A Day in the Life of a Biologist
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.”
Paying Your Dues
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.
Present and Future
Biological research traces its foundations to the physicians of antiquity and to the Catholic Church. Research on biological systems and their relationships began in ancient Greece, but little of this work was recorded. Early physicians explored the microbiological elements, looking for the causes and effects of disease, malnutrition, and deformity. In the fourteenth century, the Catholic Church began keeping comprehensive records of public activities and health. The data provided by the Catholic Church began with the study of large systems and their methods of interaction. A combination of the Church data and the data of the early physicians forms the foundation of the biological sciences.
The prospects for biologists depend not on the demand for their services--the demand for biologists will probably increase in the coming years--but on funding. Pharmaceutical companies will continue to fund potentially lucrative pharmaceutical projects. The U.S. government will continue to fund the testing of health products to release to the public; but universities, private research concerns, and foundations will all face strict budgetary limitations. Therefore, it’s uncertain how biologists will fare in the next ten years. Those who succeed will be strong academically in a specific area of specialization and will have excellent technical skills.
Quality of Life
PRESENT AND FUTURE
Biologists are primarily technicians, operating equipment, conducting tests, and recording data for more senior researchers. They spend significant time performing routine tasks regardless of their experience prior to hire. The hours can be long, and most time is spent in the lab. Although others may scoff at this “internship” of sorts, technicians generally expect to pay these dues in their first few years, and satisfaction remains high. A number of aspiring researchers ally themselves with more experienced and well-known researchers in order to put themselves in a position to become future researchers in their field of interest.
FIVE YEARS OUT
Field work arrives and satisfaction generally increases. Those who are not promoted to research positions either gravitate to other fields or return to school to get additional credentials that will make them more attractive candidates in their chosen field. The hours can be long and the work environment unpredictable, but responsibilities and salary increase. Some seek to publish their research and theories to make their ideas known and to distinguish themselves from their contemporaries.
TEN YEARS OUT
Many researchers have assumed positions as assistant directors of research or with limited control of disbursement of funds and distribution of personnel. Some are still finishing their Ph.D.s and are having a difficult time juggling work and school life. Some researchers join professional organizations or advisory committees in order to add another feather to their cap. A number enter academia. Hours flatten out, ambitions remain high.