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Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 Edition

U.S. Department of Labor  |  Bureau of Labor Statistics  |   Bulletin 2540

Biological Scientists

Significant Points

  • A Ph.D. degree usually is required for independent research, but a master’s degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research or product development; a bachelor’s degree is adequate for some nonresearch jobs.
  • Doctoral degree holders face considerable competition for independent research positions, particularly in universities; holders of bachelor’s or master’s degrees in biological science can expect better opportunities in nonresearch positions.
  • Biotechnological research and development will continue to drive employment growth.

Nature of the Work Back to Top

Biological scientists study living organisms and their relationship to their environment. They research problems dealing with life processes. Most specialize in some area of biology such as zoology (the study of animals) or microbiology (the study of microscopic organisms). (Medical scientists, whose work is closely related to that of biological scientists, are discussed elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Many biological scientists work in research and development. Some conduct basic research to advance knowledge of living organisms, including viruses, bacteria, and other infectious agents. Basic biological research continues to provide the building blocks necessary to develop solutions to human health problems, and to preserve and repair the natural environment. Biological scientists mostly work independently in private industry, university, or government laboratories, often exploring new areas of research or expanding on specialized research started in graduate school. Those who are not wage and salary workers in private industry typically submit grant proposals to obtain funding for their projects. Colleges and universities, private industry, and Federal Government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, contribute to the support of scientists whose research proposals are determined to be financially feasible and to have the potential to advance new ideas or processes.

Biological scientists who work in applied research or product development use knowledge provided by basic research to develop new drugs and treatments, increase crop yields, and protect and clean up the environment. They usually have less autonomy than basic researchers to choose the emphasis of their research, relying instead on market-driven directions based on the firm’s products and goals. Biological scientists doing applied research and product development in private industry may be required to describe their research plans or results to nonscientists who are in a position to veto or approve their ideas, and they must understand the potential cost of their work and its impact on business. Scientists increasingly are working as part of teams, interacting with engineers, scientists of other disciplines, business managers, and technicians. Some biological scientists also work with customers or suppliers and manage budgets.

Those who conduct research usually work in laboratories and use electron microscopes, computers, thermal cyclers, or a wide variety of other equipment. Some conduct experiments using laboratory animals or greenhouse plants. This is particularly true of botanists, physiologists, and zoologists. For some biological scientists, research also is performed outside of laboratories. For example, a botanist might do research in tropical rain forests to see what plants grow there, or an ecologist might study how a forest area recovers after a fire. Some marine biologists also work outdoors, often on research vessels from which they study various marine organisms such as marine plankton or fish.

Some biological scientists work in managerial or administrative positions, usually after spending some time doing research and learning about the firm, agency, or project. They may plan and administer programs for testing foods and drugs, for example, or direct activities at zoos or botanical gardens. Some work as consultants to business firms or to government, while others test and inspect foods, drugs, and other products.

Recent advances in biotechnology and information technology are transforming the industries in which biological scientists work. In the 1980s, swift advances in basic biological knowledge related to genetics and molecules spurred growth in the field of biotechnology. Biological scientists using this technology manipulate the genetic material of animals or plants, attempting to make organisms more productive or resistant to disease. Research using biotechnology techniques, such as recombining DNA, has led to the production of important substances, including human insulin and growth hormone. Many other substances not previously available in large quantities are starting to be produced by biotechnological means; some may be useful in treating cancer and other diseases. Today, many biological scientists are involved in biotechnology. Those who work on the Human Genome project continue to isolate genes and determine their functionality. This work continues to lead to the discovery of the genes associated with specific diseases and inherited traits, such as certain types of cancer or obesity. These advances in biotechnology have opened up research opportunities in almost all areas of biology, including commercial applications in agriculture, environmental remediation, and the food and chemical industries.

Most biological scientists are further classified by the type of organism they study or by the specific activity they perform, although recent advances in the understanding of basic life processes at the molecular and cellular levels have blurred some traditional classifications.

Aquatic biologists study micro-organisms, plants, and animals living in water. Marine biologists study salt water organisms, and limnologists study fresh water organisms. Much of the work of marine biology centers on molecular biology, the study of the biochemical processes that take place inside living cells. Marine biologists sometimes are mistakenly called oceanographers, but oceanography is the study of the physical characteristics of oceans and the ocean floor. (See the statement on environmental scientists and geoscientists elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Biochemists study the chemical composition of living things. They analyze the complex chemical combinations and reactions involved in metabolism, reproduction, growth, and heredity. Biochemists and molecular biologists do most of their work in the field of biotechnology, which involves understanding the complex chemistry of life.

Botanists study plants and their environment. Some study all aspects of plant life, including algae, fungi, lichens, mosses, ferns, conifers, and flowering plants; others specialize in areas such as identification and classification of plants, the structure and function of plant parts, the biochemistry of plant processes, the causes and cures of plant diseases, the interaction of plants with other organisms and the environment, and the geological record of plants.

