Personal Finance
'Working Your Degree'
September 15, 2000: 10:26 a.m. ET

Biology grads must either break from the pack or return to school
By Staff Writer Shelly K. Schwartz
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Like many of the biology majors in her graduating class, Jennifer Carrera started out on a path towards pre-med. But somewhere between freshman biology and the required senior study labs, her career goal changed.

"The majority of biology students are at least considering medical school, and then reality hits for most of us," the 22-year-old Boston University graduate said. "I decided I still really enjoyed biology, but I was not as interested in medicine anymore."

Armed with a minor in statistics, Carrera landed a job immediately out of school as a statistical analyst for Experian in Atlanta, where she helps lenders assess the credit risk of customers.

It's not directly related to her field of study. But then again, it gives her a chance to flex her data research muscles. Plus, let's face it, it's a paycheck.

"It's very hard to find a job with an undergraduate degree in biology," Carrera admits. "You have to find a twist on it or pursue your education further. I was fortunate enough to find a twist, since statistics complements biology very well."

What they do

Biologists study living organisms, including plants and animals, bacteria and infectious agents. Those who conduct research on cells, chromosomes and genetic material aimed at curing disease are typically called "medical scientists."

graphicAccording to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, biological scientists usually require a Ph.D. to participate in highly competitive independent research projects, but a master's degree, it says, is sufficient for some jobs in applied research (shorter-term, mission-oriented projects) and product development.

A bachelor's degree, the agency continues, is "adequate for some non-research jobs."

The Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology in McLean, Va., however, would argue an undergraduate degree in biology is more than just "adequate" in today's tight labor market.

Among the list of job opportunities it identifies for bachelor's degree recipients are health technology, teaching, pharmaceutical sales and administration. In addition to working for high school biology departments, teaching graphicalso can include informal jobs, such as creating educational exhibits for zoos and museums; publishing science articles; writing educational software and multimedia applications; and developing educational films and programs.

"Embarking on a career in biology has many paths, each with its own rewards and challenges," the SICB writes on its Web site. "Which path you take will have as much to do with your personality as it does your intellectual curiosity and interests."

It's worth noting that health information technicians, who manage medical records and other data for hospitals, nursing homes and home health agencies, are projected to be among the 20 fastest-growing professions through 2008, the Labor Department reveals.

Salaries in the field, however, are less than staggering. Median annual earnings for health information technicians in 1998, the most recent year data are available, were roughly $20,600, the BLS reports. The average annual salary for health information technicians employed by the federal government as recently as 1999 was $27,500.

Job growth for pharmaceutical sales representatives is also projected to remain strong, as drug companies win Food and Drug Administration approvals for new products.

Biology, of course, remains a solid educational background for admittance to professional schools as well, including medical, dental, pharmacy and veterinary schools, for which many of the prerequisite chemistry, physics and calculus courses are the same. Those who want to teach on the collegiate level must go on to receive their Ph.D.s.

The "College Majors Handbook," published by JIST Works, Inc., notes that one-third of biology degree recipients on the bachelor's degree level work in fields unrelated to their fields of study, including sales and management positions.

Henry Mushinsky, a biology professor and graduate director for the department at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, said many, too, especially on the graduate level, have been lured away by the computer industry.

"Our grads need to learn an awful lot about using computers just to be competent as biologists and they're getting lulled away by software companies that pay substantial amounts of money," he said. "Pay is a major motivator, especially since folks in biology traditionally don't make a lot of money."

Mushinsky agrees with Carrera's assessment of the job market for undergraduate biology majors.

"I think they're finding a very tough world out there and that's true in any of the sciences," he said. "A bachelor's degree is really just to get you going. If you want to work in research you require more education."

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Most colleges and universities offer the basic Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science undergraduate degrees in biology, but some go one step further to offer topic-specific disciplines. Among them: zoology, marine biology and botany.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics breaks out biologists, or those who go on for a higher degree to become research scientists, into these broad categories:

Marine biologists study saltwater organisms.

Biochemists study the chemical composition of living things.

Botanists study plants and their environment.

Ecologists study the relationships among organisms and the effects of rainfall, population growth, temperature, etc.

Microbiologists study microorganisms, including bacteria, algae and fungi.

Physiologists study life functions of plants and animals, both in the whole organism and at the cellular or molecular level, under normal and abnormal conditions.

Zoologists study animals, diseases, behavior and life processes.

Together, biological and medical scientists with higher degrees held about 112,000 jobs in 1998, the latest year for which data are available, the Labor Department reports. Four out of 10 work for the federal or state or local governments, including the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Departments of the Interior, Defense and Agriculture - the largest federal employers.

Many of the rest work in the pharmaceutical industry, finding research and management positions with biotechnology firms, drug makers, hospitals and R&D testing labs.

Paycheck check-up

Salaries, of course, vary widely depending upon geography, job title and level of education.

Starting offers for students with a bachelor's degree in biological sciences are currently $29,047 a year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports in its Fall 2000 Salary Survey. That compares with about $34,000 for master's degree recipients and $46,000 for doctoral degree recipients.

Overall, median annual earnings of all biological scientists were $46,140 in 1998, slightly below the average for all college graduates, the BLS reports. Median annual earnings of medical scientists were $50,410 that same year.

(Click here for CNNfn's Salary Sample, showing average annual pay for biological scientists in the major U.S. markets.)

For those who enter the workforce with only a bachelor's degree, the "College Majors Handbook" notes top- and mid-level managers and executives earn the most, at roughly $60,000 per year. Grads in insurance, securities, real estate and business services earn about $54,000, about the same as those who take up marketing and sales.

What to expect

Over the last 20 years, research in the biotechnology arena has "opened up research opportunities in almost all areas of biology, including commercial applications in agriculture, environmental remediation, and the food and chemical industries," the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports in its latest Occupational Outlook survey.

The job market for biology grads is projected to grow a healthy 21 percent to 35 percent through 2008, faster than the national average, the BLS reports.

Even so, competition for sought-after positions leading research projects will remain fierce, due to tightening in the federal research spending budget and consolidation in the drug industries, which has created fewer employers.

The bottom line is: those considering a degree in biology should decide what they'd like to do in the long run. If it involves teaching or research, you should plan on getting a master's degree, at least.

"The majority of people in biology think their only options are to continue their education or become a lab rat," said Carrera, who is now applying to graduate school in the hope of becoming a biostatistician for pharmaceutical and drug research firms. "The reality you're going to have to face is that you're going to need to pursue something after your undergraduate degree." Back to top

-- Click here to send e-mail to Shelly K. Schwartz


Careers in biology: Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology

CNNfn's Salary Sample

Previous "Working Your Degree" columns

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