If you are interested in going into a medical or health-sciences-related field, you may wonder if a degree in biology is worth pursuing. As with any life decision related to education, it will depend on your situation.
Biology degrees are worth it if you are interested in continuing your education to earn a master’s degree or Ph.D. to enter a field like education or research. There is little demand for biology undergraduates who do not move on to complete a graduate program.
This article will explore some things to consider before pursuing a career in biology.
Undergraduate Biology Degrees
The National Center for Education Statistics reported that in the 2017-18 school year, 6% of all undergraduate degrees were in biology. Considering how many undergraduate degrees are available, this number is significant.
Unfortunately, a standalone undergraduate biology degree is among the least valued STEM degrees. While biology can open the doors to all sorts of opportunities, there is little demand for a biology major without a specialization.
An undergraduate degree in biology is often used as a springboard for a more specific career path. Many students work towards a biology degree in preparation for medical school. Others might want to go into research or education.
Each of these career paths will require further education.
Someone with a general undergraduate degree in biology will find that job prospects are slim.
There is a surplus of biology majors who did not make it into medical school and very few job opportunities for a student of general biology. This does not mean a bachelor’s degree in general biology is entirely useless, however.
If you aren’t dedicated to a specific biological field, any degree is a path to exciting career opportunities.
If you aren’t sure if you want to further your education post-undergrad, it’s recommended that you pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology. These degrees include general humanities courses and will help you develop a diverse skillset beyond just studying biology.
Additionally, consider supplementing your education with engineering, physics, and math courses like statistics, modeling, and programming, as they can only further your chances of finding consistent work after graduation.
If you plan on continuing your education and getting a master’s degree or Ph.D. for research, you might consider getting a Bachelor of Science degree. This program contains general humanities classes for a more science-focused curriculum and includes supplemental courses in math, physics, and more.
While the average salary for someone with a degree in biology is around $63,000 a year, this is misleading. Biology covers a wide variety of topics and disciplines, and this salary average is skewed by highly qualified medical professionals earning six-figure salaries.
Entry-level positions like lab technicians and research assistants are low-paying and competitive.
Courses Involved in a Biology Degree
You might wonder exactly what kinds of courses are required in a biology degree. While this varies depending on the school and program, you should expect to take foundational math, chemistry, and biology courses.
Here is a short overview of some of the courses a biology major can expect to take.
Ecology is a branch of biology that deals with how plants and animals interact with the environment around them. An introductory ecology course will deal with agriculture, fishing, forestry, ecosystem and habitat conservation, local populations of flora and fauna, and endangered species protection.
Genetics studies DNA and the passing down of traits from parents to their children. The study of genetics can involve huge concepts like heredity and evolution, all the way down to minute details like genes, the small segments that make up the larger strand of DNA.
Chemistry is one of the fundamental elements of all the sciences, especially biology, and it deals with the reactions of various compounds and chemicals when their state is changed. Since the body functions through constant chemical reactions, you will find biochemistry in virtually all biology programs.
Anatomy and Physiology
While two separate subjects, Anatomy and physiology are inherently linked to one another and typically taught together. Anatomy deals with the names and physical locations of the various systems and parts of the body, while physiology studies the functions and interactions of those systems.
Molecular and Microbiology
Molecular Biology and Microbiology are two relatively recent branches of the biology field. While they might sound similar, there is a crucial difference between them. Microbiology deals with studying microscopic organisms like bacteria and viruses and their effects on the body.
Conversely, Molecular Biology is more related to biochemistry and physiology, as it deals with the study of foundational biology at the molecular level.
Physics and Calculus
Much like chemistry, physics and calculus are foundational scientific concepts that can be studied independently. Still, in a biology program, the courses will be tailored to relate closely to biological study.
Both subjects, in particular calculus, involve the study of change. Physics studies movement, energy, and force, while calculus allows you to predict the outcome of change with quantitative math.
After You Complete Your Undergraduate Degree
What do undergraduates go on to do after they’ve completed their bachelor’s degree in biology?
If you aren’t moving on to further your education with a master’s degree or Ph.D., you should consider jobs that utilize both the scientific knowledge you gained and any general humanities and communications skills you picked up during the first couple of years at school.
