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What is the difference between biology and biological engineering?

Biological engineering vs. biology may seem a close comparison, but they can lead in very different directions. Find out how they differ and what they offer.
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Written by Doug Wintemute, Contributing Writer on

Biological engineering vs. biology are easy to confuse. If you don't want to make that mistake, read on. 

"Biologist" is an umbrella term encompassing many professions involving studying life and living things. Biological engineers, conversely, use engineering principles for biological study and problem-solving applications. 

Here, we dive deeper into the difference between biological engineering and biology. We examine the duties, requirements, and career outlook for each profession. 

What do biological engineers do?

Biological engineering's goals are solving biological problems and enhancing biological processes to better suit societal needs. 

Biological engineers design and create technologies that help us analyze, understand, improve, and use biological systems. They may work with agriculture, animals, environmental, and microbial systems. 

Biological engineers specialize in many areas, including:

  • Medical technologies
  • Food supplies
  • Physiological functions and processes
  • Energy-efficient technologies
  • Energy systems

They may work with advanced models, machines, instrumentation, gene manipulation, artificial organs, or molecular and nanomaterial technologies.  

Their daily tasks may include research, programming, designing models, or performing statistical analysis. 

Biological engineers may go hands-on by developing and testing equipment or devices, taking measurements, or installing equipment and providing support. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), biological engineers commonly work in manufacturing, healthcare, life sciences, and education. 

What do biologists do?

Biologists study all types of plant and animal life. 

They can specialize in subdisciplines, such as aquatic, marine, zoology, wildlife, botany, and molecular biology. Biologists strive to better understand the living world so society can preserve, benefit from, and live in harmony with other living things. 

Biologists conduct extensive research on living organisms and their environments. Their work environment depends on their specialization and study focus, which may take them to the ocean floor, zoos, farms, or laboratories. 

They may study living samples, examine ecosystems, work with models and simulations, or conduct field experiments.

A typical day for a biologist may include modeling and analysis, investigation, researching, or fieldwork. 

According to ONet, biologists primarily work for the government and the professional and technical services industry. Other industry opportunities include education and consulting services. 

Comparing biological engineers and biologists

Biological engineering and biologist careers differ in requirements and outlooks. Below, we explore these differences in detail. 

Required education

Biological engineers

According to the BLS, biological engineering usually requires candidates to have an engineering bachelor's degree at minimum, typically in a field such as biomedical or biological engineering. 

Specific employers and positions may require a graduate degree or extensive experience for employment. 

Before graduation, students can gain experience through co-ops or internships. Employers value practical experience from within hospitals, laboratories, research, and fieldwork. 

Biologists

Biologists need a bachelor's degree at minimum for many jobs. Most professionals in this field have a master's degree. 

Master's degrees typically qualify graduates for investigative scientific positions, whereas a Ph.D. qualifies them for academic positions.

Biologists may also need extensive fieldwork experience, which they can gain via internships, fieldwork and research teams, and volunteering.



Salary comparison

Biological engineers

The median annual salary for bioengineers was $92,620 in May 2020. The top 10% in the field earned more than $149,440, whereas the lowest 10% earned less than $56,590.

Biological engineering salaries vary by industry, too, with instruments manufacturing paying median annual wages of $104,050, medical equipment manufacturing paying $94,960, and life sciences research and development paying $93,630. 

Biologists

Biologist salaries vary by role — and biologist roles vary widely. Microbiologists earned median salaries of $84,400 in May 2020, wildlife biologists earned $66,350, and environmental scientists earned $73,230.

Industry and job title also impact potential salaries. For example, in May 2020, microbiologists earned median annual salaries of: 

  • $112,940 in the federal government
  • $108,300 in life sciences research and development
  • $73,830 in pharmaceuticals manufacturing

Job growth and employment demand

Biological engineers

Our expanding technological capabilities drive growth in the biological engineering field. The BLS projects 6% growth for professionals between 2020 and 2030, with the biomedical field leading the way. 

Other industries providing opportunities for these professionals include research and development, medical equipment, healthcare, instruments manufacturing, and education. 

Biologists

Societal needs — including the preservation of our natural resources, wildlife, and environment — drive the demand for biologists.

The BLS projects 5% growth for wildlife biologists, 5% for microbiologists, and 8% growth for environmental scientists. Budgetary restrictions limit growth in each of these fields. 

Most employment in these fields comes within the government, scientific and technical consulting services, and education industries. 

Next steps on the career ladder

Biological engineers

Biological engineers can pursue additional training, such as a master's or doctoral degree, for medical science or postsecondary teaching roles. Combining their engineering training with business or medical training may help them acquire interdisciplinary positions. 

Lab, research, and field experience can also go a long way to elevating a biological engineer into a leadership position.

Biologists

To progress into independent research and project management roles, biologists often need a master's or doctoral degree. At this level, they can teach and run their own research projects.

With experience and additional training, biologists can manage organizations and supervise their own team of technicians, researchers, and scientists. They can also teach at the postsecondary level with a doctorate.

Which is right for me: biological engineering or biology?

When choosing between biological engineering vs. biology, prospective students need to think about their career goals, strengths, and interests. 

While the fields could overlap in many ways, a biology degree provides a foundation for future specialization. Biological engineering degree jobs lead down a more specific career path. 

Aspiring engineers may be more drawn to problem-solving and innovation, while aspiring biologists may value research and discovery. 

If you aspire to provide benefits to society, engineering might be a better fit. Want to preserve the living world? Biology may be more aligned with your values.

In conclusion

Biologists and biological engineers both study and work with living things, but the fields have vastly different focuses and career opportunities.

 By understanding the differences between biological engineering and biology, you can better choose the most suitable path for your future. 

Unless otherwise noted, salary and job growth data were drawn from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as of April 13, 2022.

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