Guide to College Majors in Biology

Biology has at least 50 more interesting years.
-- James Watson

What Is Biology?

For many students, the thought of pursuing a college major in biology brings back bad memories of dissecting frogs in high school. Though a biology degree prepares students for the study of living organisms -- frogs included -- the field provides a wide variety of options for graduates. Thanks to technological advances, many biology degrees are even available online, complete with virtual simulations of laboratory tasks.

In addition to animal behavior, students can earn an advanced degree in such fields as:

  • Endocrinology (the study of diseases and disorders)
  • Genetics (the study of genes)
  • Fisheries science (the study of fisheries resources and aquatic ecosystems)
  • Physiology (live cells, tissue and organisms and how they function)
  • Agronomy (agriculture)
  • Herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles)

Students who love nature can earn degrees in botany (plant studies) or arboriculture (trees). Biologists who love spending lots of time in front of a microscope can focus on:

  • Industrial microbiology (the application of engineering or science principles to the study of plant or animal cells or microorganisms)
  • Ecology (the relationship of organisms to the environment)
  • Entomology (insects)
  • Oceanography (the study of the ocean)
  • Marine or other mammalogy (the study of mammals)
  • Parasitology (the study of parasites)
  • Ichthyology (a branch of zoology that focuses on fish)

A molecular and cellular biology degree prepares future professionals for the study of microscopic viruses, bacteria, or fungi. Students with a high-tech inclination can earn degrees in biotechnology.

Developmental biology prepares students for studies in experimental ideas such as stem cell research, cloning, and the elusive cure for AIDS. Closely aligned, a bioethics degree prepares students for the study of the efficient, ethical, and compassionate practice of the life sciences and medicine.

Trends in Biology Careers

Many biological science specializations are on the rise, due to concerns ranging from healthcare to climate change. As communication and transportation advances bring the world's people closer together, the scientific community has expanded its efforts to deal with life-threatening diseases. Therefore, many new biology majors study genetics, immunology and endocrinology. As humans live longer and remain physically active through more of their lives, biology majors can help meet the increased demand for qualified researchers and physicians.

Some biology concentrations, such as environmental science, are often pursued as avocations or part time work. Practitioners enjoy the opportunity to love and work outdoors. As more people migrate from cities to rural areas, urban foresters are increasingly in demand.

Forensic science and forensic entomology are gaining the attention of the general public, with television programs such as "CSI" portraying research professionals in a new and interesting light. With increasing public attention on security and violent crime, these career opportunities have multiplied.

One of the fastest-growing fields of biology is genetics, the study of gene manipulation to improve agriculture and overcome genetic diseases. Meanwhile, an ever-increasing number of molecular biologists are needed to work on exciting projects offering the personal satisfaction of helping others, such as the current research on Alzheimer's disease, cancer and Parkinson's.

Still in High School? How to Prepare for a Degree in Biology

An innate fascination with the wonders of the world, a yearning to help humankind overcome serious calamities, and a love of the outdoors are clues that a biology specialization might be right up your alley. Demonstrating this passion early on will raise your application to the top of the stack at most admissions offices.

Preparation for your biology education will vary depending on your interests, although all fields of biology will require computer, research, writing, teamwork, communication, organization, and time management skills. Extracurricular activities such as team sports or school government demonstrate your accomplishments and your broad variety of interests. Participation in science clubs and science fairs can also help your academic career.

You can demonstrate an early commitment to a career in biology by:

  • Participating in organizations such as the Student Conservation Association;
  • Volunteering at your local or state park, wildlife refuge or zoo;
  • Enrolling in advanced placement physics, chemistry, earth science, economics, math, and engineering courses;
  • Attending community workshops on zoology or botany;
  • Joining a debate team or participating in your local Toastmasters chapter;
  • Writing articles for your school newspaper or another community publication;
  • Improving your photography skills, especially in the wild;
  • Expanding your computer literacy to include experience with programming languages.

