A biology degree is one of the most versatile programs out there for those interested in plants and animals. It’s a fascinating field that looks at the study of living organisms and the characteristics—i.e., physiology, behavior, anatomy, origin, etc.—that make them unique.
Put simply, biology is a subject that investigates the reasons why plants and animals are what they are, do what they do, and develop how they develop. It stands to reason then, that those interested in studying biology should bring with them an insatiable curiosity and an innate drive to explore, experiment, and experience new things..
“By the age of 11, I had a chemistry set, and I enjoyed making things out of wood and doing things with my hands, so I’ve always had an interest in how things work, which I suppose is what still drives me,” well-known British cell biologist, Jim Smith, told Disease Models & Mechanisms in 2011.
If the wide variety of directions your life could take after studying biology hasn’t scared you off yet, you’re probably wondering what you can you do with a biology degree. Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered.
We dug into research from the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) and the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) to help you understand the options you have if you choose to earn a biology degree. To that end, we profiled a broad selection of job titles, daily tasks, necessary skills, and job outlook for those who choose to enter a marine biology program.
Table of Contents
- Biology Careers for ‘Explorers’
- Job Titles You Can Expect
- Day-to-Day Tasks You’ll Perform
- Knowledge You’ll Need to Acquire
- Job Outlook
- Bottom Line
Biology Careers for ‘Explorers’
The research-oriented life of a biologist is perfect for analytical individuals who are comfortable moving deftly from swamps and streams to lectures and laboratories. People in these careers aren’t usually motivated by fame and riches; rather, they possess an intense desire to solve mysteries and understand the unknown.
“Peering inside cells with new imaging technologies almost always reveals unexpected things about how cells are organized and functioning,” says Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, a senior group leader at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus. “I delight in trying to make sense of this, including why any particular organization or structure dictates a specific set of cellular functions and how this fits into a larger developmental/evolutionary/ecological picture.”
Job titles you can expect to see
The vastness of the discipline and the myriad directions your career could take means biology should be considered a “gateway” subject. It will expose students to a wide variety of specializations and can serve as a launchpad for a master’s degree, graduate certificate, or even a doctoral degree.
Those hoping to to pursue one of the paths listed below are expected to have knowledge, skills, and work experience in addition to a bachelor’s degree. While a significant amount of turnover is expected across the field in the coming years, the field isn’t one that’s projected to grow quickly. Bottom line: Plan on going to graduate school if you’re hoping for a high-level career in biology.
Other career options that might resonate with analytical biology majors include geneticist, chemistry professor, or environmental scientist, but the education required, median pay, and job outlook varied too much to be included in our comparison.
Day-to-day tasks you’ll be asked to perform
Regardless of what position you hold, if you pursue a biology degree path and specialize in one of the areas listed above, your day-to-day tasks will vary but will likely include some or most of the following. According to USDOL, here are six of the most common tasks you’ll be asked to perform in the hands-on kind of career you’re seeking.
- Collect and analyze biological data about relationships among and between organisms and their environment
- Supervise biological technicians and technologists and other scientists
- Program and use computers to store, process, and analyze data
- Prepare technical and research reports, such as environmental impact reports, and communicate the results to individuals in industry, government, or the general public
- Develop and maintain liaisons and effective working relations with groups and individuals, agencies, and the public to encourage cooperative management strategies or to develop information and interpret findings
- Prepare requests for proposals or statements of work
No matter what your daily routine consists of—or how long those days end up being!—Smith encourages budding young scientists to embrace their passions. “It’s not always the case that success comes from the numbers of hours worked,” he says. “I think that if you are passionate about science, have good ideas, and plan your time efficiently, then you will succeed.”
Knowledge you’ll need to acquire with a biology degree
Because biology degree-holders have wide and varied career options, it’s crucial to prepare yourself with a diverse foundation of coursework. Obviously, you’ll need to take several classes in biology, but other schools of study can provide a knowledge base that will complement the work you’re already doing and set you up for future success in a competitive field.
Biology majors should consider additional coursework in these areas:
- Chemistry: The chemical composition, structure, and properties of substances and of the chemical processes and transformations they undergo. This includes uses of chemicals and their interactions, danger signs, production techniques, and disposal methods
- English: The structure and content of the English language including the meaning and spelling of words, rules of composition, and grammar
- Mathematics: Arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics, and their applications
- Computers & Electronics: Circuit boards, processors, chips, electronic equipment, and computer hardware and software, including applications and programming
- Management: Business and management principles involved in strategic planning, resource allocation, human resources modeling, leadership technique, production methods, and coordination of people and resources
Job outlook* for biology explorers
In 2016, 33 percent of people in these jobs worked for government organizations; 31 percent of people worked in “professional, scientific, or technical” capacities; and, 14 percent worked as educators at a college or university.
The job is one that will allow you to spend your days investigating, exploring, and answering questions, but similar to careers in marine biology and wildlife biology, the job market for would-be biologists is very competitive.
Plenty of older biologists will retire and be replaced by younger scientists but job growth is considered “average”—5-9 percent—through 2026. The USDOL projects 11,000 new biology-related jobs will become available in that timespan.
The median annual salary for these careers is $74,960, but it’s important to note, that is a nationwide median that includes workers at all levels of education and experience. It can vary significantly based on geography and employer and shouldn’t be considered a starting salary.
The bottom line
It’s worth mentioning again, earning a biology degree will likely be a gateway to further academic study before you enter the field. But don’t let that dissuade you—those who have reached great heights in the field seem downright giddy when talking about their passion projects.
“Peering inside cells with new imaging technologies almost always reveals unexpected things about how cells are organized and functioning,” Lippincott-Schwartz says. “I delight in trying to make sense of this, including why any particular organization or structure dictates a specific set of cellular functions and how this fits into a larger developmental/evolutionary/ecological picture.”
The field requires curious minds who have a penchant for data, analytics, and process. It’s a competitive career path but extremely broad in how the degree can be applied. Whether you swim toward marine biology, stick with species habitats, or lounge away your days in a lab, earning a biology degree is the first step.
So, what can you do with a degree in biology? Your options are almost limitless. So, let’s get started. Our on-campus biology community is set up to support you and make sure you succeed.
Photo credit: Matej Kastelic, Images of People in Science Competition, 2017