Perform research to gain a better understanding of fundamental life processes and apply that understanding to developing new products or processes.
- Biotechnological research and development should continue to drive much faster than average employment growth.
- A Ph.D. is usually required for independent research, but a bachelor's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research or product development; temporary postdoctoral research positions are common.
- Competition for independent research positions in academia is expected.
Biological scientists study living organisms and their relationship to the environment. They perform research to gain a better understanding of fundamental life processes and apply that understanding to developing new products or processes. Research can be broken down into two categories: basic and applied. Basic research is conducted without any intended aim; the goal is simply to expand on human knowledge. Applied research is directed towards solving a particular problem. Most biological scientists specialize in one area of biology, such as zoology (the study of animals) or microbiology (the study of microscopic organisms).
Basic research in biological sciences advances our knowledge of living organisms so that we can develop solutions to human health problems and improve the natural environment. These biological scientists mostly work in government, university, or private industry laboratories, often exploring new areas of research. Many expand on specialized research they started in graduate school.
Many biological scientists involved in basic research must submit grant proposals to obtain funding for their projects. Colleges and universities, private foundations, and Federal Government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, contribute to the support of scientists whose research proposals are determined to be financially feasible and to have the potential to advance new ideas or processes.
Biological scientists who work in applied research or product development apply knowledge gained through basic research to develop new drugs, treatments, and medical diagnostic tests; increase crop yields; and develop new biofuels. They usually have less freedom than basic researchers do to choose the emphasis of their research, and they spend more time working on marketable treatments to meet the business goals of their employers. Biological scientists doing applied research and product development often work in teams, interacting with engineers, scientists of other disciplines, business managers, and technicians. Those working in private industry may be required to describe their research plans or results to nonscientists who are in a position to veto or approve their ideas. These scientists must consider the business effects of their work. Some biological scientists also work with customers or suppliers and manage budgets.
Scientists usually conduct research in laboratories using a wide variety of other equipment. Some conduct experiments involving animals or plants. This is particularly true of botanists, physiologists, and zoologists. Some biological research also takes place outside the laboratory. For example, a botanist might do field research in tropical rain forests to see which plants grow there, or an ecologist might study how a forest area recovers after a fire. Some marine biologists also work outdoors, often on research vessels from which they study fish, plankton, or other marine organisms.
Swift advances in knowledge of genetics and organic molecules spurred growth in the field of biotechnology, transforming the industries in which biological scientists work. Biological scientists can now manipulate the genetic material of animals and plants, attempting to make organisms more productive or resistant to disease. Those working on various genome (chromosomes with their associated genes) projects isolate genes and determine their function. This work continues to lead to the discovery of genes associated with specific diseases and inherited health risks, such as sickle cell anemia. Advances in biotechnology have created research opportunities in almost all areas of biology, with commercial applications in areas such as medicine, agriculture, and environmental remediation.
Most biological scientists specialize in the study of a certain type of organism or in a specific activity, although recent advances have blurred some traditional classifications.
Aquatic biologists study micro-organisms, plants, and animals living in water. Marine biologists study salt water organisms, and limnologists study fresh water organisms. Much of the work of marine biology centers on molecular biology, the study of the biochemical processes that take place inside living cells. Marine biologists are sometimes called oceanographers, a broader field that also includes the study of the physical characteristics of oceans and the ocean floor. (See the Handbook statement on geoscientists and hydrologists.)
Biochemists study the chemical composition of living things. They analyze the complex chemical combinations and reactions involved in metabolism, reproduction, and growth. Biochemists do most of their work in biotechnology, which involves understanding the complex chemistry of life.
Biophysicists study how physics, such as electrical and mechanical energy, relates to living cells and organisms. They perform research in fields such as neuroscience or bioinformatics (the use of computers to process biological information, usually at the molecular level).
Microbiologists investigate the growth and characteristics of microscopic organisms such as bacteria, algae, or fungi. Most microbiologists specialize in environmental, food, agricultural, or industrial microbiology; virology (the study of viruses); immunology (the study of mechanisms that fight infections); or bioinformatics. Many microbiologists use biotechnology to advance knowledge of cell reproduction and human disease.
Physiologists study life functions of plants and animals, both in the whole organism and at the cellular or molecular level, under normal and abnormal conditions. Physiologists often specialize in functions such as growth, reproduction, photosynthesis, respiration, or movement, or in the physiology of a certain area or system of the organism.
Botanists study plants and their environments. Some study all aspects of plant life, including algae, fungi, lichens, mosses, ferns, conifers, and flowering plants; others specialize in areas such as identification and classification of plants, the structure and function of plant parts, the biochemistry of plant processes, the causes and cures of plant diseases, the interaction of plants with other organisms and the environment, and the geological record of plants.
Zoologists and wildlife biologists study animals and wildlife—their origin, behavior, diseases, and life processes. Some experiment with live animals in controlled or natural surroundings, while others dissect dead animals to study their structure. Zoologists and wildlife biologists also may collect and analyze biological data to determine the environmental effects of current and potential uses of land and water areas. Zoologists are usually identified by the animal group they study—ornithologists study birds, for example, mammalogists study mammals, herpetologists study reptiles, and ichthyologists study fish.
Ecologists investigate the relationships among organisms and between organisms and their environments. They examine the effects of population size, pollutants, rainfall, temperature, and altitude. Using knowledge of various scientific disciplines, ecologists may collect, study, and report data on the quality of air, food, soil, and water.
(Two other occupations closely related to biological scientists are covered in more detail elsewhere in the Handbook: agricultural and food scientists, who study domesticated plants and animals consumed as food, and medical scientists, who study human diseases and human health.)
Work environment. Most biologists spend their time in laboratories conducting research and in offices writing up results and keeping up with the latest research discoveries. Some biological scientists, particularly botanists, ecologists, and zoologists, do field studies that involve strenuous physical activity and primitive living conditions for extended periods of time. Biological scientists in the field may work in warm or cold climates, in all kinds of weather. Biological scientists usually are not exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination.
Many biological scientists, particularly those employed in academic settings, depend on grant money to support their research. They may be under pressure to meet deadlines and to conform to rigid grant-writing specifications when preparing proposals to seek new or extended funding.
Biological scientists typically work regular hours. While the 40-hour workweek is common, some biological scientists work longer hours. Some researchers may be required to work odd hours in laboratories or other locations (especially while in the field), depending on the nature of their research.
Training, Qualifications, and Advancement
Most biological scientists need a Ph.D. in biology or one of its subfields to work in independent research or development positions. Other positions are available to those with a master’s or bachelor’s degree in the field.
Education and training. A Ph.D. is usually necessary for independent research, particularly in academia, as well as for advancement to administrative positions. A bachelor’s or master's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research, product development, management, or inspection; it also may be sufficient to work as a research technician or a teacher. Many with a bachelor's degree in biology enter medical, dental, veterinary, or other health profession schools, or find jobs as high school science teachers. (See the statement on teachers—kindergarten, elementary, middle, and secondary.)
In addition to required courses in chemistry and biology, undergraduate biological science majors usually study allied disciplines such as mathematics, physics, engineering, and computer science. Computer courses are beneficial for modeling and simulating biological processes, operating some laboratory equipment, and performing research in the emerging field of bioinformatics. Those interested in studying the environment also should take courses in environmental studies and become familiar with applicable legislation and regulations.
Most colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees in biological science, and many offer advanced degrees. Advanced degree programs often emphasize a subfield, such as microbiology or botany, but not all universities offer curricula in all subfields. Larger universities frequently have separate departments specializing in different areas of biological science. For example, a program in botany might cover agronomy, horticulture, or plant pathology. Advanced degree programs typically include classroom and fieldwork, laboratory research, and a thesis or dissertation. A master’s degree generally takes 2 years, and a doctoral degree 5-6 years of full-time study.
Biological scientists with a Ph.D. often take temporary postdoctoral positions that provide specialized research experience. Postdoctoral positions may offer the opportunity to publish research findings. A solid record of published research is essential in obtaining a permanent position performing basic research, especially for those seeking a permanent college or university faculty position.
Other qualifications. Biological scientists should be able to work independently or as part of a team and be able to communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing. Those in private industry, especially those who aspire to management or administrative positions, should possess strong business and communication skills and be familiar with regulatory issues and marketing and management techniques. Those doing field research in remote areas must have physical stamina. Biological scientists also must have patience and self-discipline to conduct long and detailed research projects.
Advancement. As they gain experience, biological scientists typically gain greater control over their research and may advance to become lead researchers directing a team of scientists and technicians. Some work as consultants to businesses or to government agencies. However, those dependent on research grants are still constrained by funding agencies, and may spend much of their time writing grant proposals. Others choose to move into managerial positions and become natural science managers (see engineering and natural sciences managers elsewhere in the Handbook). They may plan and administer programs for testing foods and drugs, for example, or direct activities at zoos or botanical gardens. Those who pursue management careers spend much of their time preparing budgets and schedules. Some leave biology for nontechnical managerial, administrative, or sales jobs.
Biological scientists held about 91,300 jobs in 2008. In addition, many biological scientists held biology faculty positions in colleges and universities but are not included in these numbers. Those whose primary work involves teaching and research are considered postsecondary teachers. (See the statement on teachers—postsecondary elsewhere in the Handbook.)
About 40 percent of all biological scientists were employed by Federal, State, and local governments. Federal biological scientists worked mainly for the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and Defense and for the National Institutes of Health. Most of the rest worked in scientific research and testing laboratories, the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry, or educational institutions.
Employment of biological scientists is expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations although there will continue to be competition for some basic research positions.
Employment change. Employment of biological scientists is projected to grow 21 percent over the 2008—18 decade, much faster than the average for all occupations, as biotechnological research and development continues to drive job growth. Biological scientists enjoyed very rapid employment gains over the past few decades—reflecting, in part, the growth of the biotechnology industry. Employment growth will moderate somewhat as the biotechnology industry matures, with fewer new firms being founded and existing firms merging or being absorbed by larger biotechnology or pharmaceutical firms. However, much of the basic biological research done in recent years has resulted in new knowledge, including the isolation and identification of genes. Biological scientists will be needed to take this knowledge to the next stage, understanding how certain genes function within an entire organism, so that medical treatments can be developed to treat various diseases. Even pharmaceutical and other firms not solely engaged in biotechnology use biotechnology techniques extensively, spurring employment for biological scientists. For example, biological scientists are continuing to help farmers increase crop yields by pinpointing genes that can help crops, such as wheat, grow in more extreme climate conditions.
In addition, efforts to discover new and improved ways to clean up and preserve the environment will continue to add to job growth. More biological scientists will be needed to determine the environmental impact of industry and government actions and to prevent or correct environmental problems, such as the negative effects of pesticide use. Some biological scientists will find opportunities in environmental regulatory agencies, while others will use their expertise to advise lawmakers on legislation to save environmentally sensitive areas. New industrial applications of biotechnology, such as new methods for producing biofuels, also will spur demand for biological scientists.
The Federal Government is a major source of funding for basic research and development, including many areas of medical research that relate to biological science. Large budget increases at the National Institutes of Health in the early part of the decade led to increases in Federal basic research and development expenditures, with research grants growing both in number and dollar amount. However, the increase in expenditures slowed substantially in recent years. Going forward, the level of Federal funding will continue to impact competition for winning and renewing research grants.
There will continue to be demand for biological scientists specializing in botany, zoology, and marine biology, but opportunities will be limited because of the small size of these fields. Marine biology, despite its attractiveness as a career, is a very small specialty within biological science.
Job prospects. Doctoral degree holders are expected to face competition for basic research positions in academia. Furthermore, should the number of advanced degrees awarded continue to grow, applicants for research grants are likely to face even more competition. Currently, about 1 in 4 grant proposals are approved for long-term research projects. In general, applied research positions in private industry are somewhat easier to obtain, but may become more competitive if increasing numbers of scientists seek jobs in private industry because of the difficulty finding positions in colleges and universities.
Prospective marine biology students should be aware that those who would like to enter this specialty far outnumber the very few openings that occur each year for the type of glamorous research jobs that many would like to obtain. Almost all marine biologists who do basic research have a Ph.D.
People with bachelor's and master's degrees are expected to have more opportunities in nonscientist jobs related to biology, in fields like sales, marketing, publishing, and research management. Non-Ph.D.s also may fill positions as science or engineering technicians or as medical health technologists and technicians. Some become high school biology teachers.
Biological scientists are less likely to lose their jobs during recessions than those in other occupations, because many are employed on long-term research projects. However, an economic downturn could influence the amount of money allocated to new research and development efforts, particularly in areas of risky or innovative research. An economic downturn also could limit the possibility of extension or renewal of existing projects.
Median annual wages of biochemists and biophysicists were $82,840 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $59,260 and $108,950. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,320, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $139,440. Median annual wages of biochemists and biophysicists employed in scientific research and development services were $85,870 in May 2008.
Median annual wages of microbiologists were $64,350 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $48,330 and $87,040. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $38,240, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $111,300.
Median annual wages of zoologists and wildlife biologists were $55,290 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $43,060 and $70,500. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $33,550, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $90,850.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, beginning salary offers in July 2009 averaged $33,254 a year for bachelor's degree recipients in biological and life sciences.
In the Federal Government in March 2009, microbiologists earned an average annual salary of $97,264; ecologists, $84,283; physiologists, $109,323; geneticists, $99,752; zoologists, $116,908; and botanists, $72,792.
For More Information
For information on careers in the biological sciences, contact:
- American Institute of Biological Sciences, 1444 I St. NW., Suite 200, Washington, DC 20005. Internet: http://www.aibs.org
- Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814. Internet: http://www.faseb.org
For information on careers in biochemistry or molecular biology, contact:
- American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814. Internet: http://www.asbmb.org
For information on careers in botany, contact:
- The Botanical Society of America, P.O. Box 299, St. Louis, MO 63166. Internet: http://www.botany.org
For information on careers in cell biology, contact:
- American Society for Cell Biology, 8120 Woodmont Ave, Suite 750, Bethesda, MD 20814. Internet: http://www.ascb.org
For information on careers in ecology, contact:
- Ecological Society of America, 1990 M St. NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036. Internet: http://www.esa.org
For information on careers in microbiology, contact:
- American Society for Microbiology, Career Information—Education Department, 1752 N St. NW., Washington, DC 20036. Internet: http://www.asm.org
For information on careers in physiology, contact:
- American Physiology Society, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814. Internet: http://www.the-aps.org
Information on obtaining a biological scientist position with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.opm.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724-1850 or TDD (978) 461-8404. These numbers are not toll free, so charges may result.