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Pursuing a career in biology can be immensely rewarding and exciting. Studying biology teaches us to ask questions, make observations, evaluate evidence, and solve problems. Biologists learn how living things work, how they interact with one another, and how they evolve. They may study cells under a microscope, insects in a rainforest, viruses that affect human beings, plants in a greenhouse, or lions in the African grasslands. Their work increases our understanding about the natural world in which we live and helps us address issues of personal well being and worldwide concern, such as environmental depletion, threats to human health, and maintaining viable and abundant food supplies.
There are several career paths you can follow as a biologist, including these:
Research: Research biologists study the natural world, using the latest scientific tools and techniques in both laboratory settings and the outdoors, to understand how living systems work. Many work in exotic locations around the world, and what they discover increases our understanding of biology and may be put to practical use to find solutions to specific problems.
Health care: Biologists may develop public health campaigns to defeat illnesses such as tuberculosis, AIDS, cancer, and heart disease. Others work to prevent the spread of rare, deadly diseases, such as the now infamous Ebola virus. Veterinarians tend to sick and injured animals, and doctors, dentists, nurses, and other health care professionals maintain the general health and well being of their patients.
Environmental management and conservation: Biologists in management and conservation careers are interested in solving environmental problems and preserving the natural world for future generations. Park rangers protect state and national parks, help preserve their natural resources, and educate the general public. Zoo biologists carry out endangered species recovery programs. In addition, management and conservation biologists often work with members of a community such as landowners and special interest groups to develop and implement management plans.
Education: Life science educators enjoy working with people and encouraging them to learn new things, whether in a classroom, a research lab, the field, or a museum.
New directions in biological careers: There are many careers for biologists who want to combine their scientific training with interests in other fields. Here are some examples:
If you are interested in learning more about nontraditional science careers, AIBS has a book available on the subject. Environmental scientist-turned-science writer Karen Young Kreeger reports on the experiences of nearly 100 scientists and provides case studies and career options for scientists in her book, Guide to Non-Traditional Careers in Science. The guide is organized by profession and includes one-on-one interviews, job-hunting advice, and comprehensive lists of resources. To order, click here.
If you are interested in becoming a biologist, there are some things you can do along the way to prepare yourself.
In high school
There are many universities with strong biology programs. There is no "best" college to study biology. If you are considering a biology degree, search for a school that fits your needs, budget, and lifestyle. Large research universities offer broad course work, a variety of specialized concentrations, and many opportunities for independent research. Smaller colleges allow for small class sizes, individualized instruction, and frequent interaction with professors. In general, there are several key elements that make up a solid biology program at a college or university:
Faculty diversity and experience
Commitment to undergraduate education
Research opportunities for undergraduates
While there will always be a need for bright, energetic, and educated individuals with a strong understanding of biology, opportunities vary depending on the status of local and national economies. For current job outlook information, check the Occupational Outlook Handbook, published every two years by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The handbook is searchable by topic, and there are over 45 job descriptions that match the keyword "biology."
Job growth is expected in a number of areas, biotechnology and molecular biology in particular. Business leaders have begun to address the issue of creating more science and technology jobs in the United States to prevent them from being exported. For more information, take a look at the report (in PDF format) Tapping America's Potential: The Education for Innovation Challenge. Also, the number of openings in federal government agencies charged with managing natural resources, such as the Interior and Agriculture Departments and the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to grow; see the report (in PDF format) Federal Natural Resources Agencies Confront an Aging Workforce and Challenges to Their Future Roles. These openings will become available as many senior-level biologists and life scientists retire in the coming years.
A 2003 survey by AIBS in conjunction with the Abbot and Langer Company found that biologists with less than one year experience have a starting salary of around $33,000 per year. Data from a 2005 US Bureau of Labor Statistics report show that the field of life sciences as a whole has a mean annual salary close to $60,000. As biologists gain more experience and education in their field, those in private industry may earn salaries of over $80,000, while those working in government, academia, and the nonprofit sector earn around $60,000 to $70,000. Those with over 30 years of experience have a median salary of around $103,000. Keep in mind that salaries may vary greatly depending on geographic location, job type, and experience and education.
As you can see, higher salaries are found in private research companies and government agencies, where you may have more job security, advancement opportunities, and independence in your work. While jobs in nonprofit groups or academic institutions may in general have lower salaries, many biologists find great personal reward in working for an organization that is affecting change and has an emphasis on teamwork and collaboration.
If you think there's one type of person who becomes a biologist, think again. All kinds of people with diverse talents are drawn to careers in biology, for many reasons. Get to know a few and you'll see. Here are links to profiles of biologists in a variety of fields who come from a wide range of backgrounds:
AIBS member societies and organizations are an excellent place to start looking for jobs, graduate school opportunities, and other career-related resources. Other web resources are listed below.
AIBS Member Societies and Organizations—career and professional development opportunities
General career development and job hunting sites
Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs