and gene expression. Students also learn about the relationship between biology and fields like chemistry. This course provides the foundational knowledge needed for upper-division biology courses.
Microbiology courses examine the world of microbes. Students learn about the principles of microbiology, the biological processes of microbes, and subfields like virology, bacteriology, and immunology. Topics may also include microbial cell structure, the role of microorganisms in disease, and microbial genetics.
This course explores the relationship between organisms in environmental systems. Students examine ecological principles like symbiotic relationships, natural resource management, and evolutionary trends. Coursework may also cover ecological research, zoology, and approaches in environmental biology. This course prepares learners for careers as ecologists, zoologists, and conservationists.
Biology programs incorporate laboratory courses to build the practical skills needed for clinical or laboratory-based jobs. During a laboratory course, students strengthen their analytical skills by conducting biological experiments. Learners apply the scientific method, learn to operate laboratory equipment, and practice biological techniques like DNA isolation.
Genetics courses introduce students to the study of genes and genetics, including subfields like cytogenetics and molecular genetics. Students may learn about theories in genetics, the evolution of the field, and the role of genetics in human health. Topics may also include genetic diseases, genomics, and laboratory methods in genetics.
Accreditation for a Biologist Program
Prospective biology students should always check a school's accreditation status before applying. Accredited colleges and universities meet the highest standards for granting degrees.
Schools undergo a rigorous review from an independent accrediting agency to earn accreditation. During the review, the accrediting agency evaluates the school's student learning outcomes, faculty qualifications, and academic mission. Accredited schools regularly repeat this review to maintain their status.
Accreditation benefits students in several ways. Students at accredited schools qualify for federal financial aid. Credits earned from accredited institutions are more likely to transfer. Accredited degrees meet the requirements for more professional licenses and certifications.
When considering biology degrees, prospective students should look for schools that hold regional accreditation. Regional accreditation remains the more reputable standard for liberal arts and research institutions, while national accreditation applies to vocational and technical schools.
Biologists specialize in fields like wildlife biology, microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology. Within these specialties, biologists conduct research, evaluate the results of experiments, and observe animals and organisms. Pursuing a specialty lets biologists focus their training and build expertise.
While earning a biology degree, students can choose a concentration or design a custom specialization through electives. Biology majors often take courses in several subfields, including biochemistry, microbiology, and genetics. After completing introductory courses in these areas, students can take upper-division courses in their specialization.
Biologists who specialize in areas like zoology, laboratory science, or cell biology demonstrate their qualifications for specialized careers in biology. For example, training in public health prepares biologists for specialized biology career paths like public health microbiologist. Other biology specialties include marine biology, immunology, genomics, and biostatistics.
Components of a Successful Biologist Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology
Successful careers in biology start with building necessary skills and knowledge. Biologists rely on several key skills, including observational skills and a detail-oriented outlook. Microbiologists closely monitor experiments, while wildlife biologists observe animals to record changes. Jobs in biology also require strong communication and interpersonal skills, since many biologists work on research teams and communicate their findings to non-scientists.
Biology programs train students in biological theory and applied biology. Biology majors learn about the tools and technologies used in the field. Students also gain hands-on training through internships and laboratory coursework.
After earning a biology degree, biologists can pursue professional certifications to focus their skills. For example, clinical microbiologists, pharmaceutical biologists, and biologists who work in food safety can pursue certifications. Biologists can also stay current in their field by joining professional organizations.
Biologist Professional Organizations
Professional organizations help biology students transition into careers in biology, including as a microbiologist, molecular biologist, or cell biologist. These organizations host meetings and events for biologists to network, publish research in the field to keep professionals current, and provide career development resources.
American Institute of Biological Sciences AIBS represents professionals in the biological sciences and promotes the use of scientific information and education. The institute offers public programs and resources, hosts events including an annual meeting, and offers professional development resources. The institute's professional development resources include communication tools, interdisciplinary science resources, and writing support.
American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology A nonprofit scientific organization, ASBMB dates back to 1906. The society provides resources for the scientific community, including scientific and educational journals. The ASBMB organizes scientific meetings, advocates for research and education funding, and provides career development support for students and early-career professionals.
American Society for Microbiology ASM represents more than 30,000 microbiologists, educators, and health professionals, making it one of the largest life sciences professional organizations. The society hosts meetings, publishes journals and books, and provides informative resources on microbiology topics. ASM also offers career development resources, including career exploration tools and a job board.
American Society for Cell Biology ASCB represents biologists who specialize in cell biology. The organization advocates for research policies, offers professional development tools, and provides grants and awards. The society's events include webinars, meetings, and courses. The society's career center publishes videos and reviews resumes.
Genetics Society of America GSA represents scientists who specialize in genes. Founded in 1931, the GSA provides career development resources, hosts conferences with networking opportunities, and offers educational resources. The society also grants awards and publishes research in the field.
FAQs on Becoming a Biologist
Where can a biologist work?
Biologists work in laboratories, offices, industrial settings, and outdoors. In these roles, they conduct scientific research, carry out research projects, and present their findings.
What is a biologist salary?
Median salaries for biologists vary, with microbiologists earning around $75,000 per year, wildlife biologists earning $63,000, and biochemists earning $94,000 per year.
How many years does it take to become a biologist?
Many biology career paths require a bachelor's degree, which takes four years. Some roles may require a master's degree, which typically takes two years.
Is a biologist a scientist?
Yes. Biologists specialize in the life sciences, including areas like wildlife biology, cellular biology, microbiology, and related fields like biochemistry and biophysics.
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