Biology majors, you have a bright future ahead of you with career opportunities that pay well. Jobs in the life, physical and social sciences are projected to grow 10 percent between 2016 and 2026, faster than average for all occupations, according to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Graduating with a biology degree also means you're on in-demand STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career path. You're well-positioned to use the skills you acquired in college to build a career that's both exciting and lucrative.
Recent graduates considering a career with a biology degree should start by identifying the big questions they'd love to answer, whether that's curing a disease or improving food production. Let your curiosity guide you as you map out your job path. And remember, a career is a lifelong pursuit that doesn't necessarily start at the same place it will end.
The changing climate means a hot job market
Kevin Doyle of Green Economy is an independent workforce consultant focused on environmental, clean energy and climate issues. He works directly with employers to identify what type of person they need to hire to meet their goals.
Doyle says the market for environmental biology jobs is doing very well, and he identified a few areas where recent graduates can fill needs in the industry:
- Water issues: This ranges from quality and quantity to scarcity and equity.
- Climate resilience and adaptation to climate change: There's increasing demand for scientists focused on disappearing biological species.
- The intersection of environmental issues with public health: This includes everything from infectious diseases to air quality.
- Budgeting: This may not traditionally be a high priority for biologists, but sourcing funding is a big issue in many science-related sectors.
The skills you'll need to work in biology-related fields
If you're a recent biology graduate, developing a few key skills will make you a valuable candidate. According to Doyle, two types of skills are lacking in the environmental science marketplace right now: technical skills and soft skills. Technical skills in demand include:
- Big data analysis: "There are huge environmental monitoring and collection data sets that get bigger all the time," says Doyle. "Knowing how to mine those datasets is key." Developing actionable insights based on the data is part of the challenge.
- Utilizing new tech for monitoring and data gathering: New tech can include using smart technology to monitor crops and drones for mapping and gathering data from hard-to-reach areas.
Scientists need "people skills" too. Here are some of the most important ones:
- Communication skills: Biologists need to know how to speak and write about the important work that they do. Excellent communication skills can inspire the public to care about biology-related issues that affect all of us.
- Creativity: A biologist who can approach problems with creativity and a unique perspective will find new solutions that are faster, cheaper and more effective. Being able to think differently about processes or interpret outcomes of an experiment can also prove valuable to employers.
- Patience: Employers would like to find people who realize that action on diseases or environmental issues doesn't happen quickly. "Sometimes you have to keep at it to see the change," Doyle says. "That sense of patience doesn't mean giving up or being cynical but having a willingness to keep at it and understand that hard work will eventually pay off."
In college, you experienced a broader array of scientific opinions and types of research than you'll likely find at any single job in your future. Recent biology grads are uniquely well suited to tailor their job application to the field of their choosing. Use our Cover Letter Builder to focus the perfect pitch to the job(s) you choose to pursue.
What about graduate school?
Doyle says when it comes to science jobs, getting an advanced degree will become an eventual necessity. According to a Georgetown University study, nearly 58 percent of biology majors went on to earn a graduate degree, the highest of any major. Doyle recommends starting down the road to a master's degree or Ph.D. program sooner rather than later, but it's a good idea to get some practical experience first.
"Go ahead and get in the marketplace and do some work," he says. "But start looking now for a master's program that might be best for you." Spend time in the workforce or in a post-baccalaureate program to help bolster your skills and confirm that you're in the right field. That hands-on experience will also make you a more attractive candidate for graduate programs.
"Postbac" programs are one-to-two years long, and they often target medically-minded students. Doing a postbac can bolster your application for medical school, veterinary school or other doctoral programs, especially if you earn top grades. Postbac options can include short-term research projects, training programs and fellowships. Depending on the program, you may receive a salary or a stipend.
Look for programs with universities, hospitals and government agencies. Here are a few to consider:
- The National Institute of Mental Health has a postbac program for college grads that provides an entry into biomedical research. Their programs feature practical training and mentorship.
- The National Cancer Institute has fellowships that will give you hands-on experience in cancer research.
- The Office for Coastal Management offers fellowships for recent grads interested in coastal, marine and environmental management or research.
Career options with a biology degree
Should you decide to work before ― or instead of ― getting your masters or Ph.D., human resources expert Nicole Mitchell of Atlanta-based HR Biz says there are many areas with entry-level jobs for biology majors, including:
- Pharmaceutical companies
- Government agencies
- Laboratories (private, university or hospital-based)
- Biotech companies
The following kinds of jobs are suited for biology majors:
- Environmental scientists/protection technicians
- Pharmaceutical Sales Rep
- Research Assistant
- Epidemiologists/ medical scientists
- Forensic scientists
The median pay for these top jobs, according to US News and World Report, ranges from $45,000 to $91,000, which makes biology majors among the top earners for recent college graduates.
Pursuing professional development
Many companies offer training programs for recent graduates and will help you obtain professional certifications that build a foundation of specific skills. "Training for specific fields like cytogenetics, molecular diagnostics and blood banking are often offered by companies competing for talent where state or federal laws require certain qualifications for high complexity testing," Mitchell says.
Most professional organizations also have industry-specific job boards and new member or student discounts. Here are a few to consider:
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences
- American Society for Biology and Molecular Biology
- American Institute of Biological Sciences
- Genetics Society of America
- American Fisheries Society
- American Association for the Advancement of Science
Public sector vs. private sector
The military has a strong need for recruits with science backgrounds. The good news is, as a college graduate, you can join as an officer. If you can fill a high-demand job, like a medical lab technician in the Army, you may qualify for a cash bonus. The federal government also offers many opportunities. Here are a few examples of biology major career opportunities:
- Microbiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Toxicologist at the Environmental Protection Agency
- Forestry technician at the Forest Service
To compete with the private sector in attracting top talent, the government has created a program for recent graduates called Pathways. You can use Pathways to explore government-related career options and apply for positions directly. New positions pop up on the site frequently, so bookmark it and check back often.
Of course, many biology majors find fulfilling (and well-paying) work in private sector jobs.
"A lot of government or public sector work is done by private sector contractors," says Doyle. "Making a difference with your biology degree doesn't mean you have to always look at government agencies or nonprofits. Some of the best projects and programs that are government funded are delivered by private sector businesses."
Preparing for your job search
As a biology major, you can choose a career path that helps push discoveries and protect people, animals and the environment. No matter which direction you choose, use our Resume Builder to make your best case for the job.
- Your professional resume and cover letter should highlight your accomplishments and experience logically and effectively. Check out our articles on writing a resume for biology majors and cover letters for bio majors.
- Once you land that interview, make sure you start your prep with our Q&A for biology roles interview guide.
- For more tips, check out our Biology Major Job-Hunting Guide.