Hack College Presents: How To Become A Biologist


Biology, generally known as the study of living organisms, is a discipline with as much diversity as a tropical jungle. There are an overwhelming number of sub-disciplines, some of which you will learn about here. The fact of the matter is that biologists themselves think of their discipline in terms of the most fundamental sub-disciplines, all having to do with the morphology, anatomy, behavior, distribution, physiology, and behavior of living organisms.

If you have fond memories of doing insect taxidermy projects like capturing and dissecting lightening bugs and butterflies, biology might be the place for you. This is a field for highly curious, detail-oriented minds who enjoying studying living systems and the organisms that make them up.

Part I. The Biology Industry

Though all sciences, biology notwithstanding, quickly evolve in tandem with advancements in technology, the industry itself is seeing little growth in terms of employment, particularly for biologists employed by governmental agencies. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports that employment for zoologists and wildlife biologists between 2010-2020 is expected to grow by seven percent, slower than the average growth for all occupations.

An Overview of Biology Careers

To some unknowing, biology may seem like the study of everything. Indeed, it nearly is (except for the fact that the objects of study must be alive), and the variety of biology careers matches the diversity of study material.

  • Biotechnologist: If the prospect of doing outdoor fieldwork is what draws you to biology, you may want consider other careers. As the job title suggests, biotechnologists apply new technology to manipulate the biochemical and genetic aspects of an organism. The purpose of doing so is to alter organisms so as to contribute improvements in medicine, environmental science, and agriculture. Biotechnologists work in laboratories alongside research scientists and engineers. The career requires a strong background in biochemical processes and genetic engineering. These professionals should also have competency in analytical and quantitative areas of science. In addition, they must be familiar with the theory and practice of genetic engineering and biochemical processes.
  • Plant Biologists: If you’re fond of plants, ugly and beautiful, smelly and fragrant, plant biology might be for your. However, you should know that the tasks of a plant biologist go far beyond that of mere appreciation. Plant biologists do work with plants, mosses, algae, and photosynthetic bacteria. But these professionals, like many biologists today, approach their subject from related biology disciplines such as genetics, molecular evolution, and biochemistry. Plant pathologists deal with the symptoms, causes, and control of plant diseases, whereas plant physiologists are interested in how particular genes affect seed yield and plant growth. Plant geneticists may focus solely on breeding plants, or study genes in order to improve plants.
  • Marine Biologists: A sub-discipline of oceanography, marine biology deals with marine organisms and the many problems threatening marine life. Though some may believe marine biologists spend their working hours out at sea, most gather data in the field only to return to the lab, spending hours on analysis. They write scientific reports for supervisors or clients; sometimes their studies are intertwined with political and economic issues. Marine biologists need to have fundamental knowledge of oceanography — chemical, physical, and geological oceanography — in order to best comprehend marine organisms, their behaviors and the problems these organisms face.
  • Microbiologist: Microbiologists study microorganisms (algae, bacteria, archaea, and fungi) and how they affect animals, plants, the environment, and humans. Virologists examine viruses caused by bacteria infection, while immunologists research mechanisms for fighting diseases, like AIDS, cancer and Alzheimer’s. Microbiologists also research new drugs to aid in this process, and work with medical scientists to develop new vaccines and antibiotics. They work in laboratories and offices in industries such as life sciences, education, and pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing.
  • Biochemists and biophysicists: Biologists who specialize in biochemistry spend their working hours in the lab, exploring chemical events that cause biological phenomena, such as genetic mutations that lead to cancer and other disease. In a broad sense, biophysicists seek knowledge of the fundamental processes of life by applying the methods of physics and chemistry to biological systems. To study at the molecular level and learn how nerve cells communicate, for example, they use X ray crystallography, optical and laser spectroscopy, and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.

Career and Salary Outlook

Across all biological fields, your salary will vary according the the value of your specialty, the breadth of your experience and, of course, the level of the degree you obtain. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, 2010 median salary for biotechnicians was $39,020. Compare this to the $65,920 2010 median salary for microbiologists, and you get the idea. Professionals with doctorate degrees tend to earn more, as do those working in high-paying industries such as medicine and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

If you’re looking for job security, you’ve come to the right place. The career outlook for biologists in all disciplines looks positive, but more so for occupations such as geneticists, and molecular and cellular biologists as the field gains technological advances, and more discoveries are made. Similarly, employment for biochemists and biophysicists is forecast to grow 31 percent between 2010-2020.

