What Is a Biology Degree?

by TBS Staff
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Studying biology is a great pathway to careers in medicine, horticulture, agriculture, zoology, or any field that studies living organisms.

Biology majors study living organisms, including the smallest microscopic viruses and ecosystems, which can support thousands of species. During a biology degree, students take specialized courses in areas like microbiology, genetics, biochemistry, and bioengineering. They also strengthen analytical, research, and critical thinking skills.

A bachelor's in biology prepares graduates to work in research labs and healthcare settings. This guide explores biology degrees, major industries for biology graduates, and salary potential for various biology careers.

What Kinds of Biology Degrees Are There?

Students can earn biology degrees at every educational level, with each emphasizing different skills and preparing for different careers. For example, a one-year certificate or two-year associate degree in biology trains students for roles as lab technicians and medical sales representatives, while a bachelor's in biology can lead to careers as microbiologists, bioengineers, and research associates.

At the graduate level, biology students often conduct experimental research and gain advanced training in specializations like marine biology, evolutionary biology, and biochemistry, leading to careers in research or as university professors.

Many colleges and universities offer online biology degrees, where distance learners typically complete the same coursework as on-campus biology majors. However, online students still need to meet laboratory requirements, which they can usually do at a local site. This section introduces common requirements and career paths for different biology degrees.

Certificate Program in Biology

Professionals working in the health or medical sciences can benefit from certificate programs in biology. During an undergraduate certificate, students typically take introductory courses in cellular biology, microbiology, and biochemistry. This coursework strengthens analytical and research skills, laying the groundwork for careers in biology education, the health sciences, and laboratory science.

Some universities also offer graduate certificates in biology, which provide advanced training in education or the biological sciences. Certificates at the undergraduate or graduate level often take one year or less to complete, depending on the program. Students either complete a set curriculum or choose electives to specialize their certificates.

Associate Degree in Biology

An associate degree in biology provides foundational training in the biological sciences. Students learn about basic concepts like cellular structures, microbiology, and genetics. The degree also incorporates general education coursework in introductory chemistry and physics.

Earning an associate degree typically takes two years. After completing the degree, graduates can work as lab technicians, pharmaceutical sales representatives, and biological technicians. Students can also transfer into bachelor's programs, using the associate to meet general education requirements, which allowed them to earn a bachelor's degree in two additional years.

Common courses during an associate degree in biology include:

  • Cells and membranes
  • General microbiology
  • Genetics
  • Human anatomy
  • Introduction to biology
  • Organic molecules
  • Respirations

Bachelor's Degree in Biology

A bachelor's in biology is a more comprehensive introductory degree, familiarizing students with the biological sciences. They frequently offer specialization options, like molecular biology, biochemistry, bioengineering, and microbiology. Degree coursework includes evolutionary biology, virology, biostatistics, and ecology. Biology majors also complete general education courses in chemistry, physics, mathematics, and other natural science disciplines.

In addition to coursework, biology majors must complete laboratory requirements. In an online biology degree, students use simulations or visit local labs to meet these requirements. Graduates can work as clinical laboratory technicians, bioengineers, biology teachers, and biological technicians.

Common undergraduate biology courses include:

  • Bioinformatics
  • Biostatistics
  • Cellular and molecular biology
  • General physics
  • Human anatomy
  • Immunology
  • Microbiology
  • Plant biology
  • Population biology and ecology

What's the Difference Between a BA and a BS in Biology?

A bachelor of arts (BA) degree in biology provides a general overview of the discipline alongside a traditional liberal arts education. Coursework is more comprehensive, developing soft skills alongside hard skills. Enrollees intending to apply their biology degrees in healthcare management, conservation, or agricultural management should consider BAs.

A bachelor of science (BS) in biology places a greater focus on lab work and mathematics, making it ideal for medical or research-intensive professions. Students interested in pursuing a master's degree or a doctorate often prefer a BS in biology for undergraduate study.

Master's Degree in Biology

At the master's level, biology students study evolutionary biology, bioinformatics, and microbiology, often with a focus in an area that most interests them. The degree also incorporates experimental research training to prepare students for careers as biochemists, medical researchers, and biologists.

Earning a master's degree in biology typically takes two years for full-time students. During these programs, graduate students take specialized coursework and conduct research for master's theses or projects. Master's students often work in labs under faculty supervision.

Common master's-level biology courses include:

  • Biostatistics
  • Cancer biology
  • Ecological anthropology
  • Issues in bioethics
  • Microbial diversity
  • Organic evolution
  • Plant pathology
  • Principles of immunology
  • Thesis research
  • Virology

What's the Difference Between a Master of Arts and a Master of Science?

A master of arts (MA) and a master of science (MS) in biology both offer advanced training in the biological sciences. However, an MA typically emphasizes analysis and critical thinking, while the MS focuses on research skills.

As a result, an MS offers a stronger preparation for doctoral study in biology. The experimental research during an MS also prepares graduates for careers as research scientists. MA graduates, meanwhile, are better suited for administrative roles within scientific organizations or agencies. Some schools offer both MA and MS degrees in biology.

Doctoral Degree in Biology

A doctorate in biology trains graduates for research and academic roles. During a doctoral program, graduate students complete coursework in their focus areas, which can include topics like biochemistry, genetics, cell biology, and marine biology.

