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Biologist Job Description, Career as a Biologist, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Master's or doctoral degree

Salary: Average—$69,908 per year

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Biologists study the origin, development, structure, and function of plant and animal life. The word biology comes from the Greek word bios, which means "mode of life." Like medicine and agriculture, biology covers a broad area within the life sciences. Biologists, also called biological scientists or life scientists, usually specialize in one area and are recognized and named by that specialty.

In many cases, biologists are recognized according to the kind of organism that they study. For example, biologists who study animals are often known as zoologists. Biologists who specialize in plants are called botanists. Those who work with microscopic forms of plant and animal life, such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, are known as microbiologists.

Some biologists study aspects of life that are common to many living things. For example, anatomists study the structure of living things, ranging from single-celled plants and animals to human beings and redwood trees. Physiologists specialize in the study of the life functions of plants and animals. These functions include growth, respiration, and reproduction. Geneticists study heredity and how traits, or inherited characteristics, vary in all forms of life. They expand our knowledge about how traits originate and are passed on from one generation to another. Pathologists concentrate on the effects of diseases on the cells, tissues, and organs of plants and animals. Nutritionists study how food is used and changed into energy. They examine the ways in which living tissue is built and repaired by its use of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and other nutrients. Pharmacologists study the effects of drugs and other substances, such as poisons and dusts, on living organisms.

Some scientists work in areas that combine other sciences with biology. For example, biochemists specialize in the chemistry of living things. Biophysicists concentrate on the atomic structure and the electrical and mechanical energy of cells and organisms. Ecologists are life scientists who study the relationship of plants and animals to their environment.

Other life scientists specialize in the organisms in one kind of environment. Marine biologists, for example, study organisms that live in the ocean.

In addition to the many areas of specialization for biologists, there are also many different kinds of jobs. For example, some geneticists are hired to develop new breeds of animals, such as chickens that can provide better food for people.

Other geneticists teach biology and genetics to college students. Still other geneticists work for hospitals where they counsel people to help them understand how likely they are to pass on hereditary diseases to their children. Biologists of all kinds are employed by drug, chemical, and food processing companies; colleges and universities; government agencies; publishing firms; and research centers.

Although biologists have many different areas of specialization and work in many different kinds of organizations, almost all are skilled in basic research techniques. The majority of biologists do research as part of their jobs. Most biologists use microscopes, which enable them to see tissues and organisms not visible to the naked eye. Some biologists use computers to solve research problems. Others work in laboratories with animals, and some work in greenhouses. Biological technicians often assist biologists.

Biologists are classified according to the kind of organism they study. Pharmacologists study the effects of drugs on living organisms. (© Steve Klaver/Star Ledger/Corbis.)

Education and Training Requirements

If you graduate from college with a bachelor's degree in biology, you can get several kinds of jobs related to the field of biology. For example, you can become a sales or service representative, an inspector, or an advanced biological technician. In many states, a bachelor's degree will qualify you to teach biology in a high school. You must also meet your state's requirements for certification before you can get most teaching jobs.

On the other hand, you usually need an advanced degree to become a biologist. You should major in one of the sciences in college and receive specialized training in a life science in graduate school. People who have earned a master's degree in the biological sciences are qualified for some jobs in teaching and applied research. You usually need a doctoral degree for a teaching and research position at a university or a job as an administrator. It generally takes four years to earn a bachelor's degree and another one or two years for a master's degree. You need to spend an additional two to four years to receive a doctoral degree. Some biologists in fields such as pathology and pharmacology have a doctor of medicine (M.D.) degree instead of or in addition to a doctoral degree (Ph.D.). To keep up with new developments in the life sciences, biologists must continue to study throughout their careers.

Getting the Job

Your college instructors or placement office may help you find a job as a biologist. You can also apply directly to corporations, colleges and universities, scientific and medical research centers, and government agencies. You must sometimes pass a civil service examination to get a government job. Professional journals, newspaper classifieds, and job banks on the Internet sometimes list openings for biologists.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

There are many possibilities for advancement in the field of biology, especially for those who have a doctoral degree. Some experienced biologists become directors of research teams. Some become managers or administrators. Those employed by colleges and universities can be promoted to the rank of full professor. They often write scientific articles and books. Many biologists advance by becoming experts in their special fields or by making important discoveries in their research. Some biologists develop laboratory devices, disease-resistant plants, or new drugs.

Employment of biological scientists is projected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations from 2004 to 2014. However, the federal government has recently tightened its budget and reduced the number of grants awarded to researchers. At the same time, the number of advanced degrees awarded has continued to increase. As a result, there will be considerable competition for the highly desired research positions. Opportunities for those with bachelor's or master's degrees in biology are expected to be better than the opportunities for those with doctoral degrees. There will be a great number of positions in sales, marketing, and research management. Increased public awareness and interest in preserving the environment are also likely to provide the stimulus for increased spending by private companies.

Working Conditions

Working conditions for biologists vary widely from job to job. Most spend at least part of their time in laboratories, which are usually clean, well lighted, and well equipped. Many spend some time in offices and classrooms. Depending on their area of specialization, biologists are also likely to do some fieldwork. For example, they may travel to Africa to observe monkeys in their natural environment. They may collect moss specimens near the Arctic Circle. They may also work in greenhouses or fields behind their laboratories. Although their basic workweek is often forty hours long, hours are sometimes flexible. Biologists usually spend extra hours completing research projects, writing up their findings, and reading to keep up with the many new developments in their field.

Biologists must be inquisitive and interested in solving specific scientific problems. They should enjoy doing research to expand scientific knowledge about living things. They must have the patience to work on long-term research projects. At times they have to work under pressure. They must be able to communicate their ideas and findings to others. In addition, they must be able to work well alone or as part of a scientific research team.

Where to Go for More Information

American Institute of Biological Sciences
1444 I St. NW, Ste. 200
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 628-1500

Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology
9650 Rockville Pike
Bethesda, MD 20814-3998
(301) 634-7000

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings for biologists vary widely. They depend on the education and experience of the scientist, the location, and the kind of job. In the federal government in 2005, general biological scientists in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions earned an average salary of $69,908. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, beginning salary offers for bachelor's degree recipients in biological and life sciences in 2005 averaged $31,258 per year. Benefits usually include paid holidays and vacations, health insurance, and pension plans.

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