Biology Careers Job Options, Earnings, and Education for Budding Biologists

From studying different species of plants and animals to conducting medical research, biology careers offer a world of options for anyone interested in the science of life. Contributions by those in the field have increased our understanding of the world and organisms around us and has been the catalyst for great strides in medicine, health, and technology. If you’re considering this field, read on to explore different biology career paths, review job prospects and salaries, and get details on required education.

Exciting Careers in the Biology Field

Biologists can pursue numerous career paths depending on their key area of interest. Positions can be found in natural science, healthcare, conservation, or education. Some biologists train specifically for work with government organizations or research organizations, while others may pursue more creative careers as science journalists or even photographers. Those seeking more advanced roles in biotechnology, forensic science, public policy, or research should be prepared to complete graduate studies.

For a better idea of what’s available, take a look at the different jobs discussed below:

Conservation Scientist and Forester

Conservation scientists are responsible for overseeing the environmental and ecological quality of green areas, including forests, parks, and other natural resources.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 7%

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree in forestry, biology, or a related field

Biological Technician

Biological technicians assist scientists with tests and experiments. They may be tasked with analyzing data from research studies or experiments, writing reports, and making sure all tools and equipment used in the lab are clean and orderly. Technicians may be trained in a particular specialty area, such as microbiology, ecology, or molecular biology.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 5%

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree in biology or a related field

Wildlife Biologist

This type of biologist studies wildlife, habitats, behavior, and animals’ roles within their ecosystem. They also explore the impact humans have on wildlife and their natural habitats. Though most commonly found in a lab, outdoors, or in an office setting, some wildlife biologists work in medical labs conducting experiments.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 4%

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    Bachelor’s degree in biology or a related field

Biochemist or Biophysicist

Biochemists and biophysicists conduct experiments to analyze the chemical and physical structures of living things. They may also study disease, cell development, and other biological processes. Major contributions to the field include treating diseases and disorders related to the brain, furthering the field of forensic science, fighting diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer, and discovering DNA.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 8%

  • Minimum Education Requirements:

    PhD to work on independent research and development projects

Medical Scientist

Medical scientists undertake research projects with a goal of improving overall human health. As a result, they may study the cause of a disease or chronic health problem, develop a drug for treatment or prevention, and conduct clinical trials for more information or to test treatment options.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 8%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    PhD in biology or related life science

Microbiologist

By studying microorganisms – such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites – microbiologists try to understand how different organisms live and grow. These research findings are either used to expand current knowledge or can be used to develop new products or solutions for a range of real world problems.

  • Job Outlook (2014 to 2024): 4%

  • Minimum education requirements:

    PhD in microbiology to conduct research or work as a university researcher

Medical Laboratory Scientist
  • PROJECTED GROWTH (2014 to 2024): 16%

  • Education and Training:

    Bachelor’s degree

Geoscientists
  • PROJECTED GROWTH (2014 to 2024): 10%

  • Education and Training:

    Bachelor’s degree

Environmental Science and Protection Technician
  • PROJECTED GROWTH (2014 to 2024): 9%

  • Education and Training:

    Associate degree

Epidemiologist
  • PROJECTED GROWTH (2014 to 2024): 6%

  • Education and Training:

    Master’s degree

Agricultural and Food Scientists
  • PROJECTED GROWTH (2014 to 2024): 5%

  • Education and Training:

    Bachelor’s degree

Data Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014

Annual Earnings for Biologists

Biologists with advanced degrees in specialty fields such as biotechnology and molecular biology can expect to command above-average salaries and enjoy more job opportunities as the biotech field grows. McKinsey & Company notes that the biopharmaceutical industry in particular is growing quickly, as new companies emerge to develop drugs for an aging population. Take a closer look at salaries for different biology careers:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015

Salaries for biology positions vary significantly based on experience, area of specialization, and skill. To illustrate, the visuals below show how biology salaries change over the years as well as how skillset can impact salary potential.

How Experience Affects Biologist Salaries

Median
Salary
  • Late-Career +76%
  • Experienced +27%
  • Mid-Career +6%
  • National Average $49,000
  • Entry-Level-16%

How Certain Skills Affect Biology Salaries

  • Molecular biology +19%
  • Project management +13%
  • Technical writing +7%
  • Technical analysis +7%
  • Research analysis +5%
  • Environmental consulting +3%

Source: PayScale.com

Should You Become a Biologist?

