What is biology?
Biology is widely recognised as the study of life and living matter. One of the three main scientific disciplines, biology can be divided into numerous specialised fields, although ultimately all of the different branches of biology can be brought together by their common understandings about living things.
All biological disciplines work on the basis that cells are the basic units of life and they make up the composition of all living things, while genetic information within the cells is responsible for determining the structure and function of each individual cell.
Cells can evolve, which creates new species, and all living things require energy to exist. The final common understanding in biology is that homeostasis must be maintained, meaning a state of balance between the living matter and its environment. Since the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA, our collective understanding of the field of biology has rapidly increased.
Best universities in the world for life sciences
What do you learn on a biology degree course?
The first year of a biology course often entails a broad overview of the subject, which allows students to develop an understanding of some of the major sub-disciplines of biology.
This often means a lot of lectures, as well as practical work and in-course assessment. As the course progresses, students should expect to spend less time in lecture halls and more time in laboratories or doing fieldwork, and in most cases students must elect more specialised modules as they progress toward a final research project, which usually comes at the end of the degree course.
Assessment occurs throughout the duration of most biology courses as a combination of exams, assessed practical work, short-answer tests, essays and presentations.
Some universities offer more specialised courses, such as ecology or biochemistry, which have a similar structure to a broader biology degree course but are more focused on one branch of biology. Therefore, most students who opt for a more specialised course are already aware of their main area of interest within the huge array of different biological studies.
Most undergraduate biology courses run for three or four years and a lot of universities offer work experience and overseas study opportunities. As with many science-based subjects, biology majors regularly contain a high number of contact hours, allowing students to experience a rigorous curriculum and preparing them for life after university.
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What should I study if I want to do a biology degree?
Most universities want to see some evidence confirming a prospective student’s interest in biology before accepting them on a degree course, so studying biology at school/college prior to university is a must for anyone hoping to study the subject at degree level.
Often, universities require a student to have achieved a certain standard in another science or mathematics subject, such as chemistry, physics, psychology, geography, geology or maths. Relevant work experience is also something worth pursuing for prospective biology students, not only because it may help them to decide whether there is a specific field they want to specialise in but also because it shows a willingness to go beyond school-level education to study.
For example, a student interested in studying zoology at degree level may try to obtain work experience in a veterinary surgery, a zoo, a wildlife trust or even a museum. Some universities require prospective students to pass an entrance examination too, so it is worth looking at course information and requirements in great detail before deciding which universities to apply to.
What jobs do biology graduates go on to do?
The broad nature of the subject is reflected by the wide-ranging jobs that biology graduates go into. A lot of biology students choose to continue their university studies beyond undergraduate level, with a master’s or a doctoral degree course being a popular choice for biology graduates. While undergraduate level biology degrees help students develop transferable skills, further levels of study are often necessary to land careers in the more advanced areas of biological studies.
Biology graduates can go on to work in research and, depending on their specialisation, they often find themselves in either molecular and cellular, organismal or field biology. Roles in molecular and cellular biology include neuroscientists, microbiologists and genealogists, while graduate roles in the organismal field of biology include zoologists, botanists and entomologists.
Field biologists are often employed in positions as ecologists, oceanographers and marine scientists. The medical industry is also a common destination for biology graduates, with medical treatment developers, nutritionists and medical researchers among the roles often taken by biology students.
Graduates who choose not to continue their studies further than undergraduate level can become laboratory technicians, science writers, teachers, and biotech marketing and sales roles, among numerous other positions. The career prospects of a biology graduate are by no means limited, and the skills developed during the course can be transferred to almost any scientific or non-scientific industry.
Student experience of studying biology
Famous people with biology degrees
Actor Lisa Kudrow, or Phoebe from Friends, studied biology at Vassar College in New York, obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Christine Poon, the vice-chairman of Fortune 500 company Johnson Johnson, studied for a bachelor’s degree in biology and later a master’s degree in biochemistry.
Mayim Bialik, the actress who played neuroscientist Amy Farrah Fowler in The Big Bang Theory, is actually a qualified neuroscientist herself, having earnt a PhD from UCLA in 2007.
Read more: Best universities for life sciences degrees
Why study biology? A guide to your degree in biological science, with information on what you will learn, what jobs you might get, and how to make sure you get on the right course