Biology degrees are extremely diverse – ‘biology’ or ‘biological sciences’ covers a wide array of specialist subjects. From anatomy to ecology and microbiology to zoology, the course options available for those interested in pursuing studies in biology are extremely wide-ranging. Click on the tabs below for more insight into course structures, specializations and career paths.
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What is biology?
So, other than diverse, what is biology? The core strands that unite all the various disciplines and sub-disciplines of the subject are: the study and characterization of living organisms and the investigation of the science behind living things. This means most biology courses will have core modules in the first year focusing on subjects such as cell theory and molecular biology, evolution, physiology and adaptation, gene theory, and homeostasis.
Having established some basic understanding of the core principles of biology, you’ll be able to choose an area in which to specialize. Options include: anatomy, biophysics, cell and molecular biology, computational biology, ecology and evolution, environmental biology, forensic biology, genetics, marine biology, microbiology, molecular biosciences, natural science, neurobiology, physiology, zoology and many others.
These courses may be offered as electives in a wider biology degree course – a good option for those who are not yet sure on what area they wish to focus – or as dedicated degree programs.
What to expect from biology degrees
Typically as a first-year biology student, you should expect to attend a considerable number of lectures, with accompanying practical work and write-ups. For subjects like cellular biology, genetics and epidemiology, practical work is likely to be lab-based, while ecology or environmental biology students will be expected to do field work.
In subsequent years, as you get more specialized, you may end up spending less time on lab work – or choose to concentrate almost entirely on working in the lab. Towards the end of your degree you’ll typically be required to undertake a final research project. At some universities this will be a group effort, while at others you can pick individual projects from a pre-approved list.
As your degree progresses, therefore, you should expect to spend most of your time either working in the lab and/or undertaking personal research – good practice to start off your biology career.
Generally, undergraduate biology degrees run for three or four years (depending on the country), with some universities offering a year abroad or work experience opportunities. Some undergraduate courses may last an extra year, allowing students to graduate with an MSc instead of BSc.
Whichever field of biology you choose to focus on, you should be ready to immerse yourself fully in an intensive course, in a complex and rapidly evolving subject area.
There are innumerable specializations and degree combinations available for those interested in studying biology. In order to achieve the level of expertise required to commence a career in biological sciences, you will at some point in your academic career – be it before you start your degree, during your first degree or at graduate level – need to pick an area on which to focus. Some of the main biology topics include:
Also known as zoology, animal biology is the branch of biology which focuses on the biological principles and problems relating to animals. You may choose to specialize in one area of animal biology for the entirety of your degree, or opt to split your studies between two subject areas. One specialization within this field would be marine and freshwater biology, which involves learning about the biology of aquatic organisms, including the management of aquatic environments and aquaculture.
A study into the molecular basis of living systems, molecular biology aims to understand, at the most basic level possible, the nature and interactions of the units that make up living organisms. A popular branch of molecular biology involves the study of DNA, with the goal of sequencing or mutating it in order to study the effects and possibilities of these processes.
Those specializing in this field will explore complex biological phenomena in multi-cellular organisms, looking at the organization and behavior of different cells and tissues, and examining the function of molecules within the organism. You may also learn how disease and modern medicine relate to molecular function and dysfunction.
There are a range of options that fall under the term ‘human biology’, including physiology, biochemistry and cell biology. In anatomy, you will study the composition of the human body and how it operates as a living organism.
In neurobiology you will concentrate solely on the nervous system, often focusing on the brain, with the goal of developing treatments for both psychiatric and neurological ailments, and contributing to the advancement of knowledge of the most complex and least understood part of the human body.
Meanwhile genetics involves an investigation of the relationships between the most basic building blocks and processes of an organism such as genes, proteins and metabolism, and the study of hereditary traits.
A study of how life came to be the way it is today, evolutionary biology involves anything from exploring organisms at the cellular level to the study of entire ecosystems. Although the main principles of this field have long been in place, there is still plenty of scope for new discoveries and theories.
The National Institutes of Health (an agency of the US Department of Health) defines computational biology as “The development and application of data-analytical and theoretical methods, mathematical modeling and computational simulation techniques to the study of biological, behavioral, and social systems.”
This field has become increasingly important in recent years, and requires students to develop significant mathematical and computer science nous, much like the interdisciplinary field of bioinformatics, which involves developing and improving on methods for storing, retrieving, organizing and analyzing biological data and developing software tools to generate useful biological knowledge.
Your options as a graduate with a biology degree will largely depend on the level of qualification you attain. While the basic skills developed during an undergraduate biology degree are transferrable to many industries, many of the most sought-after biology careers do require higher levels of academic study.
That said, career options for graduates of biology degrees are certainly not limited to the science and health sectors. Options you may wish to consider include:
Biology research careers
Few subjects lend themselves quite so well to research careers, either within academia or for a private research group or company. As a biology student you will have developed formidable scientific nous which, coupled with close analytical skills, organizational skills and attention to detail make biology graduates well suited to careers as a research scientist, biologist or lab technician in industry, healthcare or education.
As a researcher, you may find yourself working on the development of new medicines, vaccines and forms of medical treatment, investigating the impact of biofuels of food supply, investigating how animals and plants depend on each other, ensuring the safety of the food we consume, protecting the planet’s biodiversity, predicting the effects of climate change – or something else entirely.
Science communication careers
With excellent communication skills and the ability to convey scientific concepts to a non-scientific audience, biology graduates can find a suitable place in a wide range of fulfilling jobs including press officer, journalist, presenter, teacher, policy campaigner and science writer.
Science communications careers may involve working for a government agency, non-profit or charity, to help raise awareness about current scientific discoveries through events, marketing campaigns and educational schemes. As a specialist science journalist or editor, you could combine your scientific background with a flair for writing, working for various types of scientific publication or journal.
Few roles within science communications require a formal postgraduate qualification, though it may be useful to undertake some additional training in journalism – or for those entering the education sector, a teaching qualification.
Biology graduates can also transfer into medical careers, though this will usually require at least four years of postgraduate study. Possible career tracks include dentistry, veterinary science, healthcare science, nursing and allied healthcare fields such as physiotherapy, speech therapy and dietary advice. Biology graduates may also choose to train to become general practice doctors or specialized consultants.
There are also opportunities for biology graduates within the legal sector, where specialized scientific knowledge may be required. Examples of legal careers for biology graduates include roles in patenting, where understanding of specific scientific and technical features would help. Biology graduates may also enjoy working in the scientific support services in the capacity of a forensic scientist for the police or industry, or in policy development and consultancy, which involves providing advice to governments and other bodies.
Other careers for biology graduates
In general, graduates of biology degrees will find that their background and skills will provide them with a broad spectrum of opportunities in both scientific and non-scientific fields. Within the sciences, industries with demand for biology graduates include agriculture, biotechnology, ecology, genetics, neurobiology, horticulture, food science, marine biology, conservation and the environment and wildlife documentary production. Those moving into non-scientific fields may find ways to apply their transferrable skill sets to roles in accountancy, finance, marketing, management and sales sectors.