Studying Biology

I’m interested in studying biology. What can you tell me?

Biology is the scientific study of living things and the way that they relate to their habitats. Biologists study organisms like plants, animals, fungi and microbes to see how they interact with other species and with their environments. They also study biological concepts like genetics, species diversity and the classification of life forms. Because biology is a broad discipline, biologists usually choose to specialize in a subfield of biology. For example, you can study ecology if you want to gain a broad understanding of the way plants and animals interact with their environment to form an ecosystem. If you are interested in creatures, you can study zoology. And if you want to know more about the world of invisible organisms, you can specialize in microbiology. People who study biology should be curious about the physical world and interested in trying out new scientific ideas. You can study biology at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but not all biology students end up in fieldwork or academic research positions. Instead, many biology students become doctors, veterinarians and science teachers.

Let's hear some other perspectives

An Interview with Annie Lenox

Annie Lenox

Student, Bachelor of Science in Biology,University of Alabama

“Students who study biology have to retain a lot of information, so it is really important that they take the time to read their textbooks and understand the relevant parts.”Read the Full Interview

An Interview with Stephanie Phan

Stephanie Phan

Student, Bachelor of Arts in Biology,University of Texas, Austin

“If I could go back, I would study much harder during the initial phase of my undergraduate education.”Read the Full Interview

An Interview with Ryan Earley

Ryan Earley

Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences,University of Alabama

“Conducting research on campus and presenting it at conferences will help you succeed by preparing you for more advanced coursework.”Read the Full Interview

Biologist Overview

Biologist,Nitia BaligaWatch His Story
video

What exactly is a biologist?

Biologists are scientists who study the structure and life processes of living things. Depending on their area of specialty, they study different aspects of organisms like plants, animals and bacteria. Biologists conduct field and laboratory research for universities, private companies and the government. Even though a degree in biology can lead to many possible careers, most biologists can be sorted into 3 broad categories:

Academic Biologists

Academic biologists are employed by universities to teach and perform basic and applied research. They hope to discover ways to improve the state of the environment and to find solutions to specific problems through their research. Sometimes academic research is conducted under controlled conditions in a laboratory, and sometimes it takes place outdoors in the natural environment of a research subject. Academic biology work is usually funded through grants.

Industry Biologists

Industry biologists work for corporations, so the subject of their research is determined by the business goals of their company. For instance, biologists who work for drug companies use their research to develop new medications, while those who work for agriculture companies discover ways to make crops produce more food. Industry biologists sometimes also work in sales and public relations positions at companies.

Government Biologists

Government biologists use their knowledge of plants and animals to conserve natural resources, restore habitats and protect fish and wildlife. These biologists often work in the field instead of in a laboratory. Some government agencies that employ biologists are the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Forest Service.

Let's hear some other perspectives

An Interview with Carrie Leyh

Carrie Leyh

Medical Technologist,LabCorp Dynacare

“To succeed as a medical technologist, you need to be inquisitive and detail oriented in order to seek out the correct tests for patients and keep track of their results.”Read the Full Interview

An Interview with Alexis Rudd

Alexis Rudd

Marine Biologist,Based in Oahu

“I would warn students that being successful in this profession requires sacrifice. You must be willing to sacrifice time with the people in your life and your family because you will likely be gone for months at a time.”Read the Full Interview

Personality Quiz

How do I know if biology would be a good fit for me?

Here is a quick quiz to help you decide if you have the personality it takes to succeed as a biologist. Rate, on a scale from 1 to 5, how well each of the following statements describes you.

I am curious about the world around me.

The field of biology is driven by unanswered questions about the physical world. If you like to discover how the world of living things fits together, you are likely to find a career in biology exciting.

I like to find new ways to do things.

Biologists work on complex issues like environmental damage and infectious disease. If you have the ability look at longstanding problems in new ways, you may be able to imagine new solutions.

I pay attention to small details.

One of the major duties of a biologist is to observe how animals or cells act under various conditions. You must be aware of subtle changes in the behavior and appearance of your research subjects.

I am comfortable working with numbers.

Biologists use statistical data and mathematics in order to process large amounts of information. You will need to be confident applying your mathematical skills to real-world situations.

I can write clearly and effectively.

Many academic biologists depend on grant money to provide funding for their research. If you have the ability to write convincing grant proposals, you will persuade others to fund your projects.

I am productive when I am working on my own.

Biologists often work alone while conducting research in the laboratory or gathering samples in the field. You need the self-discipline to work independently if you want to be a biologist.

I like to use technology.

Some biologists use computer programs and bioinformatics to model complex ideas. The ability to learn new technologies will help you to succeed as a biologist.

