Do you have a strong background in science and a keen interest in the behavior of animals, plants, and other living organisms? If so, you may be interested in biology, one of the most popular majors in American colleges today: according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), biological and biomedical sciences ranked fifth among the number of degrees conferred to undergraduates during the 2013-14 academic year.
Biology majors can pursue a range of careers, including positions in environmental science, forensic science, biotechnology, healthcare, and more. Graduates with a bachelor’s degree in biology earn a median annual income of $56,000, while those with a master’s degree make a median salary of $96,000 per year. Estimated earnings are even higher for students who specialize in certain areas of biology, such as biochemical sciences and microbiology. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also notes above-average growth for biology degree jobs in fields like environmental science and biomedical engineering.
If you want to contribute to biological research that will enhance our collective understanding of environmental conservation, wildlife protection, human health, and more, read on. This article explores some of the academic requirements and common career paths for students interested in earning a bachelor’s degree in biology. Our goal is to create a comprehensive resource to help you decide if studying biology is the right academic path for you.
What is a Biology Degree?
The curriculum for college biology programs is heavily concentrated in scientific research and engaging lab work. While many biology programs require students to pursue a specialization, there are plenty of programs that allow you to pursue a more generalized track. Regardless, top biology programs prepare students to either enter the workforce or return to school for a graduate degree.
The Bachelor’s in Biology
At many large colleges, a biology student can choose from either a bachelor of arts (BA) or bachelor of science (BS) pathway. A BA program typically entails coursework in humanities, social sciences, foreign languages, and other liberal arts studies in addition to biology. BS programs, on the other hand, feature fewer liberal arts requirements and focus more on upper-level science coursework. Both degree pathways usually require at least four years of study.
Biology departments are often large and diverse, allowing students to enroll in courses most relevant to their career goals, or explore different subjects if they remain unsure about which biological subfield fits their interests best. Courses like cellular and molecular biology, neuroscience, and human anatomy introduce topics associated with the healthcare industry and medical research. Other courses, such as marine science and ecology, are geared toward students who are interested in working in the environmental sector. Internships are widely available to any biology major seeking hands-on experience, and in some cases, they are a graduation requirement.
Not all biology degree programs require specializations, but choosing a concentration can help boost your hireability, potential earnings, and opportunities for advancement once you begin searching for work. Some biology specializations are geared towards research and lab work, while others focus on field-based projects. Before choosing a program, aspiring biology students should carefully investigate their target schools to learn more about available specializations in the program. The table below features some of the most common areas of focus for students in biology programs.
Biochemistry is the study of chemical processes in living organisms. The field examines relationships between cells and molecules, and introduces students to genetic principles. Biochemical research is often applicable in medicine, nutrition, agriculture, and ecology. The curriculum for this concentration typically includes course sequences in organic chemistry, life sciences, and molecular biology.
- Computational Biology
Computational biology specializations introduce students to different technological and mathematical systems used in data collection, qualitative analysis, and other aspects of the profession. This concentration leans heavily on math subjects like statistics and probability, along with elements of IT and engineering.
- Conservation and Ecology
Conservation and ecology specializations are designed for students who plan to pursue a career in environmental science. Conservation is a field dedicated to preserving and protecting endangered organisms, while ecology is a scientific discipline that studies the relationships between organisms in different environments. This specialization generally includes coursework in botany, marine and fisheries sciences, ecosystem sustainability, and natural resource management.
Genetics is a research-driven field that studies the behavior of genes and heredity in living organisms. Students learn how to gather, measure, and evaluate genetic data using various research methods and information systems. Areas of focus in this specialization include bacteriology, genomics, human evolution, and speciation.
Microbiology is a field devoted to organisms that cannot be seen with the naked eye, such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Microbiological research is closely linked with medicine, nutrition, environmental science, and pharmaceutical science. Coursework in this specialization introduces students to the structures, behavior, and genetic traits of various microorganisms, along with the research methods and information systems used to study them.
Meet a Biology Professional
Jeremy Hill Zoology Graduate from University of Michigan
Jeremy Hill graduated with a degree in Zoology from the University of Michigan and now resides in Phoenix, Arizona. Combining his love of biology and computers, he has worked with the large databases of healthcare companies to better understand trends in epidemiology and costs.
What made you decide to become a biology major?
Like a lot of biology majors, I started college convinced I wanted to be a doctor. I even applied to an advanced 7-year M.D. program and went to a school that had one of the best medical schools in the country (University of Michigan – Ann Arbor).
