Should You Major in Biology?
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- While challenging, biology degrees lead to diverse career paths and graduate school options.
- Many biology majors become doctors; others pursue education or environmental careers.
- Higher-paying and specialized careers will require an advanced degree in a biology subfield.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, researchers around the world started analyzing this disease in attempts to develop a potential vaccine. These workers — many of whom got their start by earning a biology degree in college — will play a key role in society's recovery from COVID-19.
Biology, which falls under the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) umbrella, is consistently one of the most popular degree choices in college. In the 2017-2018 school year, for example, nearly 6% of all undergrad degrees were granted to people studying biological and biomedical sciences, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
In the 2017-2018 school year … nearly 6% of all undergrad degrees were granted to people studying biological and biomedical sciences.
One of the biggest reasons biology degrees are so popular is because they're a bit like a Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot with a biology degree, depending on what subfield you study and whether you go to grad school or not. Biology majors can study Antarctic penguins, decode the genome of rogue viruses, engineer new plants, or become doctors, just to name a few options.
However, biology can be a challenging field and not all biology degrees are created equal. There are many factors to consider when deciding whether to study biology in college.
Is a Biology Degree Worth Pursuing?
When looked at as an entire group, the picture for biology majors is quite positive. The average salary for people with a biology degree is around $70,000 — $10,000 more than the median household income in the U.S. However, biology degrees — like the STEM designation itself — are incredibly diverse, and your earning potential may vary widely depending on what you choose to do with your degree.
Biology degrees are the No. 1 bachelor's degree that aspiring doctors earn before starting medical school.
Many people with biology degrees become doctors. In fact, biology degrees are the No. 1 bachelor's degree that aspiring doctors earn before starting medical school; this type of degree provides a good foundation for students interested in medicine.
Students should bear in mind that becoming a physician requires many years of education beyond a four-year biology degree. Doctors are well compensated, and their salaries can skew the outlook for biology majors as a whole. Not all biology grads will go on to earn six-figure salaries.
For example, although the median salary for physicians and surgeons is above $200,000, high school teachers, wildlife biologists, and foresters all earn about $60,000 annually.
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What Jobs Can You Get With a Biology Degree?
One of the biggest strengths of a biology degree is its versatility. A biology degree can lead to many different careers, depending on how far you want to take your education and whether you want to specialize in a sub-discipline.
The table below lists common career choices among people with biology degrees, as well as some relevant stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook.
|Number of Jobs in the U.S. (2018)
|High School Teacher
|Physicians and Surgeons
|Public Health Educator
The careers included in this table are varied, and the job outlook, amount of advanced study required, geographical limitations, salary prospects, and advancement potential are all different.
Although it's a good idea to have some sort of target career in mind when you enroll in school, you don't need to have everything figured out right away. Many people begin by declaring a general biology major; then, as they learn more about potential careers and figure out where their interests lie, they can choose to specialize.
What to Expect in a Biology Major
Biology is essentially the study of life, which is an incredibly broad concept. The field draws on many other disciplines, including physics, mathematics, chemistry, geology, law, statistics, psychology, and more.
In fact, your first year or two studying biology will probably focus largely on 100-level classes in a variety of fields. Gradually, as you progress, you'll begin to take more specialized courses, which could include topics like:
|Anatomy and physiology
Most colleges publish required course lists for their degrees, and these are a valuable source of information. Take a look at the required course lists for the different biology degrees offered at your potential universities to help determine which biology degree you're most interested in.
General Biology vs. Biology Subfields
General biology degrees are quite popular because they provide the broadest base of knowledge in this diverse area of study. You can frequently find these listed as "general biology" or "biological sciences."
General biology degrees can be good choices for people who want to keep their options open as they advance their studies. They may also be good for students interested in joining the medical field.
If your interests are strongly drawn to a specific area, however, you may want to consider specializing. Think about what types of jobs you're interested in, and see which types of biology degrees are most popular for people who have those jobs. It may be hard to get a job as an epidemiologist with a general biology degree, for example, when most professionals have a graduate degree specifically in epidemiology.
Undergraduate vs. Graduate Degrees in Biology
The next question to consider is how far you should take your education. Not all degrees are available at all levels of study. For example, epidemiology degrees are only available as graduate degrees, as are veterinary degrees. It's common for people to choose a broad biology degree, such as general biology, for their undergrad and then specialize in a more specific topic as they advance, but this isn't always the case.
A good question to ask yourself is where you'd like to end up. For example, if you want to be a professor of virology or a surgeon, you'll need to get an advanced graduate degree. Alternatively, if you'd rather just work in the lab and leave all the grant-writing or patient-handling to others, you may be better off earning a bachelor's or master's degree.
Increasing your level of education often leads to a higher salary, but it can also make you overqualified for some roles and limit your options. It can sometimes be tough to get a foothold with an advanced degree because the number of positions available may be relatively small. This is where networking can help set you apart from your competition.
If your [professional] network is small, consider enrolling in for-credit internship and practicum experiences while you’re in school.
Take full advantage of your professional and personal contacts when looking for a job. If your network is small, consider enrolling in for-credit internship and practicum experiences while you're in school; many colleges help students find these types of positions
Another factor to consider is the demand and availability of jobs that a degree prepares you for. As you can see from the table above, there are millions of registered nurses working in the U.S. (a position that can benefit from a general biology degree), whereas there are only about 19,000 wildlife biologists (a position with its own wildlife biology degree).
Based on these numbers, your chances of finding a job as a nurse are probably much greater than your chances of finding a job as a wildlife biologist.
Bachelor of Arts vs. Bachelor of Science in Biology
In general, a BS degree provides a more science-focused education, while a BA degree includes language and humanities courses.The type of major you choose should depend on your ultimate career goals.
If you plan to pursue advanced study in biology or medicine, a BS degree might be the best choice. Although most medical schools don't specifically require a BS, earning this degree instead of a BA may help you meet more prerequisites.
If you're not interested in going to grad school or specializing in a certain area, a BA might be a better choice. This could also be true if you want to use your biology knowledge in less-scientific fields, like business, education, law, marketing, or politics.
The Bottom Line About Biology Degrees
Arguably the biggest factor to consider when deciding whether to get a biology degree is your own curiosity. The most successful people who study biology tend to be intensely and insatiably curious.
The most successful people who study biology tend to be intensely and insatiably curious.
This drive to learn can be especially useful when you're spending hundreds of hours reading about how kidneys work, the physics of blood flow, or the math behind complex population models. Biology is a challenging field, and the rigors of a biology degree might prove too much for individuals who only feel lukewarm about the subject.
However, for those who begin their studies with a plan for how they want to use their education, it can be one of the most rewarding degrees available. There's a reason it's one of the most popular degrees, after all.