Are you analytical in nature? Do you enjoy solving problems? Are you passionate about the natural world? If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, a career in biology could be a suitable professional path. Consider the following questions to determine whether a career in biology is right for you:

  • Are you comfortable using the scientific method to solve problems?Biologist and natural scientists solve problems and conduct research through a very specific method that involves asking questions, making observations, gathering appropriate information, forming a hypothesis, and setting up a controlled experiment. The scientist then records and analyzes results before drawing a conclusion. This step-by-step process is the guiding foundation of scientific inquiry and is used for all research projects.
  • Are you interested in contributing to the natural science or medical community?Biologists who choose to work in research – either independently or as part of a research firm – are required to conduct experiments, formulate hypotheses, and draw conclusions for publication in scientific journals. A career as a biologist may be the perfect match if you dream of contributing to the advancement of the natural sciences, medicine, or related fields of study.
  • Are you highly attuned to details?Scientists conducting tests must be very focused and aware of all components of the experiment in order to accurately document and report their findings. Microbiologists, medical scientists, and those working in a lab typically follow a series of safety procedures and specific protocol that require attention to detail and concentration for long periods of time. These same skills are needed by scientists conducting fieldwork in observing organisms, animals, or behavioral patterns.
  • Do you enjoy studying and researching complex topics?The field of biology is incredibly diverse and complex. Natural scientists must truly enjoy studying and researching complicated topics in all areas of biology and be comfortable reviewing scientific research papers, reports, publications, and online resources. In short, this career requires an investigative mind.
  • Can you concentrate and focus for long periods of time?Whether you’re conducting your own experiments in a lab, reviewing scientific research papers, or preparing to report your findings, being able to focus for many hours is a critical skill. If you have a short attention span or get distracted easily, you may find it difficult to complete tasks or follow through on research projects and investigations, many of which may go on for extended periods of time.
  • Are you prepared to keep up with the advances in this growing industry?The world of science is always evolving and successful scientists closely follow developments in their respective field. You need to be aware of what is happening in your industry by reviewing peer journals, reading blogs from professors and researchers, and studying the latest reports on recent discoveries and advancements.
  • Can you work well with a team or independently?Biologists and natural scientists may work independently on their own research projects or with a team of other scientists and medical professionals for a firm or research organization. You need to be able to stay on task without supervision yet, at the same time, be able to work with a team of other professionals. This requires good interpersonal and communication skills, as well as a strong work ethic.

Required and Preferred Skills

Research

Biologists conduct in-depth research using a variety of methods and protocols, including collecting samples of substances, plants, and animals.

Analysis

Biologists must have strong analytical skills and be able to not only interpret research findings and data, but also communicate these findings to others. In some cases, biologists will also need to translate their analyses into actionable strategies.

Observation

Proper analysis often requires keen observation. Biologists must be keen observers when they monitor experiments and test subjects to ensure they are collecting accurate information.

Project management

Large research requires project management skills. For instance, you’ll need to be able to breakdown a large scale goal into smaller actionable items and create a step-by-step plan or process to achieve what you’re looking for. This also includes managing different resources such as lab equipment, funding, and, sometimes, a team of other biologists/researchers.

Microscopes

A staple in many laboratories, microscopes allow biologists to see tiny objects and organisms for research. Compound light microscopes are typically used to view bacteria cells, while scanning electron microscopes can be used to view protein molecules.

Computers and probeware

Computers and analytic/scientific software are used for a range of purposes, including storing data, generating reports, and displaying charts and information. Probeware can be connected to a computer to instantly analyze measurements such as temperature and pH.

Robotic lab equipment

Automatic pipettes, liquid-handling robots, and other robotic lab equipment are examples of automated equipment used to perform experiments, handle fragile or dangerous substances, and perform other tasks without human help.

Education Requirements

Almost all biologist positions require at least a bachelor’s degree in biology or a related science, but an associate degree may be enough for some entry-level lab technician roles. If you want to pursue a career beyond the technician or technologist role – and especially if you’re interested in medicine, research, or academia – you’ll need to complete a graduate degree.

The timeline below is a basic overview of degree programs that can help you prepare for a career in the field of biology:

Associate Degree in Biology

Offered at community colleges, the associate degree in biology, focuses on the fundamentals of the discipline and is designed to help students transfer to a four-year university to earn a bachelor’s degree in a biological science. For example, it can serve as an educational starting point for students interested in biology-related careers in fields such as dentistry, medicine, optometry, pharmacy, and veterinary medicine. This degree usually consists of 60 credits, although the exact number can vary slightly from college to college. Example courses include:

  • General Biology I and II
  • General Chemistry I and II
  • Organic Chemistry for Science Majors
  • Pre-Calculus
  • Calculus
  • Anatomy
Bachelor’s Degree in Biology

A bachelor’s degree in biology can be used to obtain an entry-level biologist job in a range of areas such as health care/medicine, bioscience, biotechnology, and wildlife or serve as the stepping stone for graduate-level studies. Students gain a solid understanding of living organisms and how these organisms interact with the environment. Programs are usually around 120 credits. Sample courses are:

  • Biometrics
  • Writing for Biologists
  • Physics
  • Quantitative Analysis
  • Genetics
  • Ecology
Master’s Degree in Biology

