How to Become a Biologist (With Average Salaries)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 27 August 2022

Published 19 July 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A biologists job is to study living things and their biological processes. Biology helps us better understand the environment, genetics and the workings of the human body, animals and other living organisms such as plants and bacteria. If you want to study how organisms function and how it affects their environment, you want to pursue a career as a biologist. In this article, we describe how to become a biologist, describe their job profile, explain the entry requirements for the role and the subject areas available.

What is a biologist?

A biologist is a scientist who specialises in the field of biology which is the study of living organisms, their environment and their role within the ecosystem. Their research can focus on how an organism came to exist, how it is built, how it grows, its functions, what it does or where it lives. A career in biology could take you in almost any direction, anywhere in the world. A biologist can work in various specialities and can work in research laboratories, hospitals, classrooms, factories, research stations, museums and many outdoor environments from deserts to jungles.

What is a biologist's job profile?

A biologist's job profile mainly focuses on studying organisms and their environments by collecting specimen samples, conducting research and analysing the data. Biologists investigate how a living thing functions by applying research to develop or improve processes in medicine and industry. Biologists can work macroscopically or microscopically, though they may do both types of research. Macroscopic biology measures things visible to the naked eye, whereas microscopic biology requires microscopes and other imaging techniques to view what is being studied. A biologist will develop theories and find solutions for ecological, biological or sociological problems from the data obtained.

Many biological contributions are found in food production, manufacturing and medicine. For example, studying the effects of penicillin against bacteria which led to the introduction of antibiotics, is a well-known example of biological research.

As there are millions of living species worldwide and many different ways to study them, biologists usually specialise in a particular field. Here are examples of 10 fields within biology:

  • Anatomy: Anatomy is the study of internal structures within living organisms and is separated into different areas such as human anatomy, animal anatomy and plant anatomy.

  • Histology: Histology is the microscopic study of plant and animal tissues. The study of organs and cells also fall under histology, as does the identification and analysis of diseased tissue.

  • Ecology: Ecology helps us understand the interdependence between people and the natural world.

  • Physiology: Physiology studies the mechanisms and functions of living organisms and focuses on how organs, organisms, organ systems, cells, and biomolecules carry out their chemical and physical processes. Subfields of physiology include neuroscience, endocrinology, and immunology.

  • Biochemistry: Biochemistry, also known as biological chemistry, is studying chemical processes within and relating to living organisms.

  • Botany: Botany studies the biology of plants, including their structure, properties, and biochemical processes.

  • Genetics: Genetics is the scientific study of genes and their roles in inheritance, including how certain traits or conditions are passed down from one generation to another.

  • Microbiology: Microbiology is the study of microscopic organisms, such as bacteria, viruses, archaea, fungi and some parasites. Microbiologists research the biochemistry, physiology, cell biology, ecology, evolution and clinical aspects of microorganisms, including the host's response.

  • Zoology: Zoology, also known as animal science, is the study of animals and their interactions with ecosystems. Zoologists study the animal's physical characteristics, diets, behaviours, and the impacts humans have on them. They look at a variety of animals, both in their natural habitats and in captivity. They may specialise in studying a particular animal or animal group.

Related: Top 20 Popular Jobs for Animal Lovers in the UK

Where do biologists work?

Where a biologist works depends on their speciality. Governmental agencies, universities, and the private sector employ biologists. Biologists at universities are often also lecturers, teaching students research methods, assisting with students' projects while also working on their own. Zoologists and ecologists would usually work for the private sector, employed by zoos and environmental agencies. On the other hand, histologists primarily work in a laboratory environment, as their work involves preparing tissues for microscopic examination.

How to become a biologist

Biologists have good problem-solving skills, can work accurately and pay close attention to detail. They will also have at least a Bachelor of Science degree in a relevant scientific subject but may also have a masters degree or a PhD. Here is a list of the five steps to take if you want to be a biologist:

1. Achieve the entry-level requirements

To apply for a biological degree in England, you will usually need to meet the minimum entry requirements. They are at least two A levels, including biology and chemistry, with universities commonly asking for three B's. You will also need five GCSEs (A-C), including science, English, and maths.

