Choosing a college major is one of the most important decisions you will make as you complete your undergraduate degree at a liberal arts college. If you are considering a career based in the sciences, one of the most versatile degrees that you can pursue is a biology degree.
The biology major focuses on the study of life and throughout this undergraduate course of study, you will learn about all of the processes that create and sustain life in living organisms. In addition to globally studying plants and animals, you will also investigate the different environments and communities these organisms live in. The cells and systems of plants and animals are also central to the biology major.
Areas of Study in the Biology Major
When you major in biology, there are many different areas of science that you will study. General biology is typically one of the cornerstone courses for the major, as it offers an overview of the breadth of topics related to life processes and systems of plants and animals. Microbiology, a course providing an in-depth examination of organisms that are too small to be seen by the visible eye, includes studies of bacteria, viruses and fungi.
Cellular and molecular biology focuses on the biology of the cell, the smallest unit of life, and the interactions of processes and systems within and between cells. Courses focusing on ecology and evolutionary biology will provide you with the necessary foundation for understanding how organisms form communities and ecosystems and respond and adapt to different environments.
While these courses are typically required areas of study for all students pursuing an undergraduate biology degree, most colleges will allow you to choose some of the classes within this major. One of the elective courses commonly offered is marine biology, a study of oceanic animals, plants and environments. Biochemistry, another common elective within the major, involves the study of the chemical processes and interactions within living organisms. Genetics, which delves into the biological process of heredity, is an interesting and useful elective for many biology students.
In addition to courses that fall under the umbrella of biology, students pursuing a major in this area of study are typically required to take courses in chemistry, physics and mathematics. These classes are often the introductory courses within each of the departments, though in some cases students have the option to take more advanced electives. Liberal arts colleges also have a set of core courses, such as philosophy and English classes, that all undergraduate students are required to take.
Types of Study Within the Biology Major
As a student pursuing an undergraduate biology major, you will be exposed to a variety of instructional and experiential learning modalities. In addition to traditional classroom lecture, you will participate in laboratory studies. Within these labs, you have the opportunity to apply classroom instruction to hands-on learning. You will gain experience using laboratory equipment and scientific procedures and studying a variety of specimens and organisms.
Field work is also an essential component of a study in biology. It is likely that one or more of the required or elective biology courses that you take will involve research or instruction within a natural environment. Participating in learning opportunities in the field provides you with direct experience with the animals, plants and environments that you have been learning about in the classroom. You will also gain experience with the process of conducting observations and research outside of the typical controlled laboratory conditions.
Many biology students also complete internships as part of their undergraduate education. Internships allow you to gain experience within real laboratory environments, such as those at pharmaceutical companies or research and development facilities. Internships are often completed during the summer or winter break when the student is not taking courses. Some colleges may also have partnerships with laboratories that offer internships for course credit during the semesters when college is in session.
Postgraduate Employment and Educational Opportunities for Biology Majors
A biology major is the foundation to many different career paths. When you complete your undergraduate biology degree, there will be a variety of employment opportunities that will be available to you immediately. You can enter a laboratory research position, assisting a team of scientists with their studies. Field positions, such as an environmental technician or conservation scientist, allow you to participate in research, collect specimens for observation or study, and manage and maintain natural resources.
If you have a penchant for sales, an undergraduate biology degree allows you to attain a position as a pharmaceutical representative. Quality control technicians apply their knowledge of biology to overseeing the effectiveness and safety of food or drugs. In some states and undergraduate programs, you can become a biology teacher following the completion of your degree and attainment of a teaching certificate.
Many students also choose to go on to graduate school to pursue advanced degrees in biology or to specialize their knowledge within the field. There are many positions available to those with graduate degrees in the health and medical fields. You can pursue advanced education to work as a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant. A biology degree will allow you to pursue medical school if you want to become a practicing physician. An advanced degree and career in pharmacology is also a pathway with an undergraduate biology degree. If you do not want to work directly with patients but still want to be involved in the medical field, you can pursue a degree and career as a health educator, health communications specialist or medical and health services manager.
A graduate or advanced degree in a specialized area of biology can also help you enter into other positions as well. Many laboratories seek biologists with master’s or doctoral degrees in a specific area of expertise to lead and conduct studies and research projects. A master’s degree, and more commonly a doctoral degree, allows you to teach as a biology professor at the college level. You can even attend law school and practice as an attorney specializing in environmental law, medical malpractice or patent and intellectual property litigation.
Famous Leaders with Biology Undergraduate Degrees
If you are planning to pursue a biology major, you will find yourself in esteemed company. There are many well-known leaders whose success is founded on an undergraduate degree in biology. Sir David Attenborough, a staple of the BBC corporation, obtained a degree in natural sciences from Clare College in Cambridge in 1947 with concentrations in geology and zoology. Prior to becoming a controller for BBC, Attenborough established himself as a natural history expert with his wildlife documentaries and continued to contribute to this programming into the beginning of the 21st century. Because of his work, viewers have had access to education about wildlife and ecosystems in a variety of countries and habitats that they may not have otherwise experienced.
Anne Wojcicki is one of the co-founders of 23andme, a company that tests and analyzes DNA and provides information to users about their heredity, health and inherited traits. Wojcicki graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1996, and embarked on molecular biology research at the University of California in San Diego and National Institutes of Health following her undergraduate studies. After working as a healthcare analyst and finally choosing to re-focus on her research, Wojcicki developed 23andme with Linda Avey in 2006. The genetic testing kit was named Invention of the Year in 2008 by Time Magazine.
Possibly the most surprising leader with a biology degree is actress Lisa Kudrow. While she is best known for playing a scatterbrained character on the popular TV show Friends, Kudrow was a scientific researcher prior to joining the show. Utilizing her psychobiology degree earned from Vassar College in 1985, Kudrow partnered with her father to conduct research on cluster headaches. Their findings are world-renowned and have contributed significantly to our understanding of the biology behind these types of headaches.
Earning Potential for Biology Majors
An undergraduate degree in biology will provide you with strong earning potential and will quickly pay for itself.
Here are some of the average salaries for some of the most common jobs held by those with a bachelor’s degree in biology:
- Quality Control Technician: $42,000
- Research Technician or Assistant: $50,000
- High School Teacher: $62,000
- Occupational Health and Safety Specialist: $74,000
- Environmental Scientist or Specialist: $76,000
- Pharmaceutical Sales Representative: $121,000
There is also increased earning potential for biology majors when you consider advancement opportunities. Graduate studies leading to advanced degrees and specializations within the field can yield careers with higher salaries and long-term earning. A degree in biology will provide you with a long-term return on your initial investment of tuition and dedication to your studies.