Microbiologists investigate the growth and characteristics of microscopic organisms such as bacteria, algae, or fungi. Most microbiologists specialize in environmental, food, agricultural, or industrial microbiology; virology (the study of viruses); or immunology (the study of mechanisms that fight infections). Many microbiologists use biotechnology to advance knowledge of cell reproduction and human disease.

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. Physiologists often specialize in functions such as growth, reproduction, photosynthesis, respiration, or movement, or in the physiology of a certain area or system of the organism.

Biophysicistsstudy the application of principles of physics, such as electrical and mechanical energy and related phenomena, to living cells and organisms.

Zoologists and wildlife biologists study animals and wildlife—their origin, behavior, diseases, and life processes. Some experiment with live animals in controlled or natural surroundings, while others dissect dead animals in order to study their structure. They also may collect and analyze biological data to determine the environmental effects of current and potential use of land and water areas. Zoologists usually are identified by the animal group studied—ornithologists (birds), mammalogists (mammals), herpetologists (reptiles), and ichthyologists (fish).

Ecologists study the relationships among organisms and between organisms and their environments, and the effects of influences such as population size, pollutants, rainfall, temperature, and altitude. Utilizing knowledge of various scientific disciplines, they may collect, study, and report data on the quality of air, food, soil, and water.

(Agricultural and food scientists, who are sometimes referred to as biological scientists, are discussed elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Working Conditions Back to Top

Biological scientists usually work regular hours in offices or laboratories and usually are not exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory must follow strict safety procedures to avoid contamination. Many biological scientists such as botanists, ecologists, and zoologists take field trips that involve strenuous physical activity and primitive living conditions. Biological scientists in the field may work in warm or cold climates, in all kinds of weather. In their research, they may dig, chip with a hammer, scoop with a net, and carry equipment in a backpack. They also may climb, stand, kneel, or dive.

The work of a marine biologist varies dramatically, depending on the type of work involved. Some work in a laboratory, while others work on research ships. Marine biologists who work underwater must practice safe diving while working around sharp coral reefs and hazardous marine life. Although some marine biologists obtain their specimens from the sea, many still spend a good deal of their time in laboratories and offices, conducting tests, running experiments, recording results, and compiling data.

Some biological scientists depend on grant money to support their research. They may be under pressure to meet deadlines and to conform to rigid grant-writing specifications when preparing proposals to seek new or extended funding.

Employment Back to Top

Biological scientists held about 75,000 jobs in 2002. Almost half of all biological scientists were employed by Federal, State, and local governments. Federal biological scientists worked mainly for the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and Defense, and for the National Institutes of Health. Most of the rest worked in scientific research and testing laboratories, the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry, or hospitals.

In addition, many biological scientists held biology faculty positions in colleges and universities. (See the statement on teachers postsecondary elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

A Ph.D. degree usually is necessary for independent research, industrial research, and college teaching, and for advancement to administrative positions. A master’s degree is sufficient for some jobs in basic research, applied research or product development, management, or inspection; it may also qualify one to work as a research technician or as a teacher in an aquarium. The bachelor’s degree is adequate for some nonresearch jobs. For example, some graduates with a bachelor’s degree start as biological scientists in testing and inspection, or get jobs related to biological science, such as technical sales or service representatives. In some cases, graduates with a bachelor’s degree are able to work in a laboratory environment on their own projects, but this is unusual. Some may work as research assistants, while others become biological laboratory technicians or, with courses in education, high school biology teachers. (See the statements on clinical laboratory technologists and technicians; science technicians; and teachers; preschool, kindergarten, elementary, middle, and secondary elsewhere in the Handbook.) Many with a bachelor’s degree in biology enter medical, dental, veterinary, or other health profession schools.

In addition to required courses in chemistry and biology, undergraduate biological science majors usually study allied disciplines such as mathematics, physics, and computer science. Computer courses are essential, as employers prefer job applicants who are able to apply computer skills to modeling and simulation tasks and to operate computerized laboratory equipment. Those interested in studying the environment also should take courses in environmental studies and become familiar with current legislation and regulations. Prospective biological scientists who hope to work as marine biologists should have at least a bachelor’s degree in a biological or marine science. However, students should not overspecialize in undergraduate study, as knowledge of marine biology often is acquired in graduate study. Most colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degrees in biological science, and many offer advanced degrees. Curriculums for advanced degrees often emphasize a subfield such as microbiology or botany, but not all universities offer all curriculums. Larger universities frequently have separate departments specializing in different areas of biological science. For example, a program in botany might cover agronomy, horticulture, or plant pathology. Advanced degree programs include classroom and fieldwork, laboratory research, and a thesis or dissertation.

Biological scientists with a Ph.D. often take temporary postdoctoral research positions that provide specialized research experience. In private industry, some may become managers or administrators within the field of biology; others leave biology for nontechnical managerial, administrative, or sales jobs.