What skills did you learn while working toward your degree?
There were the usual skills (how to study and manage time) but there were also some skills I didn’t expect – like how to plan for the possibility that your lab partner is not going to do his 50% of the write-up.
I also gained basic scientific literacy. I feel that this is sorely lacking in America in general, and it’s something that is desperately needed. When one study with a sample size of 20 tells you something that flies in the face of decades of established science, ask questions. Check the underlying data and understand what it means.
Computer skills, such as how to put together a basic program if for no other reason than automation, were taught. If you have to rename 65,000 files and you opt to do it by hand, you’re in for a long day.
And one of the more esoteric lessons I learned that I love to share (especially with those that aren’t so keen to believe evolution) — the atoms that make up your body here and now were once locked away in the center of stars colliding over and over again. The bits and pieces that make up your right hand could come from an entirely different galaxy than your left. And once my time in this universe is over, that’s exactly where they’ll go back to. The sheer odds of the the exact elements of anyone’s body are so astronomical, and yet here we are. Puts a bit of perspective on life. Not everything is as big a deal as it seems right away, and for other things, you have to dig to find the wonder.
How did these skills help at work?
Knowing how to plan for the unexpected or to always account for the possibility that something could go wrong has served me well professionally.
One of the things I’m asked to do as part of my job is to estimate how long something will take or when something can be finished. It’s a challenge to keep things simple, but never be as precise as you want to be. You build in a bit of a buffer–even if no one admits to doing it.
Secondly, there’s a generally accepted principle of economics that in order to sustain economic growth, we have to consistently improve productivity. I try to find one way to be more productive each day. Again, automation is such a lifesaver for me and others that I work with. Before any of us get up in the morning, our machines are churning out reports. If I feel like I am going to spend more than an hour or so doing a task, I stop to ask how can i make it simpler, how can I delegate it to some automatic process and how has it been done before. Those answers usually drive how I proceed.
Do you have any tips for biology students?
The biology that you learn in high school is very narrowly focused. Undergraduate work in biology encompasses so much more and there are new applications of biology every day. Don’t be afraid to not only explore courses in other areas entirely, but to branch out within biology. I thought I loved microbiology until I really got interested in evolutionary genetics.
Job Skills Developed Within a Biology Program
Top biology programs give students the knowledge and skills needed to launch successful careers within the scientific community. Although specific competencies vary by specialization, biology majors are taught to conduct research, work in a lab setting, and evaluate data. Students also learn the various technical terms and technology systems currently used in the field. Below we have listed a few of the key skills that students will develop in school.
- Analyzing Data and Results
Biology majors learn how to collect data, analyze their findings, and interpret the results; many biology degree programs require students to complete entire course sets on data analysis. College programs also discuss various information systems used in biological data analysis, such as Fischer’s exact test (used to measure contingency tables) and the Cochran-Mantel-Haenszel test (used to categorize statistical sets). Biologists are trained to spot unusual patterns and anomalies in data, and to compose scientific reports on their findings. Data analysis skills are in demand for biomedical researchers, biochemists, genetic researchers, and other professionals interested in scientific research.
- Communication Skills
Professional biologists often work on teams, performing research, collecting data, and analyzing their findings. Verbal communication skills are crucial to biologists, who deliver speeches, oral reports, and other presentations for audiences at conferences and seminars. Written skills are equally important in research-oriented roles. These positions require regular written reports, and extensive note-taking. Most undergraduate programs in the discipline include an English requirement, and allow students to fulfill elective credits with courses in writing or communications. Additionally, many required biology courses — particularly labs and upper-division classes — use team-building activities and group presentations to highlight the importance of communication in scientific workplaces.
- Laboratory and Research
Virtually all biology bachelor’s degree programs contain a lab requirement. Lab courses allow students to develop hands-on experience and work in groups to understand the importance of teamwork in the workplace. Labs are also important because they enable students to apply the knowledge and skills they’ve gained in the classroom to a functioning scientific setting. Lab work also introduces students to platforms and information systems used to collect and analyze data.
- Scientific Literacy
Scientific literacy is defined as the knowledge and comprehension of scientific concepts and processes. In biology, literate employees understand the fundamental principles of cellular activity, microbiology, genetics, and other key subfields. Scientific literacy also includes the ability to interpret data, discuss findings, and identify any questions or concerns that remain after experiments have been conducted. Literate scientists are valuable members of any lab or research team, and are often selected to deliver key presentations at seminars and conferences around the world.