After completing seminars and labs, doctoral students take comprehensive examinations and conduct original research for their dissertations. At the conclusion of their studies, each doctoral candidate defends their dissertation before a faculty committee.

Earning a Ph.D. in biology requires a substantial time commitment; most programs take at least five years. Doctoral degrees prepare graduates for careers as research scientists and biology professors. Tenure-track biology professors typically must hold doctorates.

Common doctoral courses in biology include:

  • Bacteriology
  • Biometry
  • Dissertation
  • Molecular evolution
  • Neurobiology
  • Prokaryotic gene structure

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Biology?

A bachelor's in biology prepares graduates for many different careers, including roles like bioengineer, microbiologist, and clinical laboratory technician. Employers in other fields, including medicine, biochemistry, epidemiology, and marine biology, often require a graduate degree.

This section covers some of the main industries for biology majors. In addition to these fields, graduates can also work in education, emergency management, research, health services, and medical sales.

Medicine

A bachelor's degree in biology meets the prerequisites for medical school, so many biology majors go on to careers in medicine. Graduates commonly pursue clinical practice roles such as physician or surgeon.

In addition to medical school, a biology degree also prepares for other health science careers, including medical scientist, clinical laboratory technician, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner. Many of these roles in medicine require graduate degrees or specialty certifications.

Bioengineering

Bioengineers create medical devices and technologies that interact with biological systems. They design devices to treat or diagnose patients with medical conditions. They also conduct research on topics like artificial organs and train physicians to use biomedical equipment.

A bioengineer typically holds a bachelor's degree with coursework in biomaterials, mechanical engineering, and the biological sciences. Some specialize in sub-fields, like bioinstrumentation, genetic engineering, or biochemical engineering.

Marine Biology

Marine biologists study aquatic creatures, including both invertebrates and vertebrates. Many marine biologists begin their training at the bachelor's level and later earn master's degrees in marine biology. Graduate students specialize in areas like marine evolutionary biology, marine ecology, and conservation.

Marine biologists often work in labs and conduct field research. Some work in education as high school marine biology teachers. With doctoral degrees, graduates can pursue academic careers as marine biology professors.

What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With a Biology Degree?

Biology graduates work in many different fields, including as wildlife biologists, environmental scientists, biology teachers, and biochemists. These professionals draw on their academic training to conduct research, educate students, and investigate the biological sciences.

Median salaries for biology professionals vary by degree level and title. Location and setting also affect salaries. The following information explores median annual salary data and projected job growth in several biology careers.

Biology Career Outlooks
Career Median Annual Salary (2019) Projected Job Growth (2019-2029)
Forensic Science Technicians $59,150 14%
Conservation Scientists and Foresters $62,410 5%
Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists $63,270 4%
Environmental Scientists $71,360 8%
Microbiologists $75,650 5%
Postsecondary Biology Teacher $83,300 9%
Biomedical Engineer $91,410 5%
Biochemists and Biophysicists $94,490 4%

Source: BLS

Professional Organizations

AIBS advocates for the biological sciences and promotes science education. The institute publishes a scientific journal, reviews research proposals, and offers professional development resources for scientists and students. Members participate in networking events, join in science policy discussions, and receive discounts on professional development programs.

NABT was founded in 1938 and now represents thousands of biology educators. The association hosts professional development conferences, workshops, and teaching academies to help biology teachers strengthen their professional skills. Members also benefit from teaching resources, an award-winning magazine, and a newsletter. NABT also awards grants and fellowships to members.

ASBMB dates back to 1906. Today, the organization brings together working and aspiring molecular life scientists, with more than 11,000 members. This organization advances the study of biochemistry and molecular biology by publishing scientific journals, advocating for science funding, and holding scientific conferences. ASBMB also provides career development support at every level.

ASM has more than 30,000 members, including educators, researchers, and students, making it the largest life science membership organization in the US. Members can attend meetings and conferences, which offer networking opportunities, as well as professional development support and a career board with microbiology job openings. ASM also publishes books and journals to keep microbiologists current with research in the field.

Accreditation for Biology Programs

Prospective biology students should always check the accreditation status of their schools before enrolling. Accredited institutions and programs meet high standards for educating students and granting degrees. For natural science fields like biology, schools need regional accreditation.

Some biology programs hold additional accreditation from specialized accrediting agencies. For example, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology grants accreditation to undergraduate biochemistry and molecular biology programs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Earn a Biology Degree Online?

Yes. Many accredited colleges and universities offer online biology degrees. During an online program, biology majors complete coursework using a distance learning format. Some online programs still require simulations and in-person labs.

Does a Biology Degree Pay Well?

According to PayScale, professionals with bachelor's degrees in biology earn an average salary of over $71,000 per year. A graduate degree can open the door to higher-paying job opportunities.

What Type of Job Can You Get With a Biology Degree?

Biology majors can work as biological technicians, health communication specialists, and biology teachers. With an advanced degree, graduates can find work as biologists, research scientists, biochemists, or biology professors.

How Many Years Is a Bachelor's Degree in Biology?

Earning a bachelor's degree in biology typically takes four years for a full-time student. Transfer students or those who choose accelerated programs may earn their degrees in less time.

Header Image Credit: Qi Yang | Getty Images

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