Many biology careers – particularly those in research, medicine, and academia – require at least a master’s degree, which takes about two years to complete, if you’re a full-time student. Building on the knowledge learned at the bachelor’s level, this program dives deeper into the body of scientific knowledge and ends with a research-based thesis. Courses students are likely to encounter include:

  • Biometry
  • Advanced Topics in Biology
  • Genetics and Evolutionary Biology
  • Plant Biology
  • Understanding Scientific Research
PhD in Biology

A doctorate degree is usually required for high-level, research positions or for teaching at the postsecondary level. Still, even if a doctorate is not mandatory, it may help you command a higher salary and job title. PhD programs are usually tailored to the student’s chosen concentration and end with a dissertation on original research, as well as an oral defense of the dissertation. Students must complete some advanced coursework credit – usually around 16 credits, but the exact number will vary by college – pass a qualifying exam, and complete at least two semesters of teaching. Courses may look something like:

  • Cell Biology I and II
  • Advanced Molecular Biology
  • Responsible Conduct and Skills in Research
  • Responsible Conduct and Skills in Scientific Communication
  • Biochemistry and Biomolecular Structure
  • Cellular Dynamics

Specializations

Because the field of biology is quite broad, most individuals completing an undergraduate or master’s degree program choose to concentrate their knowledge in a certain area. Many schools offer the option to specialize at the master’s degree level. Here are some common specializations within biology:

Health and disease or pre-med

Students enrolled in a master’s degree program with a health and disease or pre-med specialization learn principles of pharmacology, neuroscience, bioethics, and disease to move into the healthcare field.

Molecular biology

Those interested in microorganisms and biomedical research can specialize in molecular biology to study topics such as industrial microbiology, bioenergetics, gene therapy, and enzymology.

Ecology

This branch of science focuses on how organisms interact with one another as well as their surroundings to come up with ways to improve our environment, safeguard the public against diseases, help save endangered species, or come up with feasible solutions for agricultural problems.

Forensic biology

Forensic biology combines biology and criminal justice or law enforcement. In this specialty, biologists use their knowledge of the entire human body, organisms, and the environment to help identify victims and/or support criminal investigations.

Biology Certifications and other Credentials

No formal certification is required to land a job in biology, but like many other professions and industries, earning voluntary certification can help boost your resume when applying for jobs. Certifications are available from a variety of professional organizations. Examples include:

Associate Wildlife Biologist

The Wildlife Society’s Associate Wildlife Biologist (AWB) designation was created for individuals who have limited work experience but have met rigorous academic standards.

Certified Wildlife Biologist

The Certified Wildlife Biologist (CWB) designation is reserved for trained wildlife biologists with experience in applying the principles of ecology to wildlife conservation and management.

Certificate in Synthetic Biology

Those who wish to pursue a career in synthetic biology can earn this certificate through Synberc, a synthetic biology engineering research center. By completing this program, students are eligible to attend semiannual retreats at UC Berkeley and MIT.

Biology Teacher Certification

Individuals who wish to teach biology in a classroom can complete the American Board’s Biology Certification program. Certification is only offered in some states and requires paying a fee and enrolling in a formal certification program.

Where Biological Scientists and Researchers Work

Biological scientists and researchers work in a variety of settings. Take a look at some of the common workplaces:

Conservation societies

Conservationist groups typically hire biologists who specialize in ecology, marine science, or environmental science. Job opportunities may include technician, technologist, scientist, and research positions.

Government agencies

Government agencies and regulatory organizations dedicated to protecting the environment or managing national parks hire marine biologists, wildlife biologists, environmental scientists, and plant biologists.

Zoos, aquariums, and nature preserves

Plant and wildlife biologists often find attractive career opportunities at zoos, aquariums, and nature preserves. These places often need scientists on staff to take care of animals and plant species.

Public health departments

Biologists specializing in healthcare or working in the medical field qualify for positions with public health departments and related organizations. Common job tasks may include completing research, presenting insights, and preparing reports for public health advocates.

Medical research labs

Biologists can find work in medical labs, where they are responsible for conducting experiments and analyzing results.

Food manufacturing plants

Food manufacturers may hire biologists and chemists to handle food science projects. Biologists may be involved with nutritional science experiments and food chemistry projects early on in the food manufacturing process.

Hospitals and medical care facilities

Those who want to take their knowledge to the healthcare world can find employment in hospitals and other medical care facilities as doctors, pharmacists, or lab technicians, to name a few examples.

Biology Career Boards

You can find biology jobs and career opportunities posted on internal college and university boards, government job sites, and on major job boards such as Indeed. You can also narrow down your search by using specialized science career websites such as these examples:

  • American Society for Cell Biology

    Designed for science professionals specializing in cellular and molecular biology, this organization highlights positions available at research centers across the country, as well as opportunities at public and private colleges.