- Technical Expertise
Like other scientific fields, biology requires a degree of technical skill. Biology programs teach students how to collect samples, properly use lab instruments and equipment, store materials, and perform other technical tasks in the field. Familiarity and comfort with scientific tools is also vital. Lab courses are particularly helpful in these areas, as students are more likely to retain what they learn in a practical environment. Biologists who are especially proficient in technical areas are often selected for leadership positions, and called upon to develop new experimentation methods and systems for data analysis.
What are the Best Careers for Biology Majors?
Graduates leave school qualified for many different roles in the field. Biologists play an important role in a number of major industries, from medicine and pharmacology to agriculture and food processing.
We’ve highlighted a few of the top biology major jobs — as well as some less traditional career paths for biology students — in the tables below. Students who pursue a biology degree should consult with career counselors at their school for more information about relevant professional opportunities.
Common Career Paths
Professional biologists work in a range of industries and workplace settings. Many biology major jobs are based in labs or research centers, where workers analyze data, conduct experiments, and write reports covering their findings. Others spend most of their time working in the field, or delivering presentations as keynote speakers at conferences and seminars. The following table includes some of the most commonly sought biology jobs. For more traditional biology degree jobs, please visit the Life, Physical and Social Science Occupations page at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Biological Technician
Biological technicians specialize in performing data analysis through lab tests and experiments. They work with different types of biological matter, including blood, tissue specimens, and microorganisms. Technicians are highly competent with the tools of their trade; they understand the proper procedures for calibrating, cleaning, and maintaining lab instruments and equipment, as well as data storage and disposal. Most biological technicians can enter the workforce with a bachelor’s degree. Extensive lab experience is a prerequisite, and aspiring technicians can boost their qualifications by enrolling in multiple lab courses during their time at school, or completing a relevant internship.
Biochemistry is an interdisciplinary field that examines the chemical properties and behavior of living organisms, as well as inorganic chemical and physical processes that impact plants and animals in different ecosystems. They analyze various specimens — including fats, proteins, and DNA — and study the effects of drugs, nutrients, and other catalysts. Biochemists are also equipped with the skills to operate complex equipment, such as x-rays, fluorescent microscopes, and modeling software. Biochemists who wish to work in an independent research center typically need to earn a PhD, but many entry-level positions — such as lab technicians and research assistants — are available to graduates with a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Undergraduate students can increase their job standing in this field by earning a specialization in biochemistry or, if a concentration isn’t available, completing an internship related to the field.
- Environmental Scientists and Specialists
Environmental science focuses on variables that impact plants, animals, and other natural resources. The field often concentrates on negative factors that affect living organisms, such as pollution, overpopulation, and natural disasters. Environmental scientists spend much of their time collecting data and conducting experiments in the field, although their jobs typically include lab work as well. They work with various environmental samples, including soil, water, air, and animal and plant matter. Many colleges and universities offer multiple specializations in the field, allowing students to focus on their preferred branch of environmental science. Environmental specialists cover research and public policy; these individuals are often consultants regarding the development of laws and regulations aimed at protecting natural resources. A PhD will be required for most environmental specialist positions.
Forensic scientists play a crucial role in criminal investigations by analyzing evidence samples for organic matter, DNA, and other biological clues. There are two main branches of forensic science: crime scene investigation and data analysis. Both divisions require a strong background in laboratory work and report writing. Many job-seekers are able to land positions in forensic science with a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, physics, or other fields related to natural science. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, positions in forensic science are projected to grow by 27% between 2014 and 2024. However, the field is relatively small, and aspiring forensic scientists are encouraged to earn specialized degrees and complete internships to be competitive in the job market.
Microbiologists study viruses, bacteria, and other organisms (including some fungi and parasites) that cannot be seen without the aid of a microscope or other scientific device. They test samples from animals, plants, and the environment. Microbiology studies often focus on diseases and drug effects, and work in this field is pivotal to the medical and pharmaceutical industries. According to the BLS, roughly a quarter of microbiologists are employed in the research and development sector, while another 21% work in medical and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Microbiology is one of the most common specializations for biology majors. Most job-seekers can obtain an entry-level position with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology or a related scientific field, but independent research roles normally require a PhD.
Outside-the-Box Career Paths
An undergraduate biology program prepares graduates for careers in a variety of fields. One option is education, as biology and other life sciences are widely taught at high schools, colleges, and universities across the country. Other career paths for biology majors may include policy and law, medical and pharmaceutical research, and scientific journalism. The table below covers some less traditional jobs for biology majors.