Biological scientists should be able to work independently or as part of a team and be able to communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing. Those in private industry, especially those who aspire to management or administrative positions, should possess strong business and communication skills and be familiar with regulatory issues and marketing and management techniques. Those doing field research in remote areas must have physical stamina. Biological scientists also must have patience and self-discipline to conduct long and detailed research projects.

Job Outlook Back to Top

Despite projected as fast as the average job growth for biological scientists over the 2002-12 period, doctoral degree holders can expect to face competition for basic research positions. The Federal Government funds much basic research and development, including many areas of medical research that relate to biological science. Recent budget increases at the National Institutes of Health have led to large increases in Federal basic research and development expenditures, with research grants growing both in number and in dollar amount. At the same time, the number of newly trained scientists has continued to increase at least as fast as available research funds, so both new and established scientists have experienced difficulty winning and renewing research grants. Currently, about 1 in 3 grant proposals are approved for long-term research projects. If the number of advanced degrees awarded continues to grow, as seems likely based on enrollment trends, this competitive situation will persist. Additionally, applied research positions in private industry may become more difficult to obtain if increasing numbers of scientists seek jobs in private industry because of the competitive job market for independent research positions in universities and for college and university faculty.

Opportunities for those with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in biological science are expected to be better. The number of science-related jobs in sales, marketing, and research management, for which non-Ph.D.s usually qualify, is expected to exceed the number of independent research positions. Non-Ph.D.s also may fill positions as science or engineering technicians or health technologists and technicians. Some may become high school biology teachers.

Biological scientists enjoyed very rapid gains in employment between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, in part reflecting increased staffing requirements in new biotechnology companies. Employment growth should slow somewhat as increases in the number of new biotechnology firms slow and existing firms merge or are absorbed into larger ones. However, much of the basic biological research done in recent years has resulted in new knowledge, including the isolation and identification of genes. Biological scientists will be needed to take this knowledge to the next stage, which is the understanding of how certain genes function within an entire organism, so that gene therapies can be developed to treat diseases. Even pharmaceutical and other firms not solely engaged in biotechnology use biotechnology techniques extensively, spurring employment increases for biological scientists. Expected expansion of research related to health issues, such as AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, also should create more jobs for these scientists. In addition, efforts to discover new and improved ways to clean up and preserve the environment will continue to add to job growth. More biological scientists, including some botanists, will be needed to determine the environmental impact of industry and government actions and to prevent or correct environmental problems, while some will find opportunities in environmental regulatory agencies. Botanists also will use their expertise to advise lawmakers on legislation for environmental protection and for ways to save environmentally sensitive areas. There will continue to be demand for biological scientists specializing in botany, zoology, and marine biology, but opportunities will be limited because of the small size of these fields.

Biological scientists are less likely to lose their jobs during recessions than are those in many other occupations because many are employed on long-term research projects. However, an economic downturn could influence the amount of money allocated to new research and development efforts, particularly in areas of risky or innovative research. An economic downturn could also limit the possibility of extension or renewal of existing projects.

Earnings Back to Top

Median annual earnings of biochemists and biophysicists were $60,390 in 2002. The middle 50 percent earned between $43,110 and $82,080. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $33,930, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $102,930. Median annual earnings of microbiologists were $51,020 in 2002. The middle 50 percent earned between $39,100 and $67,420. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $31,250, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $87,060. Median annual earnings of zoologists and wildlife biologists were $47,740 in 2002. The middle 50 percent earned between $37,100 and $58,040. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,260, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $71,270. Median annual earnings of biochemists and biophysicists employed in scientific research and development services were $64,390 in 2002.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, beginning salary offers in 2003 averaged $29,456 a year for bachelor’s degree recipients in biological and life sciences; $33,600 for master’s degree recipients; and $42,244 for doctoral degree recipients.

In the Federal Government in 2003, general biological scientists in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions earned an average salary of $66,262; microbiologists, $73,513; ecologists, $65,207; physiologists, $85,181; geneticists, $78,652; zoologists, $90,178; and botanists, $55,727.

Related Occupations Back to Top

Many other occupations deal with living organisms and require a level of training similar to that of biological scientists. These include medical scientists, agricultural and food scientists, and conservation scientists and foresters, as well as health occupations such as physicians and surgeons, dentists, and veterinarians.

Sources of Additional Information Back to Top


Links to non-BLS Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

For information on careers in the biological sciences, contact:

  • American Institute of Biological Sciences, Suite 200, 1444 I St. NW., Washington, DC 20005. Internet:

For information on careers in biochemistry or biological sciences, contact:

  • Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814. Internet:

For information on careers in microbiology, contact:

  • American Society for Microbiology, Office of Education and Training—Career Information, 1325 Massachusetts Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20005. Internet:

Information on obtaining a biological scientist position with the Federal Government is available from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) through a telephone-based system. Consult your telephone directory under U.S. Government for a local number or call (703) 724-1850; Federal Relay Service: (800) 877-8339. The first number is not tollfree, and charges may result.

Information also is available from the OPM Internet site:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2004-05 Edition, Biological Scientists, on the Internet at

Last Modified Date: February 27, 2004

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
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