What is a biologist?

Biology encompasses a wide variety of subdisciplines such as biochemistry, microbiology, physiology, botany, toxicology, embryology, ornithology, mammalogy, and zoology. Biology also encompasses related disciplines in natural resource management such as ecology, forestry, silviculture, range management, and wildlife management. A biologist studies the origin, relationship, development, anatomy, and/or functions of living organisms ranging in size from microscopic to large.

Physicians, veterinarians, medical researchers, and medical technicians are all biologists working to understand the biology of the human body and other organisms. Through human and animal research, they seek to develop cures for cancer and other diseases, and they investigate inheritance, immunological functions, microorganisms, physiological functions, and morphology (the form and structure) of cells and organs. Other biologists are concerned with understanding the relationships between organisms (plants and animals) and how to help manage their populations in the wild. Others are concerned with improving the quality and yield of crops.

The greater western mastiff bat (Eumops perotis) is the largest bat in North America. Only a few roosts for this species are known and much about them is still to be determined. Here, Forest Service Biologist Heather Green is holding a female mastiff bat that will be fixed with a radio transmitter so that its roost can be located.

What makes a good biologist?

To be a good biologist, an individual should be interested in the life sciences and should understand mechanisms involved in living organisms. She does not have to have superior intelligence but needs to have common sense and be able to use logical reasoning.

There are two aspects of a career in biology: research and management. Both researchers and managers in the biological sciences need to be enthusiastic and interested in the work; inquiring; willing to work independently and in collaboration with others at local, national, and international levels; and able to communicate their findings, orally and in writing, in clear and concise language. As in most other scientific disciplines, they must be motivated and organized since there always seems to be more work than time in which to do it.

A research biologist needs to be imaginative in order to design appropriate and relevant experiments. She must be familiar with research techniques and with laboratory equipment such as electron microscopes and centrifuges; a knowledge of computers can also be useful in conducting and interpreting experiments. A manager in the biological sciences needs to be dedicated and flexible to be able to deal with the various organizations that have opinions on how lands and animals should be managed.

What is life as a biologist like?

A biologist's typical workday depends upon her education and specialty. A research biologist with a Ph.D. degree may conduct independent research at a research institute, in a medical school, in an undergraduate college or a university, or in industry. In all these environments, with perhaps the exception of industry, she may direct graduate students in independent research and academic studies. Although most biologists do research in a laboratory setting, some, particularly botanists and zoologists, may take field trips that involve strenuous physical labor and primitive living conditions. Time may also be devoted to writing scientific papers or chapters of books and grants for federal funding to support research, traveling to and presenting scientific papers at national and international conferences, reviewing scientific literature, or serving in a management or administrative position.

General bat surveys using mist nets over water sources give biologists an idea of what species are in the area. Radio telemetry can then be used to determine roost locations and foraging areas. Forest Service District Biologist Melissa Siders is holding a big free-tailed bat (Nyctinomops macrotus) captured during mist netting.

A research biologist with a master's or bachelor's degree applies skills required for laboratory or medical research as a laboratory technician. Depending on the laboratory, she may have a great deal of freedom to design her own experiments or, on the other hand, she may be a "pair of hands" assisting with experiments already designed. With a master's degree, her responsibility is greater and may include a supervisory position in a clinical laboratory. She may also be employed in industry, testing and inspecting food, drugs, and other products, or selling and/or servicing technical equipment.

A management biologist with a master's or bachelor's degree applies skills required for field surveys for federal (Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or Park Service), state, and private (e.g., Nature Conservancy or industrial) land management agencies. Depending on the agency, she may have a great deal of freedom to determine her own field work, or she may be a member of a crew assisting in larger management projects. If she has a master's degree, her responsibility is greater and may include a supervisory position or a position with the responsibility of making management decisions.

How do I become a biologist?

You do not need an advanced degree to become a biologist, although your independence in conducting research increases with an advanced degree. A master's degree normally takes two to three years of classroom studies beyond a bachelor's degree. It frequently requires a research project and a thesis. A Ph.D. degree, which often takes four to seven years beyond a bachelor's degree, requires classroom studies, work on an independent research project with a faculty advisor, and preparation of a written thesis. A Ph.D. degree is necessary if you want a faculty position at a university or medical school. A master's degree is becoming required more frequently for year-round positions with management agencies.

In college you should take any biology or biology-related courses offered. In addition, mathematics, chemistry, and physics courses are absolutely essential. All of these help build the background you need to think logically in devising and analyzing a research or management problem. Take a broad range of courses in your field and in related fields. A broad background provides you with knowledge essential to your own field of study and for collaborative work. You will specialize in a specific area if you decide to obtain an advanced degree such as a Ph.D.

It is highly recommended that you obtain experience during summer breaks from college in various temporary jobs in biology. This will not only make you more competitive once you finish your degree, but it will also allow you to explore various aspects of biology to determine your interests and skills.

Biologists can conduct surveys in remote and interesting places. This is a Forest Service Biological Technician (Laura Williams) entering a cave to determine what wildlife use was occurring in the cave to assist in the evaluation of whether it is being impacted by human uses.

What/where are the jobs?

Biologists are employed in universities, medical schools, hospitals, industry, and various government agencies. About one-third of all biologists are involved primarily in research and development; one-fifth are primarily involved in teaching. Some work as managers for federal, state, or local government agencies. Some work as consultants to business firms or to federal, state, or local government agencies. Employment in biology will increase faster than the average for all occupations in the next decade because of the continuing interest in medical research and the increased concern about preserving the environment. Opportunities are particularly good for biologists with advanced degrees; those with lesser degrees may face competition for the available jobs.

For more information

General information on careers in the life sciences is available from the American Institute of Biological Sciences, 1444 I St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20005, 1-202-628-1500, http://www.aibs.org/careers/. More information can be found on the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology's career page, http://careers.faseb.org/.

Melissa Siders, Wildlife Biologist
N. Kaibab Ranger Station
PO Box 248, Fredonia, AZ 86022