Nature of the Work
Nature of the Work
Biological scientists study living organisms and their relationship to their environment. Most
specialize in some area such as ornithology (the study of birds) or microbiology (the study of
About two-fifths of all biological scientists work in research and development. Some conduct basic
research to increase knowledge of living organisms. Others, in applied research, use knowledge
provided by basic research to develop new medicines, increase crop yields, and improve the
environment. Biological scientists may work in laboratories and use laboratory animals or
greenhouse plants, electron microscopes, computers, electronic instruments, or a wide variety of
other equipment to conduct their research. A good deal of research, however, is performed outside
of laboratories. For example, a botanists may do research in the volcanic valleys of Alaska to see
what plants grow there, or an ecologist may study how a forest area recovers after a fire.
Other biological scientists work in management or administration. They may plan and administer
programs for testing foods and drugs, for example, or direct activities at zoos or botanical gardens.
Some work as consultants to business firms or to government, while others test and inspect foods,
drugs, and other products or write for technical publications. some work in sales and service jobs
for companies manufacturing chemicals or other technical products.
Advances in basic biological knowledge, especially at the genetic level, have resulted in a new
technology called biotechnology. Biologists using this rapidly developing technology recombine the
genetic material of animals or plants, making organisms more productive or disease resistant. The
first application of this technology has been in the medical and pharmaceutical area. The human
gene that codes for the production of insulin has been inserted into bacteria, causing them to
produce human insulin. This insulin, used by diabetics, is much purer than insulin from animals, the
only previous source. Many other substances not previously available in large quantities are
starting to be produced by biotechnological means; some may be useful in treating cancer and
other diseases. Advances in biotechnology have opened up research opportunities in almost all
areas of biology, including commercial applications in agriculture and the food and chemical
Most biological scientists who come under the broad category of biologist are further classified by
the type of organism they study or by the specific activity they perform, although recent advances
in the understanding of basic life processes at the molecular and cellular level have blurred some
Aquatic biologists study plants and animals living in water. Marine biologists study salt water
organisms and Limnologists study fresh water organisms. Marine biologists are sometimes called
oceanographers, but oceanography usually refers to the study of the physical characteristics of
oceans and the ocean floor.
Biochemists study the chemical composition of living things. They try to understand the complex
combinations and reactions involved in metabolism, reproduction, growth, and heredity. Much of
the work in biotechnology is done by biochemists because this technology involves understanding
the complex chemistry of life.
Biological scientists generally work regular hours in offices, laboratories, or classrooms and
usually are not exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. However, some work with dangerous
organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory. They could be exposed if safety procedures are
not followed. Many biological scientists such as botanists, ecological, and zoologists take field
trips which involve strenuous physical activity and primitive living conditions.
Biological scientists held about 59,000 jobs in 1990. In addition, about 50,000 held biology faculty
positions in colleges and universities.
About 40 percent of nonfaculty biological scientists were employed by Federal, State, and local
governments. Federal biological scientists worked mainly in the Department of Agriculture,
Interior, and Defense, and in the National Institutes of Health. Most of the rest worked in the
pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, or commercial or nonprofit research and development
laboratories. A few were self-employed.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
The Ph.D. degree generally is required for college teaching, independent research, and for
advancement to administrative positions. A master's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied
research and for jobs in management, inspection, sales, and services. The bachelor's degree is
adequate for some nonresearch jobs. Some graduates with a bachelor's degree start as biological
scientists in testing and inspection, or get jobs related to biological science such as technical sales
or service representatives. Others become biological technicians, medical laboratory technologists
or, with courses in education, high school biology teachers. Many with a bachelor's degree in
biology enter medical, dental, veterinary, or other health profession schools. Some enter a wade
range of occupations with little or no connection to biology.
Most colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees in biological science and many offer
advanced degrees. Curriculums for advanced degrees often emphasize a subfield such as
microbiology or botany but not all universities offer all curriculums. However, specialization on
one life form is being deemphasized in favor of study of basic biochemical and genetic life
processes. Advanced degree programs include classroom and field work, laboratory research, and
a thesis or dissertation. Biological scientists who have advanced degrees usually begin in research
or teaching. With experience, they may become managers or administrators within biology; others
leave biology for nontechnical managerial, administrative, and sales jobs.
Biological scientists should be able to work independently or as part of a team and be able to
communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing. Those doing field research in remote
areas must have physical stamina.
Employment of biological scientists is expected to increase faster than the average for all
occupations through the year 2000. Most growth will be in private industry. Many more biological
scientists will conduct genetic and biotechnical research and help develop and produce products
developed by new biological methods. In addition, efforts to clean up and preserve the
environment will continue to add to growth. More biological scientists will be needed to determine
the environmental impacts of industry and government actions and to correct past environmental
problems. Anticipated increases in health-related research should also result in growth.
Employment of biologists is expected to grow slowly in government. In addition to jobs arising
from growth in demand for biologists, openings will occur as biological scientists transfer to other
occupations or leave the labor force.
Many persons with a bachelor's degree in biological science find jobs as science or engineering
technicians or health technologists and technicians. Some become high school biology teachers.
However, they are usually regarded as teachers rather than biologists. Those with a doctorate in
biological science may become college and university faculty.
Biological scientists are less likely to lose their jobs during recessions than those in many other
occupations since most are employed on long-term research projects or in agricultural research,
activities which are not much affected by economic fluctuations.
According to the College Placement Council, beginning salary offers in private industry in 1990,
averaged about $21,600 a year for bachelor's degree recipients in biological science.
In the Federal Government in 1990, biological scientists having a bachelor's degree could begin at
$16,700 or $20,660 a year, depending on their college records. Those having the master's degree
could start at $20,700 or $25,300, depending on their academic records or work experience; those
having the Ph.D. degree could begin at $30,053 or $36,570 a year. Biological scientists in the
Federal Government averaged $41,000 a year in 1990.