What Does it Mean to Study 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 does involve the study of living organisms -- frogs included -- there is so much more to this field than just formaldehyde and frog's legs. Thanks to technological advances, many biology degrees are even available online, complete with virtual simulations of laboratory tasks.
As the study of life itself, biology has room for dozens, if not hundreds, of specializations. Consider looking into a degree program in biology if you find yourself interested in:
- Endocrinology (the study of diseases and disorders)
- Genetics (the study of genes)
- Fisheries science (the study of fisheries resources and aquatic ecosystems)
- Physiology (studying live cells, tissue and organisms and how they function)
- Agronomy (studying agriculture)
- Herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles)
- Botany (studying plants) or arboriculture (the study of trees)
- Ecology (the relationship of organisms to the environment)
- Entomology (insects)
- Oceanography (the study of the ocean)
- Mammalogy (the study of mammals)
- Parasitology (the study of parasites)
- Ichthyology (the study of fish)
Still in High School? How to Prepare for a Degree in Biology
Biology requires computer, research, writing, teamwork, communication, organization and time management skills. Since biologists must often involve themselves in grant writing and political debate, the Botanical Society of America encourages biology majors to take an active interest in politics and public affairs. You can demonstrate an early commitment to a career in biology with activities such as:
- Participating in organizations such as the Student Conservation Association;
- Taking part in local science clubs or science fairs;
- 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.
Jeff Levinton, a marine biology professor, insists that if you do not take a high school physics course, you'll 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."
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."
Career Education in Biology
Due to the vast range of biology specialties, there are thousands of biology and science degree 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 touches on the basic knowledge required for an assistant position in many laboratories or research facilities. Students pursue a focused course of study designed to build entry-level career skills in a relatively short (usually two-year) amount of time. Many associate degree candidates complete their course requirements in about two years, even when studying part-time. Students who later decide to pursue a full bachelor's degree in biology can, in many cases, transfer at least some of their credits from an associate degree program.
Bachelor's Degree Programs in Biology
In addition to biology courses, bachelor's degree programs in biology are likely to explore related fields like chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Biology majors can take advantage of minors and electives to build unique sets of skills that can benefit them in the specific career path they intend to pursue after graduation: lobbyists, journalists, environmentalists, etc.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Biology 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.
Association Memberships Enhance Your Standing
Volunteering or interning at nonprofit associations and organizations, especially those that advance environmental, geological and other public interest causes, can advance your employment cause as well.
Biology or Related Organizations and Associations:
- Botanical Society of America
- Ecological Society of America
- National Academy of Sciences
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences
- Environmental Protection Agency
- Student Conservation Association
- Sierra Club
- The Wilderness Society
- National Wildlife Federation
- American Fisheries Society
- American Physiological Society
- Society for Industrial Microbiology
- National Society of Genetic Counselors
- The American Phytopathological Society
- Smithsonian Institution
- The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology
- Air and Waste Management Association
- National Registry of Environmental Professionals