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Research Careers in Biological Sciences

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Graduate programs in biological sciences offer the opportunity to specialize in some of the most exciting and fast-growing sectors of research in the world today.

In recent months international newspapers, ranging from The Times (UK) and The Washington Post (US) to The Straits Times (Singapore), have reflected on the growing concerns about the manipulation of human genes.

There has been a continuing debate over the research into stem cells and the production of so-called 'designer' cells to counter hereditary or terminal illnesses.

For the prospective international student considering a master's or PhD, perhaps there has never been a more critical time to focus on the biological sciences as an area of academic specialization.

Highly specialized programs

Like many of the sciences studied, taught and researched at graduate level, biology is considerably more complex than the subject most of us encountered earlier in life. 

The biology of our school years is a distant relative to the one offered at master's and PhD levels, where the provision of specialized degrees dominates most departments of biological sciences. 

Based on the historical development of biology from the nineteenth century, programs are offered in categories grouped by the type of organisms they focus on and the scale at which they are studied. This results in a picture that offers botany, zoology and microbiology on one hand and biochemistry, molecular biology, cellular biology, physiology and ecology on the other.

Karen Myhr, Assistant Professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, USA teaches on both the Masters in Biological Sciences and the Masters in Biotechnology. She recalls why she found the subject matter so compelling: "I was drawn to sciences because I wanted to understand how things around me worked.

"In high school I became fascinated with how the brain functions because it was so wonderfully complex. In college I took psychology courses, which explained the brain from a cognitive perspective. This was interesting but I wanted to understand the brain at a cellular level."

Practical and professional experience

The programs offered by Wayne State University typically prepare students for a range of related careers in the US and other countries. Recent graduates have entered academic and corporate environments, either as researchers or as senior staff members where knowledge of technical advances in areas such as molecular biology are centrally important. 

Casey Kandow, a 2008 graduate of the Masters in Biotechnology program now works for the American Red Cross. "My experiences in the program and internship have given me practical knowledge, as well as marketable skills invaluable to anyone entering the expanding field of molecular biotechnology."

Professor Myhr sees the relationship between her thirst for knowledge as an undergraduate and her current teaching position as intimately related, and one that helps to encourage new graduate students interested in biological sciences.

"Now as a biology professor I get to study the latest advances in our understanding of brain function. I get to design and execute experiments that will give us the answers. I can't do this alone so I have a team of undergraduate and graduate students to get the experiments done. This aspect of my job is fulfilling because I am training the next generation of scientists."

Encouraging employment outlook

Employment prospects for graduates of biological sciences programs, either at the master's or PhD levels, are currently very encouraging. The field is so diverse, with its increasing range of specializations, that career opportunities are available on almost every continent.

According to the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency latest report on the destination of leavers from higher education, only 13.7% of master's graduates went onto PhD study, leaving the majority to enter the labor market.

Employment sectors and specific careers vary, with science, management, professional and technical occupations being the most popular. Where graduates entered employment with a scientific role, they did so in areas closely related to their subject of study, with biochemists, medical scientists, conservation and environmental protection officers and scientific researchers being most prominent.

Similarly positive, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics 2007 handbook states: "Biotechnological research and development should continue to drive employment growth, with employment projected to grow at 9% in the next decade. Efforts to discover new and improved ways to clean up and preserve the environment will continue to add to job growth."

This is certainly a good sign that this is one of the more exciting sectors to enter with an advanced qualification. There is also good news in terms of potential salaries for the future. US statistics indicate that the median annual earnings of biochemists and biophysicists were US$76,320 in 2006, while those employed in scientific research and development services were US$79,990.

'Hot' research topics

However, the reasons Noura Aljandal from Kuwait chose to study a PhD, have little to do with her potential to earn a high salary in future. Currently enrolled at the University of Exeter in the UK, her motivation is one of an entirely different focus. 

Specializing in what she describes as "one of the hot topics in biological sciences at the moment, ecotoxicology," Noura intends to develop her academic career while at the same time benefiting from the experience of studying in another country.

"I have enjoyed living in a new country and believe my academic background has really helped me to make the most of what Exeter has to offer. The research group I belong to is friendly and cooperative, and both my supervisors are supportive, full of knowledge and they are always ready to answer any question and help.

"I started the program by attending a number of compulsory courses and workshops, beside that I'm doing a laboratory technique training to develop my practical skills to start my experiments with more knowledge, confidence and experience. I'm sure that my real scientific future will start from here."

While a graduate degree in biological sciences qualifies the recipient for a range of careers, there can be no real doubt that considering this area of study will lead you to a more specific career path than many other subjects.

With fields such as medical and biotechnology becoming increasingly significant in both the public and private sectors, your prospects are good in either context. And it certainly does seem quite a different world from your formative lessons in a high school laboratory.

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This article sounds so optimistic - there seems to be much more in terms of any sort of employment and growth in the biological research and development in the United States than here in Vancouver, Canada - is that a correct assumption?

I want to pursue PhD in fields related to biology in a US university but I am not able to be sure whether my profile is good enogh for grabbing a PhD position in US. Please guide me.

I want to apply for scholarship for good university in USA for under-graduate study in biological science. Please guide me on how to apply, when to apply and the criteria for applying for the scholarship.

Hi Eric. You might want to start by looking at our guide to studying abroad in the US: https://www.topuniversities.com/where-to-study/north-america/united-states/guide

Hope this is a useful starting point!


i want to apply for good university in Us for under-graduation study in Biotechnology. Please guide me on selecting the same. the

this site is very helpful. i am willing to pursue PhD in biotechnology in any prestigious and recognized institute. pleade help and guide me and lead me on the right track.