Biologists study humans, plants, animals, and the environments in which they live. They may conduct their studies--human medical research, plant research, animal research, environmental system research--at the cellular level or the ecosystem level or anywhere in between. Biologists are students of the world, interested in learning from every facet of life. Although this scope may seem overwhelming, in practice, biologists specialize in discrete areas that they feel drawn to.
Biologists’ daily activities are driven by their area of specialization. Marine biologists study marine populations and physiology, working off boats, at oceanography centers, at aquariums, and at a variety of coastal sites. Biochemists spend most of their day in a laboratory analyzing tissue samples and designing and carrying out research projects to test new hypotheses. Agricultural scientists analyze crop yields produced from different soils, fertilizers, or chemicals. Biologists study life to uncover its secrets and to find ways to solve problems, such as finding a cure for a disease. Much research is done in ecologically diverse areas such as the Brazilian Rain Forest, where nature--the world’s largest laboratory--has produced biological compounds scientists cannot yet create on their own.
Biologists generally love what they do. Many put in long hours, compelled by their dedication to work beyond the requirements of their job. Significant time at the lab, in the field, and at lectures and conferences all contribute to many biologists’ lack of a personal life outside the discipline. Within the field, colleagues are aware of and sensitive to others’ research progress and philosophical approach. Relationships with colleagues can be intense and often are substitutes for average social interaction. The rarefied knowledge and dedication required to analyze the basic stuff of life may be one reason why biologists choose to spend even more time with other biologists: They understand each other’s devotion to their work. From botany to zoology, biologists are engaged in a demanding and creative scientific endeavor. One biologist described it as “assembling the pieces of nature’s puzzle.”
Academic requirements are strict in this discipline. Most individuals in positions of authority have extensive post-graduate degrees, but entry-level positions are available for people with only a bachelor’s degree in a biological science. Most researchers have a master’s degree; they direct research and perform out-of-lab functions, such as on-site sampling and interviewing about medication side effects. Those who wish to direct the research functions must obtain a Ph.D. in a biological science. The largest employer of biologists is the federal government, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Department of Agriculture. Biologists at these organizations conduct practical research on existing biological compounds. Pharmaceutical companies employ the next largest block of biologists in their research labs. Certification is available from certain professional organizations, but it is not required.
Biologists who leave the field generally look for a career that will satisfy both their scientific and social interests. They become doctors, veterinarians, laboratory managers, statisticians, and even dentists at a higher salary than do those who leave most other professions.