How to Become a Biologist in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for biologists. Learn the facts about job duties, education requirements, salary and employment outlook to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Biology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Biologist Do?

Biologists are scientists whose work centers on the study of living plants, animals and organisms, including microorganisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. Biologists may work in the field, the laboratory or both, with many specialty options to choose from. They execute experimental studies to test theories or answer questions. Many report or publish their findings to the public or agencies needing the information. The following chart provides an overview of three possible biology careers.

Wildlife Biologist Biochemist Microbiologist
Degree Required Bachelor's &/or master's degree; PhD for independent research/teaching Bachelor's &/or master's degree; PhD for independent research/teaching Bachelor's degree; PhD for independent research/teaching
Education Field of Study Wildlife biology, zoology, marine biology, ecology Bachelor's/masters: Biochemistry, biology, chemistry, physics, engineering
PhD: Biochemistry
Training NA Post-PhD research positions common Post-PhD research positions common
Key Activities Study terrestrial or aquatic animals to see how they live in their environments, impact of human populations; develop conservation & management plans Lab study of biological, chemical, physical processes of living things to understand &/or improve health, disease, evolution, the environment, biofuels; write research papers Lab or field study of microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, algae regarding medicine, food, biofuels, the environment, immunology; write research papers, follow safety protocols with dangerous organisms
Licensure/Certification Required NA NA Voluntary certifications available
Job Growth (2014-2024) 4%* 8%* 4%*
Median Salary (2015) $59,680* $82,150* $67,550*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What is a Biologist?

Although it depends on your specialty, your work as a biologist will generally involve laboratory studies, field (outdoor) studies and academic activities. One of the main purposes of laboratory and field studies is research. Your research will be geared toward expanding the human knowledge base and finding solutions to problems through scientific inquiry. Academic activities might include teaching at a college or university and writing for scientific publications.

Step One: Obtain a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree in biology is the minimum requirement for some entry-level jobs in the field of biology. In addition to taking general studies courses, such as liberal arts and social science, you'll take life science courses, such as biology, physics, chemistry, anatomy and mathematics. You'll also take laboratory courses where you'll learn to use lab equipment and conduct experiments.

Step Two: Decide on a Specialization

The majority of biologists specialize in an area of study based on a targeted activity or type of organism. For example, if you choose to receive training as an aquatic biologist, your work would focus on animals, plants and other organisms that inhabit water, such as bacteria. You may decide to further specialize in marine biology, which involves organisms that live in salt water, or limnology, which pertains to freshwater organisms.

If you specialize in biochemistry, your emphasis would be on the chemical composition of organisms, while if you specialize in biophysics, your emphasis would be on physics and its relation to living things. Microbiology pertains to microscopic organisms, and physiology involves life functions and processes of organisms on a molecular and/or cellular or level. The field of botany relates to plant life, and wildlife biology involves the broad-based study of animals. Ecology centers on the biological relationship between organisms and their environments.

Step Three: Complete a Master's Degree Program

You can complete a master's degree program in biology or in a specialty of biology, such as microbiology or molecular biology. You'll receive advance training that consists of laboratory studies and classroom instruction. Some of the coursework you might take includes advanced cell structure and functions, molecular genetics and neurobiology. Most master's degree programs in biology and related disciplines are 2-3 years in duration and may include a research internship or teaching assistantship.

Step Four: Acquire Work Experience

There are many career choices and they encompass a wide range of work settings, such as universities, pharmaceutical companies, in the field, zoos and government agencies. Research activities and internships provide pathways to a number of careers, so you should consider taking advantage of any opportunities to gain work experience while still in college. Your potential salary depends on factors such as specialty, employer and experience.

Three career options are wildlife biologist, biochemist and microbiologist. In May 2015, the BLS reported that the median salary for wildlife biologists was $59,680, with most workers employed by state and federal governments in 2014. During the same years, biochemists averaged $82,150, with about 47% working in research and development. As of 2014, nearly half of microbiologists were employed in research and development (24%) and the pharmaceutical industry (21%); microbiologists overall brought home median yearly pay of $67,550 in May 2015.

Step Five: Get a Doctorate Degree

Many advanced administrative and research opportunities require a doctorate degree. Common doctorate degree programs include a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Biology with concentrations in marine biology, cell and molecular biology, microbiology and immunology. In addition to taking traditional courses and conducting laboratory experiments, you may serve as a consultant, assisting in teaching assignments and research activities. PhD programs are academically rigorous and may take 5-6 years to complete.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Some related careers include agricultural/food scientists, environmental scientists/specialists and conservation scientists/foresters. Agricultural/food scientists study to improve food products, by surveying crops and food distribution. Environmental scientists/specialists advise the public on how to maintain a healthy atmosphere and eliminate issues like pollution. Conservation scientists and foresters are concerned with assessing and/or maintaining the quality of land and natural resources. All of these fields require a bachelor's degree at a minimum.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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