If you plan on moving on to graduate school, biology students typically go in one of three ways:
One of the most common paths for biology majors to take is teaching at all levels, from early education to college. Did you know that the first general biology course was known as “Natural History” and first introduced in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1881?
Soon after, in 1893, it became a recommended course for the high school curriculum.
If you are passionate about presenting new and exciting scientific concepts to open minds, teaching may be an appropriate career path for you. Your steps towards this goal will vary depending on your state and what level of school you’re looking to teach.
Becoming a teacher requires you to have at least received a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certification.
Many college programs offer teaching certification alongside standard classes, which will minimize the time, money, and effort needed to complete the necessary work. You can also take the certification after graduating.
If you’re interested in teaching higher education, you’ll likely have to consider getting a master’s degree, which can add 2-4 years on top of how long it’s taken you to receive your bachelor’s degree.
You might consider getting a master’s degree in a biological subject, or you can investigate degrees in education or teaching.
Like all scientific fields, we are always learning new things about biology thanks to constant breakthroughs by scientists performing integral research. Research is generally divided into two types: primary and applied.
Basic research involves making general observations based on existing knowledge to understand better whatever it is you’re researching. It also provides the foundation for applied research, which deals with solving a specific problem, and can be further split into three subcategories:
- Action research: This provides new data based on experiments.
- Evaluation research: This analyzes and makes conclusions about existing data.
- Research and development: This involves creating products to be marketed and sold to consumers.
These concepts can be applied to all aspects of biology.
A basic researcher in microbiology will observe how microorganisms interact with each other, while an applied researcher in immunology will be attempting to find treatments and cures for illnesses and ailments.
Lower-level research roles like lab technicians will only require completing a 2- or 4-year program, while independent scientists and college researchers will need to complete higher levels of education.
Students planning on going into the medical field can receive an undergraduate degree in any field, provided they complete specified core classes that allow them to qualify for medical school.
Biology is one of the most common pre-med tracks as it includes many of the required core classes. The Association of American Medical Colleges found that over half of medical school applicants majored in biology.
Typically, students planning on enrolling in med school will apply between their junior and senior years of undergrad.
Alternatively, some take a gap year to gain more experience. Regardless of the path you choose, you will need to pass the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, to be considered for med school.
This is comparable to the SATs or ACTs you took before going to college.
Medical students who are accepted into medical school average about 508, but passing scores can range anywhere from 472-528. You will want to prepare and study for this test vigorously, as it determines your further eligibility in the medical field.
Jobs in Biology
The three paths of teaching, research, and medicine are only broad overviews of the different directions one can go with a degree in biology. You might find yourself wondering what some specific job titles in the field of biology are.
It should come as no surprise that the range of opportunities is as wide as the subject itself. Let’s now talk about some of the roles that may interest you as a biology major.
Biological technicians are lab technicians that assist with biological research. All lab technicians help senior scientists with their work in the laboratory, usually tasked with setting up and dismantling equipment, retrieving items or samples for analysis, and writing reports on the results of experiments.
Pharmaceutical salespeople are responsible for the promotion and distribution of new pharmaceutical products to doctors and physicians.
While they do not “sell” the products in the traditional sense, they will use their knowledge to inform health caregivers about the products in hopes they will consider prescribing them to their patients.
Medical Equipment Sales
Like a pharmaceutical salesperson, a medical equipment salesperson promotes and distributes expensive medical devices to hospitals and laboratories. Like most sales jobs, this one involves a lot of traveling and communication with clients.
This role differs from pharmaceutical sales in that you are, by definition, selling the products to the consumers.
While there are many things to consider when planning to get a degree in biology, whether it’s worth it will ultimately depend on your situation. A biology degree would be incredibly beneficial for those looking to go into the medical, teaching, or research fields.
However, students should remember that there aren’t many opportunities for undergrads with a bachelor’s degree in biology and should consider this when deciding on their path forward. If you’re unsure of your path after graduation, it may be best to take a step back and look at other disciplines.
You may also want to read my insights on Is AP Biology Easy? Let’s Dissect This!