High school students aspiring to a forensic science career can participate in the Young Forensic Scientists Forum, a division of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. This group helps students network with professionals in the field and provides them with a mentor while they investigate a career in biology. The Academy also recommends that prospective biology students acquire good note-taking skills and hone the ability to write a clear scientific paper.

Jeff Levinton, a marine biology professor, insists that if you do not take a high school physics course, you will regret it once you are in college. The same, he says, is true of calculus. He suggests, as do other college instructors, that a well-rounded high school curriculum is more important than a narrow focus on the sciences. About college training for marine biology, he says,

"These days the college route is essential, but don't feel that you have to go to a school that specializes in marine biology. Find a college that is first rate in science but has good humanities and communications training as well. In the summer of your junior year or senior year make SURE that you get a summer job or take a course in a marine lab. This will do more for you than any five marine biology courses in college. After college, your marine biology education will be acquired in graduate school."
  - Jeff Levinton, MBWeb, State University of New York at Stonybrook

Milton Love, a U.S. Geological Survey marine biologist, offers this advice:

"You will find that one of the quickest ways to get in good with researchers in college is to know how to dive. Researchers are always looking for cheap (read: free) divers and, once you fulfill whatever requirements the college or university has for divers, you will likely find many happy offers for you to help out with someone's research. If there is a university or college near you, sometimes it is possible to volunteer to assist researchers - you can check that out. Again, it really is unimportant if the folks you are working with are marine biologists, terrestrial biologists or whatever. The point is to get some experience with research."
  - Milton Love, Biological Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey

The Botanical Society of America suggests that high school preparation for a career in botany should include courses in foreign language, English, math, chemistry, physics, and biology. Since botanists and other biologists must often involve themselves in grant writing and political debate, the Society encourages biology majors to take an active interest in politics and public affairs.

Career Education in Biology

Due to the vast range of biology specialties, there are thousands of biology programs across the country. Many biology careers require master's degrees or PhD-level course work. Online degrees are an ever-growing trend in the field of biology, allowing students the opportunity to pursue advanced degree without sacrificing work or family commitments. These online programs often include brief residencies or allow students to arrange fieldwork or internships locally, so that they can get the hands-on experience they need.

Certificate Programs in Biology

Students who have not yet narrowed down their precise career goals can explore their options by enrolling in certificate programs. These programs also appeal to working biologists who want to expand their knowledge in a specific area.

Certificate programs in biology usually consist of a small set of courses around a tightly focused topic. Students who have already earned their bachelor's degree in another field can supplement their skills without repeating subjects from their previous academic careers.

Because certificate programs in biology appeal to such a diverse range of students and working professionals, more colleges and universities offer online certificate programs than ever before. In many cases, students can participate in bulletin board discussion groups and communicate with professors via e-mail. For students who do not have the time or the inclination to commit to a formal degree program, certificate programs open up a tremendous opportunity to explore new ideas.

Associate Degree Programs in Biology

An associate degree in biology provides students with the basic knowledge required for an assistant position in many laboratories or research facilities. Students pursue a short, focused course of study that builds entry-level career skills in a relatively short amount of time. Many associate degree candidates complete their course requirements in about two years, even when studying part-time.

Associate degree programs in biology are ideal for recent high school graduates who want to make the fastest transition into quality jobs. Likewise, college graduates who earned a college degree in another of the arts or sciences can bolster their skills in biology without duplicating work from their earlier degree programs. Students who later decide to pursue a full bachelor's degree in biology can, in many cases, transfer the credits from an associate degree program.

Bachelor's Degree Programs in Biology

In today's highly competitive job market, many employers prefer or require bachelor's degrees for entry-level positions in the biology field. The best bachelor's degree programs in biology produce well-rounded professionals who can combine their scientific and research abilities with critical thinking and communication skills.

In addition to taking a comprehensive program of biology courses, undergraduates also explore related fields like chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Students rely on this set of core scientific skills throughout their careers, whether they work in a research facility, a hospital, or a field clinic. Biology majors can take advantage of minor and elective programs to build unique sets of skills that can qualify them for highly specialized positions as lobbyists, journalists, or environmentalists.