I do not give up easily.

Research experiments do not always end in the result that biologists hope for. You will need the patience and persistence to repeat experiments several times when you attempt to make progress in the lab.

I work well under pressure.

Many biologists work under strict deadlines with limited financial means. You will need to be resourceful and work efficiently to produce results.

I am not squeamish about bodily functions.

Biologists learn about the inside of the body by dissecting animals that have died. If you are unnerved by blood and bodily systems, you will not be comfortable working in biology labs.

Get My Score

*Note that this is not a scientific quiz. The result is simply my rough estimate of how well I believe your personality matches that of a successful biologist.

By my assessment, a career in biology is probably not a good fit for your personality. Please go to the Admissions Advisor homepage for a listing of other careers you may want to consider.

By my assessment, although a career in biology may not be an ideal fit for your personality, if you are willing to adapt in a few areas, you can still find success in the field. Please see the list to the right for information on the areas that you may need to work on.

By my assessment, your personality is a good fit for a career in biology. Scroll through our site to gain valuable insight into what it will take you to earn the necessary credentials.

Making the Right Choice

Is there anything else I should consider in deciding if biology is the right choice for me?

Education Requirements

If you want to be a biologist, you should plan to earn at least a bachelors degree. And if your goal is to conduct independent biological research, you should prepare yourself for many years of school. It usually takes a masters degree or a doctorate to perform original research, so if you do not plan to attend graduate school, you should not expect to be in charge of a laboratory.

Biology Professions

What biology professions can I choose from?

Biology is a diverse field that offers job opportunities in a variety of subfields and specialty areas. Keep in mind that the level of education you need to work in each specialty area depends on the specific job that you get in the field. Most entry-level biology jobs require a bachelors degree, which will allow you to help collect samples and perform basic research on a team of biologists. You will be able to manage a team of biologists or assist in conducting biological research with a masters degree. If you want to teach biology at a university or perform independent research, you probably need to earn a doctorate.

Education Required:

Associates (2 years)

Average Salary:

$31,000

Work Environment:

Universities, government agencies, research laboratories, hospitals

Job Description:

Biological science technicians assist biologists with laboratory work. They usually perform routine tasks like setting up and caring for lab equipment. Some technicians also use specialized equipment and computer programs to help conduct research. For instance, they may be asked to make mathematical calculations and record observations during experiments.

Education Required:

Bachelors (4 years); public schools require a teaching license

Average Salary:

$45,000

Work Environment:

High schools

Job Description:

High school biology teachers introduce students to basic biology concepts like the structure of cells, evolution and the ways that different types of organisms reproduce. They also teach students laboratory procedures like how to use science equipment. In addition, biology teachers are responsible for managing the students in their classrooms and assessing their academic progress.

Education Required:

Bachelors (4 years), masters (2 – 3 years of graduate school) or doctorate (4 – 7 years of graduate school)

Average Salary:

$60,000

Work Environment:

Universities, government agencies, research laboratories

Job Description:

Marine biologists study organisms that live in bodies of water like fish, plankton and crustaceans. These biologists often work in the field near oceans, lakes and rivers to collect samples. Marine biologists use biological principles as well as chemistry, physics and math in order to understand aquatic life and how people are affecting it.

Education Required:

Bachelors (4 years) or masters (2 – 3 years of graduate school)

Average Salary:

$57,000

Work Environment:

Government agencies, wildlife reserves

Job Description:

Wildlife managers monitor wildlife populations to make sure that they are stable and animals are able to reproduce. They survey populations to make sure animals like deer and elk are not being overhunted. They also help to restore damaged habitats. Sometimes wildlife managers reach out to the public to explain wildlife programs and government policies.

Education Required:

Bachelors (4 years), masters (2 – 3 years of graduate school) or doctorate (4 – 7 years of graduate school)

Average Salary:

$54,000 (Lowest 10% earned less than $38,240; highest 10% earned more than $111,000)

Work Environment:

Universities, government agencies, research laboratories

Job Description:

Microbiologists study life forms that are too small to see with the naked eye like bacteria and viruses. They study how these microscopic organisms interact with each other and how they affect people in both positive and negative ways. For instance, many microbiologists study cell reproduction in order to learn more about human diseases.

Education Required:

Masters (2 to 3 years of graduate school) or doctorate (4 – 7 years of graduate school)

Average Salary:

$51,000

Work Environment:

Zoos, universities, government agencies, research laboratories

Job Description:

Zoologists study the anatomy and behavior of animals in controlled laboratory situations and in the wild. Some specific topics that interest zoologists include an animal’s diet, the way it acts in social groups and how it raises its young. Some zoologists learn about the structure of an animal’s body by dissecting corpses. Most zoologists specialize in a particular animal group. For example, primatologists study primates, while ornithologists study birds.