- Environmental Law
Environmental law is a branch of environmental science dedicated to creating policies and regulations that protect natural resources. Professionals in the field address concerns related to pollution, wildlife conservation, waste management, and other issues that directly affect the environment. Environmental lawyers occasionally spend time in the courtroom, but the bulk of their work is devoted to researching case law and litigation history in order to present their arguments. Like other lawyers, environmental lawyers must pass the bar exam in the state where they plan to practice. Seven years of college education — four years of undergraduate study, plus a three-year law school program — are usually required to become a lawyer. Biology majors interested in environmental law can enroll in courses related to this field and take part in internships at environmental law firms.
Like any other workplace, labs and research centers need employees to manage their finances. Since most scientific facilities are funded through donations or government grants, fundraisers are needed to maintain a steady cash flow and reach out to potential investors. Budget analysts and cost estimators are also needed to calculate research expenses, develop budget proposals, and write grants with an itemized breakdown of expected costs for a particular project. Additionally, market research analysts play an important role at manufacturing labs and other facilities that develop products for sale. Biology majors who are interested in a career that combines science and money management can supplement their required courseload with classes in accounting, statistics, and other areas of finance; a minor in finance or a biology-finance double major can increase their chances of earning a job after graduation.
Biology is closely linked with the healthcare industry, as biological research is frequently used to study medicine and disease, develop drugs, and evaluate the way patients are treated. Becoming a pharmacist is one of the most common career paths for biology majors who wish to work in healthcare. Pharmacists specialize in drug treatments, often consulting the public about dosage, side effects, and other aspects of different medications. Dietitians and nutritionists also work with the public by offering guidance about dietary practices while promoting healthy lifestyles. One niche role for biology majors is to work as a genetic counselor. These professionals evaluate individuals or families for disorders, birth defects, and other genetic factors that impact human health; due to the medical nature of this occupation, genetic counseling usually requires a master’s degree in genetics and board certification.
Teaching biology at the high school level usually requires a bachelor’s degree in science education. Additionally, all 50 states and the District of Columbia require public school educators to earn a state teaching license; private schools usually do not require teachers to be licensed. At the college level, biology professors are generally required to earn a PhD in that field before they are allowed to teach in classrooms. According to the BLS, more than 50,000 biology professors are working in the U.S. today. Biology majors who are interested in a teaching career should consider earning an education degree with a biology focus if they wish to work in high schools. Undergraduates who wish to teach biology in colleges and universities should speak with their counselor about courses and specializations that will help them on their path toward a PhD.
Biology majors with strong writing skills may choose to pursue careers in journalism or technical writing. With increased attention on issues like pollution and climate change, the field of environmental journalism has become a popular path for writers with a passion for science. Biology majors can gain journalism experience by joining the staff of a campus newspaper or magazine; many schools also feature publications dedicated to scientific or environmental issues. Technical writing is another viable option for biology students. Technical writers develop product manuals, instructional guides, and articles in academic journals. Biology majors can choose technical writing as one of their elective credits to learn more about this field, which is projected to grow by 10% between 2014 and 2024.
- American Institute of Biological Sciences: Founded in 1947, this nonprofit network of scientists and educators strives to advance biological research that has a positive impact on law and public policy.
- American Society for Microbiology (ASM): With more than 47,000 members, the ASM is considered the largest life science society in the world. The website features journals and other online publications, along with lab tips for educators and aspiring biologists.
- American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: Founded in 1906, this advocacy-driven nonprofit organization hosts three academic journals and sponsors workshops, conferences, and other events across the country.
- American Society of Naturalists: This nonprofit organization strives for environmental awareness and protection through educational outreach about organic evolution and natural biological processes.
- Science Careers: This online job board allows you to search by location and professional title for positions in different scientific fields, including biology major jobs.
- Kaggle: This online board featuring jobs for biology majors is dedicated to employment-seekers with a background in data collection and analysis.
- ScienceDaily: Featuring an assortment of academic journals, news blurbs, and casual blog posts, this comprehensive site tackles current topics across different scientific disciplines.
- Discover: This popular monthly magazine is primarily focused on human health, medicine, psychology, and other aspects of biology and life science.
- Scientific American: First published in 1845, SA is the longest continuously published monthly magazine in the United States. The ‘Biology’ archive features nearly 9,000 articles published over the past 20 years.
- Royal Society of Biology Blog: This British blog features an extensive number of biology-oriented posts dating back to 2012.