Biology is the study of living organisms and their processes of growth, reproduction and interaction. A full understanding of these processes includes integrating studies at many levels of organization, including within populations, individual organisms, organ systems, cells and molecules. Consequently, biology is inherently interdisciplinary, and requires knowledge of a variety of physical sciences and mathematics. Students interested in studying biology should be skilled in collecting and maintaining accurate data, organizing and conducting research, interpreting technical and scientific data, and analyzing and solving problems.
At Hopkins, students may choose between a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology and a Bachelor of Science degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology. The Biology program emphasizes the relationship of structure to function in biological systems, and requires coursework in Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, and Physics. The Molecular and Cellular Biology program includes the same requirements, but also requires additional specialized coursework as well as participation in an original research project. Both degrees satisfy the requirements for admission to medical school; the Molecular and Cellular Biology program is designed to provide more rigorous preparation for advanced study in biomedical science and for employment in the biotechnology industry, as well as admission to medical school.
Biologists conduct both basic research, which explores a fundamental process that furthers our understanding of various life processes, and applied research, which seeks to develop new products and techniques, such as developing new medicines, increasing crop yields and improving the environment. This research is conducted either in laboratories or in the field; however, biologists at universities typically teach in addition to conducting research, for which they must seek grant support.
An undergraduate degree in biology provides a foundation for a variety of careers outside of medicine and academic work. Many careers do not require a specific major but rather a wide range of skills and accomplishments; the critical thinking, communication and teamwork skills undergraduate biology students will obtain are marketable in any profession.
Biology provides a foundation for a variety of careers, including preparation for medical school and advanced study in the sciences. It is, however, a highly specialized field; a bachelor’s degree qualifies graduates for advanced technician jobs in the medical field and positions as lab or research assistants, but an advanced degree is required for most other positions in the scientific field.
A few areas of specialization within the biological sciences include:
- Biochemistry – the study of the chemistry of living cells, tissues, organs and organisms. Biochemistry is closely linked to many other biological sciences, including Cell Biology, Genetics, Microbiology, Molecular Biology, Physiology, Pharmacology and Toxicology. Biochemists are behind discoveries such as cloning techniques and DNA fingerprints.
- Bioinformatics and Biostatistics – the use of techniques from applied mathematics, informatics, statistics and computer science to solve biological problems. These scientists work in a wide range of fields, including agriculture and medicine.
- Biophysics – the application of the principles of physics and chemistry and the methods of mathematical analysis and computer modeling to understand how biological systems work. Research in this field addresses fundamental questions of biology, as well as questions relevant to medicine, such as the mechanisms of action of cancer drugs or measuring glucose concentration in the blood of diabetics.
- Cell and Molecular Biology – the study of the structure and function of cells, how they grow, divide and die, how they develop into larger clusters with unique properties, how they send signals to one another, and how all of these processes may go awry to cause diseases such as cancer. Molecular biology has resulted in a set of techniques used to study biomolecules such as DNA, RNA and proteins.
- Ecology/Environmental Science – the study of where and how plants, animals and microorganisms live and interact in the land, water and air. This broad field of work includes evolution, adaptation, and conservation.
- Entomology – the study of insects and their relationships to the environment, humans and other organisms. These scientists make contributions to a wide variety of fields, including agriculture, health and forensics.
- Genetics – the study of how genetic information is communicated including what genes are, how they are duplicated and transferred, how they change in individuals, how they are expressed and how they can be manipulated. The field of genetics continues to grow, and encompasses nearly every area of biology. In addition, new career fields are evolving as a result of genetics. Genetic counselors, for example, help patients understand their risks of disease or passing genetically based diseases to their children; genetic engineering is a field that works toward treating or preventing disease by replacing faulty genes.
- Immunology – the study of all aspects of the immune system. Immunologists also work to develop new drugs and vaccines, as well as to solve public health challenges such as the emergence of drug resistant strains of bacteria and viruses.
- Marine and Aquatic Biology – the study of animals, plants and microorganisms that live in or near a salt-water environment. An interdisciplinary field that includes ecology, genetics, neuroscience and physiology, the work of marine biologists ranges from basic research to practical problem solving, such as the impact of ship sonar on marine animals.