Because biology majors can land a variety of jobs in both the academic sector and the business world, many undergraduates take advantage of career guidance services offered by their colleges and universities. Many programs offer course credit for internships performed at businesses and institutions near the student's home, provided the student keeps a detailed journal of the tasks she performed and the experience she gained. Many internships provide valuable workplace connections that can lead to entry-level jobs after graduation.

A growing number of colleges and universities allow working professionals who want to switch careers the opportunity to earn credits by passing skills assessment tests (the military, in particular, has a highly developed system for this). For many adults who want to earn a bachelor's degree in biology to qualify for professional advancement, these programs can shave months from the length of a degree program.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Biology?

There are many career paths open to biology majors. For example, a general biology undergraduate degree could prepare you to work as a botanist, a teacher, a trip leader for outdoor organizations such as the National Outdoor Leadership School, a scientist for a non-profit organization such as a university or environmental society, an educator at an environmental facility, a forest ranger, or an urban planner or researcher. You could join the Peace Corps as well.

Graduate-level specialization offers many opportunities as well, including:

  • Microbial and Cellular Biologist. A teaching position in this area could include coursework in immunology, molecular genetics, food microbiology and medical microbiology. You could teach students how to initiate and conduct research. Other common employers include animal vaccine supply firms, the cosmetics industry, the dairy industry, or the clinical laboratory of a pharmaceutical company.
  • Meteorologist. This job title expands far beyond delivering the weather forecast to local viewers of the six o'clock news. Air force meteorologists, for instance, deliver weather predictions that are crucial to flight operations and troop movements. Many commercial airlines hire their own meteorologists, as do highway departments, ocean shipping firms and electric and gas utilities.
  • Geologist. As a petroleum geologist, you could be hired by a private energy company to explore and retrieve petroleum deposits. As an environmental geologist, you might investigate and assess the environmental impact of those projects, or study industrial contamination. As an environmental geologist for a government agency, you could be called on to assess the impact of landslides, or manage water supply development.
  • Arborist. A commercial or municipal arborist might care for the trees on company or government agency grounds. He would be responsible for pruning, planting, fertilizing, and pest control. Public utility companies and governments hire utility arborists to plan and manage tree maintenance around utility lines, and to advise firms on the appropriate care and types of trees best for power line locations.
  • Geneticist. Some geneticists, called clinical geneticists, must earn a medical degree to work on prevention of genetic diseases and defects. Laboratory geneticists, who must hold at least a master's degree, apply genetic technological advances to improve agriculture, develop new drugs, and assist with police work. Genetic counselors work in a medical, counseling or research capacity, with families at risk or suffering through the genetic disease of a family member.
  • Forensic Scientist. Within this field there are many types of jobs. A criminalist, for example, would typically work for a law enforcement agency, identifying evidence and linking it to suspects. You might also work as a wildlife criminalist, investigating poaching activity. Forensic pathologists perform autopsies to determine the cause and manner of death. They also typically work for government and law enforcement agencies. Forensic anthropologists are called upon to identify bodies, whether those found through archeological or other discovery, or victims of disaster such as plane crashes.

Certification, Licensure and Associations

Biology graduates who wish to teach must earn the teaching certificate required by their state. Some biology-related positions, such as health science, genetics and some immunology work, might require a medical license. Few professional biology positions, except for entry-level technicians and assistants, are open to candidate with associate degrees. Most require at least a bachelor's degree, although a master's degree is highly recommended.

Association Memberships Enhance Your Standing
Participation in nonprofit associations and organizations, especially those that advance environmental, geological and other public interest causes, can advance your employment cause as well. Participation in these groups not only give you hands-on experience in your field, but often allows you to work side by side with the very executives and managers who may later be deciding on your worthiness as a student or employee. Many of these associations' sites offer job boards as well.

Another key to getting your foot in the higher education or career door is through internships such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Federal Career Intern Program, or Genentech's biotechnology internship or cooperative action program.

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