A biologist could...
|Analyze different types of taste bud receptors to understand how the tongue detects different flavors.||Uncover the relationship between a protein's genetic mutations and a patient's symptoms to better understand a disease.|
|Protect gorillas from extinction by studying their habitats and interactions in the wild.||Investigate all the physiological side effects that a flight into space has on a human being's body.|
Key Facts & Information
|Overview||Life is all around you in beauty, abundance, and complexity. Biologists are the scientists who study life in all its forms and try to understand fundamental life processes, and how life relates to its environment. They answer basic questions, like how do fireflies create light? Why do grunion fish lay their eggs based on the moon and tides? What genes control deafness? Why don't cancer cells die? How do plants respond to ultraviolet light? Beyond basic research, biologists might also apply their research and create new biotechnology. There are endless discoveries waiting to be found in the field of biology!|
|Key Requirements||Curious, inquisitive, patient, self-disciplined, with excellent communication skills and the ability to work both independently and on teams|
|Minimum Degree||Bachelor's degree|
|Subjects to Study in High School||Biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus, English; if available, computer science, statistics, biomedical science, physiology|
|Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)||Little or No Change (-2% to 2%)|
Training, Other Qualifications
Most biologists need a PhD degree in biology or one of its subfields to work in research or development positions. A period of postdoctoral work in the laboratory of a senior researcher has become common for biological scientists who intend to conduct research or teach at the university level.
Education and Training
A PhD degree usually is necessary for independent research, industrial research, and college teaching, as well as for advancement to administrative positions. A master's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research, product development, management, or inspection; it also may qualify one to work as a research technician or a teacher. A bachelor's degree is adequate for some non-research jobs. For example, graduates with a bachelor's degree may start as biological scientists in testing and inspection or may work in jobs related to biological science, such as technical sales or service representatives. Some work as research assistants, laboratory technicians, or high school biology teachers. Many with a bachelor's degree in biology enter medical, dental, veterinary, or other health profession schools.
In addition to required courses in chemistry and biology, undergraduate biological science majors usually study allied disciplines such as mathematics, physics, engineering, and computer science. Computer courses are beneficial for modeling and simulating biological processes, operating some laboratory equipment, and performing research in the emerging field of bioinformatics. Those interested in studying the environment also should take courses in environmental studies and become familiar with applicable legislation and regulations. Prospective biologists who hope to work as marine biologists should have at least a bachelor's degree in a biological or marine science. However, students should not overspecialize in undergraduate study, as knowledge of marine biology often is acquired in graduate study.
Most colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees in biology, and many offer advanced degrees. Advanced degree programs often emphasize a subfield such as microbiology or botany, but not all universities offer curricula in all subfields. Larger universities frequently have separate departments specializing in different areas of biological science. For example, a program in botany might cover agronomy, horticulture, or plant pathology. Advanced degree programs typically include classroom and fieldwork, laboratory research, and a thesis or dissertation.
Biologists with a PhD often take temporary postdoctoral research positions that provide specialized research experience. Postdoctoral positions may offer the opportunity to publish research findings. A solid record of published research is essential in obtaining a permanent position involving basic research, especially for those seeking a permanent college or university faculty position.
Biologists should be able to work independently, or as part of a team and be able to communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing. Those in private industry, especially those who aspire to management or administrative positions, should possess strong business and communication skills and be familiar with regulatory issues and marketing and management techniques. Those doing field research in remote areas must have physical stamina. Biologists also must have patience and self-discipline to conduct long and detailed research projects.
Nature of the Work
Biologists study living organisms and their relationship to the environment. They perform research to gain a better understanding of fundamental life processes or apply that understanding to developing new products or processes. Most specialize in one area of biology, such as zoology (the study of animals) or microbiology (the study of microscopic organisms).
Many biologists work in research and development. Some conduct basic research to advance our knowledge of living organisms, including bacteria and other infectious agents. Basic biological research enhances our understanding so that we can develop solutions to human health problems and improve the natural environment. These biological scientists mostly work in government, university, or private industry laboratories, often exploring new areas of research. Many expand on specialized research they started in graduate school.
Many research scientists must submit grant proposals to obtain funding for their projects. Colleges and universities, private industry, and federal government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, contribute to the support of scientists whose research proposals are determined to be financially feasible and to have the potential to advance new ideas or processes.