2. Decide on an area of study

The next step towards a career as a biologist is deciding which areas or subfields you are interested in studying. Choosing which areas you enjoy can help you determine which subjects, universities or careers to pursue. Four relevant biologist subject areas to study include:

  • biology

  • biological science

  • ecology

  • marine biology

Many bioscience and biology degrees will offer a broad choice of modules in the first year, with the opportunity to focus on a particular area in the second and third years. This can be a good option if you haven't decided on a career path or would like to keep some flexibility. You can also choose from single, joint, and multiple subject combinations.

Related: How To Choose a Career Path

3. Choose a university and course

Review all the universities that offer the subject areas you are interested in studying and the course modules. There is no national curriculum at degree level and course content can vary significantly from university to university. Courses can offer a wide range of compulsory and optional modules that will help tailor your degree to your chosen career in biology.

4. Undertake a work placement or research project

Many universities offer an industry work placement in your third year or you may choose to organise a placement in the summer. Speak to your academic advisor or teacher about opportunities to assist in work environments suited to your chosen profession, for example, laboratory research, internships in hospitals or wildlife conservation.

Gaining work experience in a scientific setting can provide the practical skills and technical expertise needed for becoming a biologist. It can also demonstrate a working knowledge of your degree and expand your professional and academic network. Many universities specialise in particular research subjects such as plant science. Joining or starting a research project is another way of developing practical scientific skills.

Related: How to write an effective biologist CV (with examples)

5. Get a master's degree or a PhD

Once you have completed your undergraduate degree, you may decide to continue your studies with a masters degree or a doctorate (PhD).

There are two types of masters:

  • Taught masters: Taught masters are similar to an undergraduate degree. You will attend lectures, perform practicals and have either the option of exams or producing a thesis at the end to gain an MSc (Masters of Science).

  • Masters by research: Students interested in research can advance into a Masters of Research (MRes). An MRes degree includes some lectures but is primarily made up of independent research projects and concludes with a thesis on your independent research rather than an exam.

A PhD in a specific biology subject is often a desirable qualification, especially if you wish to progress to a senior position. It is possible to go from an undergraduate degree straight into a PhD.

Related: PhD vs master's degrees (differences between them)

How to become a biologist through an apprenticeship

Apprenticeships give you a chance to gain a qualification while at work. You can become a biologist by building up your skills and experience while working alongside experienced scientists.

There is a range of apprenticeships across the UK, ranging from Level 2 through to level 7. Apprenticeships have equivalent educational levels:

  • Level 2: Level 2 is equivalent to GCSEs.

  • Level 3: Level 3 is equivalent to A Levels.

  • Level 4-6: Level 4, 5, 6 and 7 is equivalent to a foundation degree and above.

  • Level 6 and 7: Level 6 and 7 is equivalent to a Bachelor's or master's degree.

Related: Higher Apprenticeships: Everything You Need to Know

Four careers for people with a degree in biology

Here are four career choices for people who have earned at least a Bachelor's degree or higher in a biological subject:

1. Academic researcher

Average salary: £37,753 per year

Primary role: Academic researchers carry out research that gathers new knowledge to publish papers in journals and write reports, books, or chapters on your specialist area.

2. Marine biologist

Average salary: £37,794 per year

Primary role: A marine biologist studies the sea and its ecosystem, including plants, animals and other organisms, both in the water and the laboratory. The main aim of a marine biologist is to predict changes in ecosystems affected by human and natural disturbances.

Related: What does a marine biologist do? (With specialisations)

3. Microbiologist

Average salary: £77,444 per year

Primary role: Microbiologists try to solve problems affecting our health, environment, climate, food and agriculture through the study of microorganisms and their effects.

4. Pharmacologist

Average salary: £37,499 per year

Primary role: Pharmacologists understand how medicines work and their effects on the body so they can be used effectively and safely.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed. Salary figures reflect data listed on the quoted websites at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate’s experience, academic background and location. This article is based on information available at the time of writing, which may change at any time. Indeed does not guarantee that this information is always up-to-date. Please seek out a local resource for the latest on this topic.

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