One common misconception about biology degrees is that the only types of jobs someone with these credentials can get are as a lab scientist or a health care provider. But Bridgette McDonald, director of career…
One common misconception about biology degrees is that the only types of jobs someone with these credentials can get are as a lab scientist or a health care provider.
But Bridgette McDonald, director of career services at Clayton State University in Georgia, emphasizes that though biology degree holders often pursue careers in health care or in academia, they can also excel in other fields where analytical skills are an asset, such as business.
In order to persuade undergraduate biology students that they have a variety of career opportunities, McDonald often tells them stories about biology majors who have excelled in industries that aren’t directly connected to biology. “I love to talk about presidents of banks who were biology majors,” she says.
David Bickford, an associate professor of biology and the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair in Biology at the University of La Verne in California, says biology degree recipients can apply their technical expertise and creativity in science-oriented jobs that focus on addressing major technological challenges, such as climate change and environmental sustainability issues.
“Biology is really going to be at the crux of finding solutions to the most important things that are going to be happening in the next 50 or 100 years,” he says.
Because the study of biology lies at the heart of many scientific breakthroughs and revolutionary technologies, leading both to groundbreaking discoveries in the field of genetics and lifesaving medical treatments, people with formal education in biology have valuable skills that can be applied to a wide array of jobs.
Janet C. Daniel, an associate professor of biology and director of the graduate program in biology at James Madison University in Virginia, says that biology courses offer students both discipline-specific knowledge about the world’s living creatures and interdisciplinary critical thinking skills. “As biologists, we study living processes at every level: from molecules to organisms, and through populations of organisms and how this impacts the environment,” she wrote in an email.
How to Decide What Type of Biology Degree is Best for Your Career Goals
Experts say that, in general, people with advanced biology degrees have more management roles available to them than others with less advanced degrees.
“With a bachelor’s degree, many more (entry-level) positions may be available, but autonomy and leadership roles may be limited,” wrote Tracey Baas, executive director of the University of Rochester‘s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training program that assists science doctoral students and postdoctoral associates with career exploration, in an email.
“With a Ph.D. degree, individuals may have more opportunity to help direct the future projects they will work on and may have more of a leadership role in a team. And many times a Ph.D. is not enough. Some roles will require that the individual with a Ph.D. undertake further training — a postdoctoral position — to do research projects that are complementary to their Ph.D. thesis but different enough to allow them to gain further technical expertise and also autonomy in developing research ideas of their own.”
Experts say there are some biology-related careers one might pursue with only a college degree, such as a career as a high school science teacher. However, there are other fields that require a graduate-level credential, such as a career as a veterinarian or a biomedical engineer.
Daniel says the critical thinking habits a biology student learns are applicable in a wide array of positions, including jobs that focus on food safety and science communications.
According to Daniel, biology degree holders sometimes head to law school and become intellectual property attorneys, and they also frequently pursue jobs in the public health sector. Some biology degree holders find work as environmental scientists for government agencies or nonprofit organizations, she says, and others specialize in bioinformatics, a field that involves collecting and interpreting biological data.
“The scientific method underpins studies in biology and allows students a framework for the learning and doing of science, which requires use of both deductive and inductive reasoning, ultimately leading to innovations in science knowledge and application,” Daniel wrote in an email.
Daniel says biology degree recipients tend to have marketable skills in both science and math, which is a winning combination for many employers, and this skill set is something degree holders should play up in their job applications.
“Aside from highlighting their state-of-the-art knowledge of biology, which is a rapidly developing field, students should show potential employers evidence of their quantitative skills, like statistics, data analysis and modeling,” she says.
Experts say there are many for-profit science, engineering and technology firms that are interested in hiring biology degree holders, particularly those with an advanced degree such as a master’s or Ph.D. who have the training necessary to perform cutting-edge industry research. “The pharmaceutical industry should be at least a consideration, since it makes up such a significant portion of the economy,” Jennifer Dennis-Wall, a science communications professional with a Ph.D. in nutrition and an undergraduate degree in biology, wrote in an email.
Private-sector companies that are creating and selling complex products often seek advertising and communications professionals with a science degree who have the technical expertise necessary to accurately and clearly describe their products, says Dr. Matt Middleman, founding partner and president of LifeSci Public Relations, a public relations firm that caters to scientific companies.
Middleman says companies that are introducing state-of-the-art technologies often want spokespeople who can explain these technologies to sophisticated audiences, such as physicians, patient advocacy groups and clinical trial investigators. That’s one reason why his firm favors candidates with science degrees, including degrees in biology, he says. “In order for us as a firm to truly help our clients communicate with audiences of that level of sophistication, it’s best for us to have backgrounds to understand the material and the science and the mechanisms as well as our clients in order to communicate with audiences like those.”
Bickford suggests that biology degree holders should explore careers in the agriculture and food industry, where companies are looking to develop genetically engineered food items that are drought-resistant or that have other desirable properties.
A Biology Doctorate Doesn’t Always Lead to an Academic Career
Baas says earning a doctoral degree in science doesn’t automatically translate to a tenure-track science faculty position. However, there are many non-academic jobs where science Ph.D. recipients can use their highly technical training, she says.
“Scientists with a Ph.D. degree have many professional opportunities,” Baas wrote in an email, adding that the traditional path for a Ph.D. graduate would be to work as an assistant professor at an undergraduate-focused college or a research university that offers a plethora of graduate and undergraduate programs. “They then have the opportunity to progress to associate and full professor. But many Ph.D. scientist are now considering other routes.”
Baas says it’s important for prospective science doctoral students to recognize that there is a scarcity of entry-level science faculty positions, so they should be willing to explore other options, including industry jobs. She says her program “discourages people from calling these careers ‘alternative’ because all careers are valid,” adding that, “based on the current trend of fewer and fewer Ph.D. scientists being hired at universities, tenure-track faculty careers could be considered alternative.”
Baas suggests people with biology doctorates consider jobs in science and technology policy, biomanufacturing and entrepreneurship.
She adds that someone with a doctorate will also typically have valuable project management experience. “Ph.D. graduate students are very good at project management because of their experiences with their research projects but sometimes fail to recognize that project management is what they are doing,” Baas says.
Biology Undergraduates Often Pursue Additional Clinical Degrees
Experts say those who majored in biology in college often intend to become some type of health care provider, such as a doctor, physical therapist, chiropractor or nurse.
Bruce Godfrey, a Nebraska chiropractor with a doctorate in his field and an undergraduate degree in biology, says a college education in biology can be very useful for an aspiring clinician. Although majoring in biology isn’t required in order to become a health care provider, Godfrey says he’s glad he majored in the subject as an undergraduate.
“It was important for me in my career to have a basic understanding of biochemistry and some aspects of nutrition, as well as the anatomy and physiology of the human body, so I think the biology degree helped me put that into context and gave me a basis for going on and learning the higher-level clinical courses.”