Biologists who work in applied research or product development use knowledge gained by basic research to develop new drugs, treatments, and medical diagnostic tests; increase crop yields; and develop new biofuels. They usually have less freedom than basic researchers do to choose the emphasis of their research, and they spend more time working on marketable treatments to meet the business goals of their employers. Biological scientists doing applied research and product development in private industry may be required to describe their research plans or results to nonscientists who are in a position to veto or approve their ideas. These scientists must consider the business effects of their work. Scientists often work in teams, interacting with engineers, scientists of other disciplines, business managers, and technicians. Some biological scientists also work with customers or suppliers and manage budgets.
Scientists usually conduct research in laboratories using a wide variety of other equipment. Some conduct experiments involving animals or plants. This is particularly true of botanists, physiologists, and zoologists. Some biological research also takes place outside the laboratory. For example, a botanist might do field research in tropical rain forests to see which plants grow there, or an ecologist might study how a forest area recovers after a fire. Some marine biologists also work outdoors, often on research vessels from which they study fish, plankton, or other marine organisms.
Swift advances in knowledge of genetics and organic molecules spurred growth in the field of biotechnology, transforming the industries in which biological scientists work. Biological scientists can now manipulate the genetic material of animals and plants, attempting to make organisms more productive or resistant to disease. Basic and applied research on biotechnological processes, such as recombining DNA, has led to the production of important substances, including human insulin and growth hormone. Many other substances not previously available in large quantities are now produced by biotechnological means. Some of these substances are useful in treating diseases.
Today, many biologists are involved in biotechnology. Those working on various genome (chromosomes with their associated genes) projects isolate genes and determine their function. This work continues to lead to the discovery of genes associated with specific diseases and inherited health risks, such as sickle cell anemia. Advances in biotechnology have created research opportunities in almost all areas of biology, with commercial applications in areas such as medicine, agriculture, and environmental remediation.
Most biologists specialize in the study of a certain type of organism or in a specific activity, although recent advances have blurred some traditional classifications.
Biologists are not usually exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination. Many biological scientists, such as botanists, ecologists, and zoologists, do field studies that involve strenuous physical activity and primitive living conditions. Biological scientists in the field may work in warm or cold climates, in all kinds of weather.
Marine biologists encounter a variety of working conditions. Some work in laboratories; others work on research ships, and those who work underwater must practice safe diving while working around sharp coral reefs and hazardous marine life. Although some marine biologists obtain their specimens from the sea, many still spend a good deal of their time in laboratories and offices, conducting tests, running experiments, recording results, and compiling data.
Many biologists depend on grant money to support their research. They may be under pressure to meet deadlines and to conform to rigid grant-writing specifications when preparing proposals to seek new or extended funding.
Biologists typically work regular hours. While the 40-hour workweek is common, longer hours are not uncommon. Researchers may be required to work odd hours in laboratories or other locations (especially while in the field), depending on the nature of their research.
On the Job
- 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.
- Program and use computers to store, process and analyze data.
- Collect and analyze biological data about relationships among and between organisms and their environment.
- Study aquatic plants and animals and environmental conditions affecting them such as radioactivity or pollution.
- Communicate test results to state and federal representatives and general public.
- Identify, classify, and study structure, behavior, ecology, physiology, nutrition, culture, and distribution of plant and animal species.
- Prepare environmental impact reports for industry, government, or publication.
- Represent employer in a technical capacity at conferences.
- Plan and administer biological research programs for government, research firms, medical industries, or manufacturing firms.
- Research environmental effects of present and potential uses of land and water areas, determining methods of improving environmental conditions or such outputs as crop yields.
Companies That Hire Biologists
Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...
Do you have a specific question about a career as a Biologist that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.
- American Institute of Biological Sciences: https://www.aibs.org/home/index.html
- American Physiological Society: www.the-aps.org
- Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology: www.fasbe.org
- Botanical Society of America: https://www.botany.org/
- BLS. (2019). Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), 2019 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved April 1, 2021.
- O*Net Online. (2019). National Center for O*Net Development. Retrieved April 1, 2021.
- PBS KQED. (2014). Scientist Profile: Wildlife Biologist Aimee Hurt. Retrieved May 13, 2019.
- Sloan Career Cornerstone Center. (2009). Profiles of Biologists. Retrieved November 30, 2009.
- www.emstempartnership.org.uk. (2009, January 7). A Day in the Life of a Molecular Biologist. Retrieved November 30, 2009.
- Oregon Public Broadcasting. (2002). Aleutian Geese. Retrieved May 13, 2019.
We'd like to acknowledge the additional support of:
Explore Our Science Videos
Make an LED Night-Light
Light-Tracking Bristlebot Instructions
Build a K'Nex® Differential