Education Required:

Bachelors (4 years), masters (2 – 3 years of graduate school) or doctorate (4 – 7 years of graduate school)

Average Salary:

$52,000

Work Environment:

Universities, government agencies, research laboratories

Job Description:

Botanists are scientists who study the lives of plants, from algae to redwood trees. They study how plants interact with other species in an ecosystem and how different environmental factors affect their growth. Botanists can specialize is several areas like plant disease, classification and fossilization.

Job Outlook

What is the job outlook for biologists?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for biologists is promising. There were 91,300 biologists working in the United States in 2008, and that number is expected to increase by 21% through 2018. That means employment of biologists is expected to grow much faster than other occupations. Biologists who specialize in biotechnology will have the most employment opportunities. On the other hand, opportunities will be limited in the subfields of zoology, marine biology and botany because those fields are small.
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Education Requirements

How long would it take me to become a biologist?

The amount of time that it takes to become a biologist depends on the subfield of biology that you want to enter and the type of work that you would enjoy. For example, if you want to work in the field, a bachelors degree in biology might be enough to get a job with the government. But if you want to conduct independent research, you will have to earn a graduate degree, which takes at least 2 to 3 years of graduate school.

Areas of Study

What can I expect to learn while pursuing biology?

As you study biology, you will gain scientific knowledge and professional skills.

KNOWLEDGE

Cellular Biology

Cellular biology is the study of cells. Cells are the basic structural units that make up all living things. Knowledge of cellular biology includes the anatomy of a cell and the complex ways that cells communicate and work together to keep organisms functioning. It also covers the life cycle of cells and the major differences between prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells.

Genetics

Genetics is the science of heredity. This science expands on the theories of scientists like Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, who studied inheritance, natural selection and the factors that cause populations of organisms to change over time. Modern biologists use these theories when they conduct genetic research and examine the structure and function of DNA to develop treatments for hereditary disorders like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.

Biochemistry

Biochemistry is the study of how chemicals interact inside living creatures. It combines knowledge of the principles of biology and chemistry to describe complex internal chemical processes. For example, biochemistry explains how organisms use food to produce energy and how mammals use oxygen to breathe.

Ecology

The study of ecology seeks to understand the relationship between organisms and their environment. It introduces concepts like population control, the relationship between predator and prey and competition within a species. It will also cover practical topics like field research techniques and habitat restoration.

Advanced Mathematics

Biology uses several types of advanced mathematics to illustrate complex theories about topics like population decline and genetic inheritance. Some areas of mathematics that are useful to biologists include differential and integrated calculus, linear algebra, probability and computational statistics.

SKILLS

Research Methods

Your biology curriculum will teach you how to use scientific research methods to gather information and make educated guesses about life processes. You will also learn how to design experiments that your peers in the science community will respect. Some of the research methods that you will learn include observation, surveying, computer modeling and statistical analysis.

Fieldwork Techniques

As you study biology, you will be trained to conduct research outside of the laboratory in the environments where your research subjects thrive. You will discover the best ways to observe the natural habits of animals and plants in uncontrolled settings. Some common examples of fieldwork techniques that biologists use are surveying populations, collecting samples for identification and measuring ecological factors like climate or soil acidity.

Dissection of Plants and Animals

During your biology training, you will learn about the anatomy and cellular structure of living things by taking apart deceased plants and animals. By dissecting specimens, you will discover how an animal’s bodily systems work together to sustain life and how the components of a plant allow it to create its own food and survive.

Laboratory Equipment Operation

A degree in biology will teach you how to correctly operate laboratory equipment so that you and your research subjects will be safe. In addition, if you don’t maintain your lab equipment properly, your experiments could be contaminated. Your lab classes will teach you how to operate and care for equipment like computer software, microscopes, measuring tools and petri dishes.

Problem Solving

Biologists try to understand the processes that create and sustain life. Some of these ideas remain mysterious, such as the origin of life and the possibility that life exists in other worlds. In your biology curriculum, you will learn how to question what is known about the field and to think creatively to offer solutions to unsolved biological questions.

Questions & Answers

Select a category to find answers to your questions

Resources

What are some other resources that can help me learn more about pursuing a degree in biology?

American Institute of Biological Sciences

American Physiology Society

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

American Society for Cell Biology

American Society for Microbiology

The Botanical Society of America

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Everything Bio

Ecological Society of America

Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology