For students who have a natural inclination to pursue studies in the sciences, and specifically the field of biology, an obvious question should be considered at the start of that educational journey: what can you do with a bachelor’s in biology?
On the surface, the answer to that question may seem more straightforward than it actually is. When most people envision a biologist or someone working in the field of biology, more often than not they see a person in a white lab coat peering into a microscope in a room filled with beakers and glass slides.
They’re not wrong. Spending time in laboratories conducting research and using a microscope to closely examine various specimens is a very real outcome for many professional fields that are directly linked to the study of biology. But if you dig a little deeper, you may be surprised at just how many different career paths a bachelor’s in biology could take you.
This misunderstanding of what’s possible as a future career for students interested in the field of biology is something that biology professors have become used to dealing with.
“There are a lot of paths that someone with a biology degree can take, I do think many times people don’t realize just how broad the options can be,” says Dr. Michael R. Maxwell, professor in the Department of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at National University. “There are more traditional fields like medicine and health care; things like plant biology and conservation biology which is very big here in San Diego; and newer areas like genomics and bioinformatics in which there are going to be a lot of opportunities moving forward.”
To better understand all the possibilities that can open up by earning a bachelor of science in biology, it’s best to start by ensuring that you have a comprehensive understanding of the field itself — what it’s about, the purposes it serves, and its position within the broader realm of science.
We spend our lives surrounded by living organisms, from those that are so microscopic in size and scale that they can’t be seen by the natural eye to others that are so massive that they can be hard to even comprehend.
The field of biology is the study of those living organisms, including things like their physical structure, physiological mechanisms, chemical and molecular interactions, and even how they came to exist in the first place and how they’ve evolved over time.
In terms of what biology is, that’s the short answer. But as you might expect, there’s much more involved when it comes to truly understanding the field. As one of the “hard sciences,” biology can be broken down and examined in a much more intricate and comprehensive manner. For instance, it’s widely agreed that there are seven main branches of biology, and within many of those main areas is an even greater number of subfields or subdisciplines in which biologists, and those pursuing a bachelor’s in biology, can focus their concentration. These main branches of biology include:
- Botany – Botany is the study of plant life in an effort to classify, describe, and discover more about their reproductive methods, physiology, and morphology.
- Cellular Biology – Cellular biology involves the study of cells, both their structure and their function. Within cellular biology are the following fields:
- Cytology – the study of living cells to understand how they interact with nature
- Histology – the study of cellular tissue from a microscopic point of view
- Microbiology – the study of microorganisms invisible to the human eye
- Palynology – the study of particles found in air, water, or physical deposits and how they interact with nature
- Protistology – the study of organisms that share similar characteristics as that of algae
- Environmental Biology – Environmental biology involves the exploration of how the various elements of the environment interact with each other and, ultimately, affect the natural world. Within environmental biology are the following fields:
- Aerobiology – the study of organisms and organic particles that exist in the air
- Bioclimatology – the study of how humans, animals, and plant life are impacted by climate change
- Biochemistry – the study of how chemicals within living organisms affect living cells
- Ecology – the study of how living organisms adapt to different habitats and the evolution of those habitats
- Geobiology – the study of how organisms interact with the environment that surrounds them
- Evolutionary Biology – Evolutionary biology examines ways in which biology has evolved over time to try to determine how it may evolve in the future. Within evolutionary biology are the following fields:
- Biogeography – the study of how living organisms have geographically dispersed throughout history
- Developmental Biology – the study of the processes by which organisms grow from birth to death
- Ichnology – the study of trace elements as evidence of living creatures from the past
- Morphology – the study of the structure and form of living organisms as a way to classify them
- Paleontology – the study of fossils left from prehistoric times
- Evolutionary Biology – the study of how organisms and life changes over time
- Epigenetics – the study of how phenotypes can alter nucleotide sequences in their genetics
- Marine Biology – Marine biology involves the exploration of living organisms and animals that exist within a marine environment, essentially living in large bodies of water.
- Medical Biology – Medical biology refers to the pursuit of new knowledge related to functions, alterations, and illnesses of the human body. Within medical biology are the following fields:
- Physiology – the study of the respiratory, reproductive, and nervous systems, among other elements associated with functions of the living body
- Genetics – the study of biological characteristics that are passed on from one generation to another
- Anatomy – the study of the physical structures involved with multicellular organisms including humans, animals, and plants
- Embryology – the study of embryos
- Endocrinology – the study of glands to understand how hormones behave in the human body
- Epidemiology – the study of how populations are impacted by diseases, as well as how to control and eradicate disease
- Immunology – the study of the immune system and how it works within a living body
- Molecular Biology – Molecular biology is a field that explores the interactions of different cell systems on a molecular level.
- Mycology – Mycology is a branch of biology that focuses on the intricate characteristics of fungi and how they interact with and
- Zoology – Zoology is the exploration of animal life, their biological characteristics, physiology, and behavior patterns.
Clearly, there’s a lot to understand about the field of biology for the purposes of determining whether a bachelor’s in biology, or any other bachelor’s degree in science, is right for you. But that’s only half the equation. It’s just as important to take a close look at your personality, interests, and natural characteristics as a way of determining if you’re a good fit for the field.
Who’s A Good Fit for the Bachelor’s in Biology?
It would be misleading to suggest that in order to succeed in the field of biology, a person must have a defined set of personal characteristics or traits. That’s simply not the case. Every person out there working in the field or pursuing a bachelor’s in biology is an individual with unique strengths, talents, background, and professional goals.
That being said, there are personal skills and characteristics that do contribute to a person being drawn to biology and thriving in any of the professions to which a degree can ultimately lead. For instance, while you’ll find many biologists who work primarily in outdoor settings and personally enjoy being out in the field, you’ll find others who aren’t interested in the outdoors and instead prefer spending a majority of their time in an indoor lab setting. At NU, Dr. Maxwell estimates around a 50/50 split among undergraduate biology majors who prefer working outdoors to those who would rather spend time inside the lab.
Still, it helps to be aware of at least some of the broader characteristics and areas of interest that can contribute to a person’s ability to succeed in biology. Some of these include:
- An Interest in Science
For anyone thinking about a future as a biologist or a related field, it would obviously help to have a real interest in the basics of science. If you enjoy equations and reading about science, are always curious about the “why” of things, and like keeping detailed information about the results of projects and processes, those are good signs.
- A Love of Nature
Several areas in the study of biology involve an exploration of living organisms in the natural environment, so if you enjoy spending time in outdoor settings like forests, rivers, coastlines, and other ecological habitats, you may be a good fit for many of those branches of biology.
- A Love of Laboratories
As Dr. Maxwell indicates, many people who don’t necessarily enjoy the outdoors still thrive as biologists when they bring a genuine interest in conducting laboratory work. And even those who do work in outdoor environments will still dedicate some of their time working in indoor lab settings.
- A Passion for Solving Problems
The study of biology is a solutions-oriented endeavor. Whether the work is related to medicine, the environment, animal health, climate change, or countless other areas, it’s essential that those in the field are dedicated problem solvers.
- An Attention to Detail and Organization
If you’ve ever done research or any kind of laboratory work, you know how important it is to be very detail-oriented and organized in your work.
- An Active, Hands-On Learner
As a student in a biology bachelor’s program, much of your learning experience will take place in an active, hands-on setting. There will definitely be classroom learning as well, but if you enjoy rolling up your sleeves and learning with your hands, biology could be a good fit.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor’s in Biology?
A bachelor of science in biology opens up a broad array of potential career paths. Among the first things to consider for anyone studying biology is whether they want to use the undergraduate degree to enter a professional field directly, or as a foundation for advanced study leading to a graduate degree.