- Microbiology – the study of the world of organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye, including viruses, bacteria, molds, protozoans, and other tiny creatures which cause diseases, influence the quality and taste of our food supply and are responsible for decay.
- Neuroscience – the study of how cells in the brain and nervous system develop and function, both on an individual level and as integrated systems of cellular networks.
- Nutrition and Food Science – the study of all aspects of the relation of diet to health and disease, especially in humans and animals of agricultural or zoological importance. Food scientists study the physical, microbiological and chemical content of food, as well as the preservation of quality during processing, transport and storage. Closely tied to biotechnology, the work of these scientists continues to grow in the age of a global food economy.
- Pharmacology – the study of chemicals that affect the function of living organisms. Clinical pharmacologists study chemicals: how they are absorbed, transported, and metabolized in the body, as well as how to change their chemical structure so as to minimize unwanted side effects.
- Physiology – the study of how the body works, focusing on the function of cells and tissues in organ systems and how they are coordinated for the entire body, under normal circumstances and when exposed to stresses.
Many biology graduates work in fields outside of medicine and academia, including work in management, administration, education, non-profits, publishing, and government agencies. A few of these positions include:
Career fields in biology continue to grow. While biotechnology and pharmaceutical development yield many lucrative careers for those in the field, efforts to discover new and improved ways to repair and preserve the environment will result in increasing numbers of jobs and grants. While competition for research and academic positions remains great, those with bachelor's degrees and master's degrees are expected to have more opportunities in non-scientific jobs related to biology, such as sales, marketing, writing, illustration, legislative affairs and research management.
For additional information, see the Career Center's industry profiles directly related to careers in biology:
Undergraduate coursework in biology includes a broad range of sciences, and will help to develop the skills and abilities associated with careers in the field, including:
- Curiosity and creativity
- Organization and accuracy
- Ability to organize and conduct research
- Critical thinking and application skills
- Ability to analyze and solve complex problems
- Quantitative ability
- Design and implementation of experiments and models which systematically define a problem
- Technical/laboratory skills, including knowledge of laboratory equipment, techniques, procedures and research protocols
Biologists should be able to work both independently and as part of a team, in addition to possessing the communication skills to clearly present their techniques and results, both orally and in writing. Those interested in pursuing biology work in a corporate setting should also possess strong business skills as well as marketing and management techniques. To gain these skills, pursue courses outside the sciences such as those in English, Writing Seminars and Entrepreneurship and Management.
Students must also apply the knowledge they have gained through their coursework in the workplace. Utilize internships and research opportunities at Hopkins, within biotech and pharmaceutical companies and at non-profit scientific research organizations to develop the real world experience necessary in the job market.
Hopkins biology alumni go into a variety of career fields. Since 2005 the Career Center has surveyed recent graduates about their academic and career plans 6 months after graduation. Here is a summary of their responses in the Post-Graduation Survey of Biology Majors.
Hopkins Alumni in Biology
Susan Herman- Assistant Professor of Neurology, University of Pennsylvania, Classics and Biology, Class of 1989
- How did you get interested in your field? Was it your original goal when you started at Hopkins? - I was somewhat interested in entering medicine when I started at Hopkins, but wanted to make sure that I got a broad education, not just pre-med. I therefore chose to major in Classics, an excellent decision. I chose to go to medical school after an elective junior year in pediatric urology at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
- What was your career path? How did you get to where you are today? - I obtained my MD at Columbia University. I had a work study job in the Neurology Department doing data entry and chart reviews, which led to my participation in a study of spasmodic dysphonia and several publications. I chose Neurology as a field because of the potential for clinical research, and because of opportunities for long-term relationships with patients.
- What was your first job after college? Was it in your current field? - Neurology resident at Columbia University - yes.
- What advice do you have for current students? - Keep your eyes out for new opportunities - sometimes the unexpected path turns out to be the best!