Part II. Top Biology Programs

Cornell University (Ithaca, NY)

Founded in founded in 1865, Cornell University is a private, Ivy League institution whose motto is: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” True to this expression, the university is known for its encouragement of students to take responsibility for their education by breaking with convention to explore new ideas. Forty-one Nobel Prize winners are affiliated with the institution, including faculty members and alumni.

  • Accreditation: Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Specialized Degrees: Undergraduate degrees include Biochemistry, Cell biology, Developmental biology, Genetics, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Molecular biology. Doctorate degrees include Field of Plant Biology, Molecular and Cell Biology, and Genetics and Development
  • Industry Perception: As one of eight Ivy League institutions in the U.S., Cornell’s reputation is considered by many as superior. According to the U.S. News & World Report, Cornell is ranked # 11 for biological sciences
  • Cost: $45,478 for New York state residents, $61,618 for non-residents
  • Financial Aid: Cornell offers need-based and merit-based scholarships, grants, work-study and federal assistance

Stanford University (Stanford, CA)

“Die Luft der Freiheit weht,” or “the wind of freedom blows” is Stanford’s unofficial motto, borrowed from 16th-century humanist Ulrich von Hutten. Stanford is a private institution that was founded in 1891 by Jane and Leland Stanford in honor of their only child who died age 15 of typhoid fever. The campus is famous for its French Romanesque Moorish Spanish and architecture. But that’s not all. The university has one of the most competitive admissions rates in the nation: in 2012, 7% of 36,632 applicants were admitted.

  • Accreditation: Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • Specialized Degrees: Bachelor of Science in Biology with concentrations in Biochemistry and Biophysics, Ecology and Evolution, Marine Biology, Microbes and Immunity, Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Neurobiology. Ph.D. in Biology with the following concentrations: Molecular, Cellular, Developmental and Genetic, Integrative/Organismal, Ecology, Evolution and Population Biology
  • Industry Perception: U.S. News and World Report has ranked Stanford #1 for biological studies
  • Cost: Cost of attendance for undergraduates is estimated at $58,536
  • Financial Aid: Financial support is available through university scholarships, federal and state grants, and student employment

Washington University (St. Louis, MO)

Washington University (WUSTL) is an independent, medium-size university with about 13,000 students. Its several campuses are all located just west of downtown St. Louis. WUSTL offers more than 90 programs in both traditional and interdisciplinary fields.

  • Accreditation: Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Specialized Degrees: Undergraduate students in biology can choose from a number of majors including Ecology and Evolution, Genomics and Computational Biology, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Neuroscience. Graduates in biology can earn doctorate degrees in Plant Biology; Immunology; Molecular Genetics and Genomics; Evolution, Ecology and Population Biology; Computational and Systems biology, and more.
  • Industry Perception: WUSTL is steadily ranked by U.S. News and World Report among the top universities in the nation for biological sciences. Famous alumni include biochemists and co-Nobel Prize winners Carl and Gerty Cori.
  • Cost: The cost attendance for one academic year is approximately $60,000.
  • Financial Aid: In addition to standard federal and state opportunities, tWUSTL awards more than $4 million in scholarships annually. Financial aid is also available through part-time employment, graduate stipends and research assistantships, as well as paid internships and practica.

University of California (Los Angeles, CA)

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is a public, internationally renowned research university that was founded in 1919. Known for their “Bruins” football team, the university has other athletic feats to brag about. UCLA students and alumni have won more Olympic medals than most nations, and its athletes more NCAA titles than any university.