“One of the more common ways students utilize the degree is by using it as a foundation for an advanced professional degree in a health care field like medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine,” Dr. Maxwell says. “If you’ve ever been sick or had a pet that’s needed medical attention, which everybody has, then the odds are good that the person they’re seeing has a biology degree.”
Graduate programs in other, non-health care disciplines are another popular option. Some of these master’s and doctoral degree options include areas like plant biology and agronomy; entomology, which is the study of insects; conservation biology, which can lead to positions working in animal parks and habitat facilities; and genomics, also referred to as bioinformatics, which is the study of the genetic sequencing used in everything from DNA research, to ancestry research, to animal breeding, to crime scene investigations.
“Genomics and bioinformatics will continue to see a lot of growth I think, it has become popular with all of the interest in things like ancestry.com, as well as investigations using DNA research,” Dr. Maxwell says. “That’s an area we’d like to build up more at NU. There’s a lot of genetic sequencing data being generated, we’re going to need people who can manage it.”
For those looking to enter the professional world after earning their bachelor’s in biology, there’s an equally impressive range of possibilities. Some examples include:
- Biological Technician
- Health Communications Specialist
- Biology Teacher
- Pharmaceutical Sales
- Agricultural and Food Scientist
- Environmental Scientist
- Wildlife Biologist
- Science Writer
- Conservation Scientist
- Medical Equipment Sales
Dr. Maxwell says that in the past few years, graduates of the NU program have been accepted to medical school, while others are now working in various biology-related careers as a lab manager at an allergy research institute, an agricultural inspector for Riverside County, a quality control expert at a biotechnology firm, and as a conservation biologist and teaching.
“One of the big areas of opportunities here in San Diego is in conservation biology,” Dr. Maxwell says. “We have all these world-class zoos and animal parks, they need well-educated and well-trained conservation biologists. And they do really amazing work. One of the reasons it’s known as the “World Famous” San Diego Zoo is because they’ve stopped species from going extinct through their work, and they’re continuing to do so as we speak. So the opportunities are huge.”
The National University Bachelor’s Degree in Biology Program
Once you’ve taken the time to gain a solid understanding of what biology is and the variety of career paths it makes available to you, the next step is finding a high-quality bachelor of science in biology program that will be the best fit for your goals.
Since 1971, National University has been that best fit for students from across the United States. The Bachelor’s Degree in Biology at NU offers students a deep dive into the core principles of the field, providing an immersive learning experience. In addition to general study courses in algebra, chemistry, biology, and physics, students in the program take part in courses covering areas like:
- Cellular Biology
- Molecular Biology
- Invertebrate Zoology
- Vertebrate Zoology
Upper division courses in the program include subjects like animal behavior, immunology, marine biology, bioinformatics, organic chemistry, biochemistry, oceanography, and environmental science. Additionally, students can further concentrate their studies in areas like forensic pathology, forensic toxicology, forensic anthropology, and forensic DNA.
“I take relevance very seriously with regards to our program,” Dr. Maxwell says. “It’s very important to give students a lot of opportunities to become competent with the real-world, hands-on, lab-based skills that they’re going to be expected to have. So they get into the labs and extract DNA, and they simulate the kind of work they’d be doing while working at an active crime scene. I think it’s very important to get them involved in research internships, which can be tough for adult learners, but we’ve been working hard to create scheduling options that allow them to make it work. These are the type of skills that will make them very marketable in San Diego, and can set them apart in the eyes of graduate schools and employers.”
Graduates of the program are well positioned for any number of future pathways, including pursuing a master’s degree, attending medical, veterinary, or dental school, or entering the professional world with a proven, well-respected degree.
NU is the largest, private nonprofit university in the San Diego area, with a mission of providing high-quality academic programs in a way that’s accessible to adult learners. With more than 150,000 alumni nationwide, NU is dedicated to providing flexible, convenient scheduling options as a way to enable adult learners to mold their college experience around the demands of their daily life. Students can complete courses and programs online, as well as at any of NU’s more than 20 campus locations in California and Nevada.