- What is your typical day like? - I spend about 50% of my time in direct patient care. My subspecialty is in epilepsy, so I make rounds in an inpatient epilepsy monitoring unit, see patients in clinic, and read electroencephalograms. I spend 20% of my time doing administrative work and teaching. I run the EEG lab and epilepsy monitoring unit, and am the associate director of the neurology residency program. Finally, 30% of my time is in clinical research. So, my typical day is long and busy!
- What’s most rewarding about your field? What's most challenging? - Rewarding: The ability to teach neurology residents and fellows, and the opportunity to make research breakthroughs in epilepsy. Challenging: Competing demands on time from clinical and research areas.
- What are typical entry-level positions for this field? Where can someone in an entry-level position expect to be in two years? Five years? Ten years? - Many premedical students work as clinical research assistants or in a research laboratory to gain experience in the field. Medical school, residency, fellowship. Sorry!
- Where do you see the field going in the next 5-10 years? - Many new drugs and treatments, increasing the emphasis on patient outcomes.
Jodi Kefer- Pediatrician, South Philadelphia Pediatrics, Biology, Class of 1990
- How did you get interested in your field? Was it your original goal when you started at Hopkins? - Always interested in medicine - pediatrics was a good match. One of the few people who started and ended up as premed in my peer group.
- What was your career path? How did you get to where you are today? - Went straight through college, med school, residency, first job - still with my first pick
- What was your first job after college? Was it in your current field? - First job after college - are you kidding? First paid job was pediatric residency.
- What advice do you have for current students? - Keep options open, enjoy the college experience, there is plenty of time for career specifics.
- What is your typical day like? - I couldn't imagine doing anything else - I think I was born to do this job. Every day of my week is different - but that keeps things fresh. There is continuity week to week. Having a near one year old has really proven to be one of my greatest challenges and accomplishments.
- What’s most rewarding about your industry and/ or job? What's most challenging? - Rewarding: Where to start? I get to see other people kids every day - and have (hopefully) a positive impact in their lives. It's a privilege that people let me share so much intimacy. Challenging: While I've been well prepared to practice medicine, I've also found myself a small business owner. Maybe the duel MBA programs aren't ridiculous in retrospect, but who has time for them now?
- What are typical entry-level positions for this field? What tips do you have for students to be successful in these positions? - We all pay our dues and I only hope one would end up with as successful match the first time around.
- Where do you see the field going in the next 5-10 years? - More managed care - even more business opportunities (versus medical opportunities).
- What skills and out-of-class experiences (i.e. internships, co-curricular activities, volunteering, etc.) are ideal for entering your industry / career field? - Enthusiasm goes a long way. Medicine is challenging and if you are not enjoying your job - it is hard to go to work.
- Where can someone in an entry-level position expect to be in two years? Five years? Ten years? - Delayed gratification. The job gets better as you go along. Depending on the specialty and amount of time one decides to take during training - it can take as long or short as you need.
- Which professional organizations and resources should students look into or get involved with? - The American Academy of Pediatrics and American Medical Student Association have premed sections if you know it is where you want to go.
Geraldine Peterson- Vice President, Regulatory Affairs, Garvey Associates B.A., Biology, 1976
- How did you get interested in your field? Was it your original goal when you started at Hopkins? - Yes, originally in nursing.
- What was your career path? How did you get to where you are today? - I worked for years in nursing in various positions then did a major in health services and policy. I began in my job because of my "business" training and medical experience.
- What was your first job after college? Was it in your current field? - Emergency department nurse. No, not in my current field.
- What advice do you have for current students? - Study what you love and be open to new experiences. You have a lot of years of working and careers often develop in serendipitous ways.
- What is your typical day like? - I work in a very small firm. I check with our president and the secretary about anything that may be happening that I'm unaware of, check email (usually every hour), check FDA updates, continue working on article reviews, document reviews, online searches as necessary. Usually a teleconference with at least one client to discuss progress or issues with a project.
- What’s most rewarding about your industry and/or job? What's most challenging? - Rewarding: Problem solving. Challenging: Problem solving--along with delivery of often discouraging news to clients.
- What are typical entry-level positions for this field? What tips do you have for students to be successful in these positions? - Regulatory assistant. Ask to do or participate in all aspects of the regulatory process. Be detail oriented.