  • Accreditation: Accredited by WASC
  • Specialized Degrees: Bachelor’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology with concentrations in Ecology, Behavior and Evolution, and Marine Biology. Master’s and doctorate degrees in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
  • Industry Perception: Notable UCLA alumni include Francis Ford Coppola, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Johnnie Cochran, and Story Musgrave. U.S. News & World Report has ranked UCLA # 24 among the best in biological sciences
  • Cost: The price of attendance is approximately $31,815 for in-state residents, and $54,693 for out-of-state.
  • Financial Aid: Students may receive aid in form of Cal Grants, work study, university scholarships, federal loans, departmental scholarships

University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)

Founded by none other than George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin in 1740, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) offers rich history and tradition, not to mention innovation. The private, Ivy League institution has committed to cutting campus energy use by 17 percent by 2014. The university is highly-competitive; in 2012 only 13 percent of 31,663 undergraduate applicants were offered admission

  • Accreditation: Accredited by WASC
  • Specialized Degrees: Bachelor’s in Biology with concentrations in: Computational Biology and Mathematical Biology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Molecular Biology, Neurobiology. Doctorate in Biology in diverse research areas such as: Microbiology, Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, Physiology, Neuroscience, Animal Behavior, Plant Biology, Genomics, Computational Biology, Evolution, and Ecology and Biodiversity.
  • Industry Perception: According to the U.S. News & World Report, Penn’s biology department ranks #20, and #7 for immunology.
  • Cost: For 2013-2014, the cost of attendance for undergraduates is about $61,800
  • Financial Aid: Penn supports students with scholarships like the Mayor’s Scholarship, and other university scholarships, and state and federal loans

Part III. Launching a Career in Biology

If any of the job descriptions or university programs here interest you, it’s time to get started on your career now. Ideally, prospective students interested in pursuing a bachelor’s in biology are taking biology and other science courses in high school or at community colleges. If so, that’s great. Careers in this field are competitive, and admissions for the top programs may be more so. What’s really important right now is to keep your GPA up, and to start looking for programs with faculty conducting research in your field of interest.

Organizing the Job Search

  • Research experience: Research is the key to any career in the sciences. As a biology student you will be in the laboratory and in the library asking questions and looking for answers from day one. As you know from science class, being a biology students is all about observing, collecting evidence, developing hypotheses and experimenting. What makes research such an important component of your presentation to prospective employers, is that it demonstrates your interests, experiences, and successes.
  • Publications: Now that you’ve got the research thing underhand, you need to start churning out reports and papers. Well, not exactly. It’s good to start slow. But it’s just as important in the sciences as in the arts. Attractive job candidates are those who can show that their research holds importance to the scientific community, who have a voice in the greater dialogue, so to speak. Employers want to see that the time you’ve invested in research has been fruitful.
  • Grants/Scholarships/Notable Achievements: Biology students whose research may contribute to an eventual cure for disease, or development of a new vaccine receive far more funding opportunities than students in the humanities, so start applying now. You may just land a Fulbright or a grant through your biology department. Apply to as many scholarships for which you are eligible; it’s good practice.
  • Resume/Curriculum vitae (CV): The resume, a mere piece of paper or two, is often the first exchange job candidates and employers. As with any discipline, employers of biologists will most likely read about your research and publications from your resume before they hear about them in an interview. So this is the place to shine. If you’re a Rhodes scholar, you need to let people know about it. This goes for major grants to conduct research on declining species in the remote tropical islands of the South Pacific, too. If you’ve done something, then put in on your resume!
  • Finding the job: Always check with your university’s career center for help with your resume, cover letter and general guidance for getting started on the right foot. You may find job openings on LinkedIn, through alumni resources, and by networking with your professors and other biologists.

Advice From Biology Professors

Below are a few articles that offer advice to prospective and established students.

  1. Advice for Prospective Students from the Johnson Lab at Duke University
  2. Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students from Stephen C. Stearns of Yale’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
  3. Routes into Biology Research by Alison White of GuardianNews
  4. Undergraduate Program: Research Opportunities at Tufts University’s Biology Department
  5. Working in Cornell University’s Evolutionary Biology Labs from Cornell’s Ornithology Faculty

Be Smart, Be Curious

Don’t worry if you aren’t a genius. Being a mastermind is not prerequisite to a successful career in biology, though brains can certainly help. With some smarts and a lot of hard work, you can go just about anywhere. And just as artists are driven by a need to express, biologists are driven to ask difficult questions and to seek answers. They turn over rocks to see what creepy creature lie beneath. If you haven’t been doing so, it’s time.