  • Conservation Job Board

    Jobs for professionals pursuing a career in conservation and environmental management can be found here. The site includes listings for marine biologists and similar biology careers.

  • Ecological Society of America (ESA)

    ESA maintains a list of jobs for conservation biologists, postdoctoral positions at colleges and universities, and faculty programs at various organizations.

  • NewScientist

    NewScientist aggregates available jobs from biopharmaceutical companies, agricultural manufacturers, and other major organizations utilizing scientific research. It also allows users to refine their search based on specialty and discipline.

  • Society for Conservation Biology

    Designed specifically for conservationists, this site features a job board with conservation biology job listings for nonprofit organizations, academic and research institutions, and government agencies.

  • The Wildlife Society

    A leader in wildlife science, management and conservation, this organization posts jobs, internships, and research opportunities available at universities, nonprofit organizations, and companies.

  • USAJOBS

    USAJOBS is a comprehensive database of jobs available with the federal government. It is an ideal tool for biologists looking for research positions and job opportunities with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Bureau of Land Management, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Internships

Completing an internship can provide valuable hands-on experience and the opportunity to work with experienced biologists, zoologists, botanists, and researchers already in the field. Internships also provide the chance to get to know a company and see if it would be a good professional fit after graduation.

As you complete your bachelor’s degree in biological science, check with your academic advisor about internship opportunities available on campus. If you are pursuing a research degree, you may be able to secure an assistant position at your school or an internship from the biology department. You can also apply for internships at local manufacturing companies, nonprofit organizations, medical centers, and conservation societies, depending on your area of specialization.

The requirements to secure a biology internship typically include strong letters of recommendation, a professional resume outlining career goals and skills, and an in-person interview. Take the time to review internship application requirements and expectations on a company’s website to find the internship that is right for you. Examples of biology internship opportunities are provided below:

Biology/BCS/CBMM Summer Research Internship

Location: Cambridge, MA

MIT combines the resources of the Department of Biology, the Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences, and the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines to run a 10-week program for sophomore and junior science majors from other universities who want to see what a career in research entails.

FAS Center for Systems Biology Summer Internship

Location: Cambridge, MA

Undergraduates at U.S. universities can attend Harvard University’s summer internship program at the FAS Center for Systems Biology. The 10-week program gives interns a chance to work on research projects in faculty labs and learn cutting-edge techniques.

Institute for Systems Biology Internship

Location: Seattle, WA

The Institute for Systems Biology has several options available to students interested in an innovative approach to exploring biological complexity. High school students and undergraduates can take advantage of summer internships or year-long mentorships under ISB faculty. Graduate students can also apply for the latter.

Monsanto Internship Program

Location: St. Louis, MO

Monsanto is a leader in the agricultural biotechnology and agrochemical industry. It offers a variety of paid internships for both undergraduate and graduate students, all of which allow interns to learn about Monsanto’s company culture, take tours of labs and production facilities, and complete online courses at Monsanto University.

Regenerative Sciences Institute Biotechnology Internship

Location: Sunnyvale, CA

The RSI biotechnology internship is a six-month intensive program that immerses participants in biotech research. Interns follow a curriculum, work with mentors and scientists in a supervised setting, and complete a final project.

Associations & Organizations for Biologists

Attending professional networking events and career fairs designed for biology students can help you forge connections with professionals in the field and present yourself as a potential intern or candidate for employment as you near graduation.

Academic biology departments are a valuable resource for networking and keeping up with the industry, while some – such as MIT – have programs where students from other schools visit for conferences, workshops, and competitions. Another great option is joining a professional association in your area of specialization. Organizations and associations for biologists include:

American Institute of Biological Sciences

AIBS provides education resources and implements public outreach programs. It is also a leader in promoting the sharing of data within the scientific community.

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

This professional organization has been providing career support and advocacy for biochemists and molecular biologists for more than a century. Members receive the society’s journal, use publication discounts, and have access to ASBMB-sponsored meetings and career resources.

Association of Zoos and Aquariums

AZA hosts annual conferences and strives to educate scientists and the public about animal care and conservation efforts. It offers several membership levels for those currently employed or seeking employment in the field.

Biotechnology Innovation Organization

A leader in biotechnology and an advocate for its members, this industry organization hosts international conventions, conferences, and events throughout the year. It is the largest trade organization dedicated to biotechnology innovation.

International Society for Clinical Biostatistics

ISCB’s members are dedicated to the research of biostatistic principles and methodologies used in clinical research studies.

National Environmental Health Association

NEHA offers continuing education programs, employment opportunities, and a food safety training program for eligible professionals. Members receive a copy of the Journal of Environmental Health and discounts to attend conferences and networking events.