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What is a biology degree?

Biologists analyze cellular structures, examine complex ecosystems, and research biological systems. But what is a biology degree, and what can you do with one?
Written by Genevieve Carlton, Contributor
Female scientist using microscope in lab
Morsa Images/DigitalVision/Getty images

A biology degree trains learners in laboratory science, human biology, ecology, and biochemistry. 

Biology courses teach an appreciation for life on Earth. They also build strong problem-solving and analytical skills. 

What is a degree in biological sciences good for? A degree in biology leads to many career paths. Our guide walks through what to expect in a biology program, the different types of biology degrees, and career options with a biology degree.

What skills do biology programs teach students?

Biology programs teach students how to analyze laboratory data, isolate genetic material, and use statistics. Majors gain hard skills like data analysis, assay protocols, and laboratory equipment operation. 

Biology degrees also encourage in-demand soft skills like critical thinking, communication, and teamwork. Students learn how to write laboratory reports, work with a team in the lab, and solve problems related to research. 

These skills serve graduates in many biology degree jobs

What kinds of biology degrees are there?

Colleges offer biology programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Each degree prepares students for specific career paths. 

For example, high school biology teachers need a bachelor's degree, while biologists generally need a graduate degree.

Certificate program in biology

A certificate program in biology provides focused training for students interested in the biological sciences. 

During a certificate, learners take courses in biology, chemistry, and health sciences. The program may also include laboratory training. A certificate can take between 6-18 months, depending on the program.

While learners do not earn a degree, the credits from a certificate program can transfer into a degree-granting program. A certificate may also lead to opportunities as a laboratory assistant or research assistant. 

Depending on the focus area of the certificate program, graduates may also work in the health sciences, education, or veterinary sciences. 

Associate degree in biology

An associate degree in biology introduces learners to the biological sciences. Degree-seekers also complete core classes in mathematics, chemistry, and physics. 

The curriculum typically includes foundational biology topics, including laboratory requirements. Students can earn an associate degree in biology after two years of full-time study.

Many biology careers require a bachelor's degree or higher. With an associate degree, graduates work as laboratory technicians, medical assistants, or agricultural and food science technicians. 

Graduates can also transfer into a bachelor's program. At many colleges, an associate degree fulfills the general education requirements for a standard or accelerated bachelor's degree.

Bachelor's degree in biology

A bachelor's degree in biology includes lower-division coursework in the biological sciences, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. Upper-division classes in subfields of biology like cellular biology, clinical biology, and population biology help majors specialize their skills. The degree includes laboratory and research training. 

Undergraduates can complete a bachelor's in biology in four years.

With this biology degree, majors work as laboratory technicians, pharmaceutical sales reps, and biology teachers. They also pursue health-related roles like health communications specialist or food scientist. 

Those interested in careers as a biologist typically need a graduate degree. 

BA in biology vs a bachelor of science (BS)

Many colleges offer both a BA and BS in biology. The major coursework for both degrees largely overlaps. However, the general education requirements differ. A BA requires at least one year of foreign language, for example, and typically includes more humanities and social science courses. A BS includes more natural science requirements. 

The BS provides additional research training, which benefits students considering graduate programs or laboratory science careers. Both degrees take around four years.

Master's degree in biology

Master's degree students specialize in a focus area that structures their coursework and graduation requirements. Rather than general biology, graduate degrees often focus on a subdiscipline like biochemistry, cell biology, or neurobiology. 

Many master's programs offer options like a master's exam, research project, or scholarly paper to finish the degree. Students typically spend two years in a master's program.

After completing a master's in biology, graduates pursue careers in research science, laboratories, the pharmaceutical industry, or medical science. The degree also prepares students for doctoral programs in biology or medicine.

Doctoral degree in biology

A doctorate is biology's highest degree. During a doctoral program, graduate students take advanced classes and conduct research to write a dissertation. Doctoral candidates specialize through their classes, laboratory assignments, and research areas. Most doctoral students earn their Ph.D. in around five years.

With a Ph.D. in biology, graduates work in research and academic positions. They manage labs, conduct research on pharmaceuticals, and analyze gene sequences. 

The degree also meets the requirement for jobs as a biology professor. Professors teach classes and conduct research in their specialty. 

Accreditation for biology programs

When choosing a biology program, make sure to check the school's accreditation status. Accredited colleges meet high standards for educating students. They also meet the requirements to distribute federal financial aid

A degree from an accredited school can help biology graduates reach their professional goals. Potential employers may not recognize degrees from unaccredited schools.

How hard is a biology degree?

Earning a biology degree requires strong analytical, critical thinking, and research skills. Majors examine complex biological systems and ecosystems. They also gain laboratory skills.

Biology majors also take classes in chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

 Some students find a biology degree challenging. However, many thrive in biology classes. Make sure to use your school's student support resources, such as tutoring, to help you find success.

Certain strengths help students succeed in a biology program. The ability to solve problems, think creatively, and focus on a task all help bio majors. 

Even those without a background in biology can do well in an undergraduate-level program. Taking introductory courses can help you decide if biology is the right fit for you. 

SEE: Scholarships for STEM subjects

In conclusion

Biology students explore the living world, from the microbial level to planet-wide systems. With a biology degree, graduates pursue diverse careers in medicine, laboratory sciences, research, sales, and education. 

If you're interested in a biology degree, reach out to programs to learn more about the admission and graduation requirements.  

This article was reviewed by Erin Bjorvik, BS, CVT


Erin Bjorvik was born and raised in the Chicagoland area before attending the University of Arizona where she graduated with a bachelor's in science. She also obtained her certification in veterinary technology from UArizona in 2010. 

Erin has spent her veterinary career focusing on emergency and critical care medicine. She is passionate about excellence in patient care and safety, as well as infection control and antimicrobial stewardship.

In 2018, Erin co-authored the Infection, Control, and Biosecurity Guidelines published by the American Animal Hospital Association. She moved back to the Chicago area several years ago. 

Bjorvik is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network. 

Last reviewed May 31, 2022.

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