- Where do you see the field going in the next 5-10 years? - Drug regulatory affairs will be even more globally technically oriented.
- What skills and out-of-class experiences are ideal for entering your industry / career field? - Basic science or clinical background is a good foundation for the field.
- Where can someone in an entry-level position expect to be in two years? Five years? Ten years? - After two years in a very large firm, still as assistant, after five years, a manager, after ten years, a senior manager--in a smaller firm, after ten years, a vice-president.
- Which professional organizations and resources should students look into or get involved with? - RAPS-Regulatory Affairs Professional Society and DIA-Drug Information Association.
Aileen I Velez Cabassa- Quality Control Analyst, Lonza Walkersville Inc., Biology Class of 2000, M.A. Biotechnology
- How did you get interested in your field? Was it your original goal when you started at Hopkins? - No. Originally I wanted to go into the medical field but fell in love with the molecular aspect of bio when I took my first genetics class.
- What was your career path? How did you get to where you are today? - From laboratory research at VCU to research at Hopkins to now quality control at Lonza and looking to enter the RA field next.
- What was your first job after college? Was it in your current field? - Laboratory research associate at VCU/MCV.
- What advice do you have for current students? - I would encourage them to enter an internship or co-op in whatever field they wish to enter.
- What is your typical day like? - Of course check messages. Depending on the schedule I am either attending meetings and/or performing test on our cell therapy products.
- What’s most rewarding about your industry and/or job? What's most challenging? - Knowing that I am at the cusp of the biotech field since I currently work testing cell therapy products currently in phase I & II. These products will save lives....Challenging; Making the move now from Quality Control to Regulatory Affairs now.
- What are typical entry-level positions for this field? What tips do you have for students to be successful in these positions? - Again, you need to have worked in a lab at some capacity prior to graduation.
- Where do you see the field going in the next 5-10 years? - We're here to change the world..... We will be able to treat cancer and other diseases.
- Where can someone in an entry-level position expect to be in two years? Five years? Ten years? - In two, you might train others. In five, you can work to become a supervisor or become a specialist. You may need more than a BS thus to continue further. In ten, either working on your PhD to stay in research or learning of the many other fields open in the biotech industry and move in one of those directions. I choose to move towards RA.
- Which professional organizations and resources should students look into or get involved with? - Regulatory Affairs Professional Society (RAPS) if your interest in RA; I am currently a member. But while at JHU join the Hopkins Biotech Network (HBN) of which I am also a member.
Sofia Lizarraga- Postdoctoral Scholar, Harvard Medical School, Biology and Molecular and Cellular Biology, 1996, PhD, 2003
- How did you get interested in your field? Was it your original goal when you started at Hopkins? - Yes, I always wanted to do research in developmental biology.
- What was your career path? How did you get to where you are today? - I did undergraduate research, then took time off to go to the NIH to do research for a year and got into graduate school.
- What was your first job after college? Was it in your current field? - I was a research assistant at the NI. It was in immunology, not my current field.
- What advice do you have for current students? - To explore as many career options as they can by attending workshops, getting informed and to always believe in themselves.
- What is your typical day like? - I am a postdoc right now, so its long days in the lab with a 70% component of bench work and the rest is reading and writing.
- What's most rewarding about your industry and/ or job? What's most challenging? - Rewarding: learning new things and being creative with my science. Challenging: getting funding and publishing papers.
- What are typical entry-level positions for this field? What tips do you have for students to be successful in these positions? - Entry level positions for people without a PhD are usually research assistant positions. I would advise students to work hard and be enthusiastic.
- Where do you see the field going in the next 5-10 years? - I think towards the systems biology and synthetic biology fields and of course neuroscience.
Additional Alumni Profiles
Networking with alumni and other professionals who work in these fields can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Use Johns Hopkins Connect to contact alumni to ask for their advice. You may also find professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family.
For more information on what you can do with a Biology Major go to What can I do with a major in Biology.
Want to know more? Read our Hopkins Career Profiles on Medicine, Law & Paralegal, Scientific Research, and Nonprofit.
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