Biologist Job Description
Biologists are scientists who focus on plant and animal life that ranges from single-celled organisms to large animals. This role encompasses a large number of subfields and specializations, from microbiology to biochemistry to wildlife biology. In any case, the day-to-day role of a biologist is to conduct research and experimentation within their field, gathering data and preparing reports based on their hypotheses.
Biologists work in academic settings but also primarily conduct field research around the world. Additionally, biologists work within nonacademic settings such as pharmaceutical research and development and food sciences. Most biologists work with teams of laboratory assistants and other researchers.
Biologist Duties and Responsibilities
While a biologist’s duties largely depend on the setting in which they work, there are some commonalities for biologists across settings:
Conduct Biological Research
The main responsibility of a biologist is conducting biological research. The biologist begins with a hypothesis and designs a series of experiments to test that hypothesis, measuring and assessing results to determine whether the data supports their idea. Biologists continuously develop new hypotheses based on the results of their work and that of other biologists, and conduct further research to expand their knowledge and understanding.
Monitor Biological and Cellular Activity
Throughout their research and experiments, biologists monitor biological activities and processes that can range from the cellular level to an entire organism. This aspect of the role includes examining individual cells under a powerful microscope to determine the impact of certain parts of the experiment, comparing experiment subjects to a control group, and taking readings of chemicals within the organism at set times during the course of the experiment.
Prepare and Present Reports
Biologists gather and record information in reports that they may present to conferences, peers, or the general public. In many cases, a biologist’s findings need to go through the peer review process, during which another team of biologists and laboratory technicians attempts to repeat the biologist’s results prior to the publication of the report. In nonacademic settings, the biologist may submit reports to supervisors or executives.
Manage Experiment Data
Many biologists conduct rigorous data management activities using proprietary or open source bioinformatics software. These programs are typically complex database systems focused on maintaining and storing publicly available biological data such as genetic information or peer-reviewed findings. The biologist may access this data during the course of the experiment and also share their own findings to benefit the scientific community as a whole.
Oversee Laboratory Technicians
Most biologists also direct the activities of laboratory technicians who conduct parts of experiments and report back to the biologist. In this role, the biologist divides a larger or ongoing experiment into discrete parts and instructs team members on conducting their experiments. The biologist also reviews technician work and recreates experiments to check results and provide guidance on processes and procedures.
Biologist Skills and Qualifications
Biologists work in a number of fields, conducting experiments and observations related to plant and animal life. Most biologists have an advanced degree and the following skills:
- Subject matter expertise – biologists need to be experts in their particular field or subfield and should have a deep understanding of macro- and microbiological processes and currently accepted theories
- Laboratory skills – in any field, biologists conduct extensive research and experimentation in laboratory settings, so they should follow best practices for managing experiments and maintaining laboratories
- Team coordination – because they work with laboratory technicians, field researchers, and other scientists, biologists should be able to effectively work with teams and coordinate research activities
- Reporting and documentation – biologists need to accurately record and report the results of laboratory experiments and studies. They need effective verbal and written communication skills to prepare clear and concise reports for peer review and to present research findings at conferences or meetings
- Scientific ethics – biologists must adhere to a code of scientific ethics and ensure that they design experiments and procedures that are in line with ethical limitations
Tools of the Trade
Biologists work in many settings, but in general they should be able to use standard office equipment and software in addition to the following:
- Laboratory equipment (microscopes, slides, dyes)
- Bioinformatics software (Bioclipse, Anduril)
Biologist Education and Training
Depending on the specific field in which a biologist works, educational requirements can vary. While it is possible to become a biological technician with only a bachelor’s degree, most biologists complete a PhD program in their field to expand employment opportunities and expertise. In addition, many biologists complete several years of field or lab work before moving into full-time careers. There are few opportunities for on-the-job training in this role, since many biologists determine their own focus or work within larger research organizations and are expected to possess a high level of expertise in their field.
Biologist Salary and Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) divides biologist salary and job outlook information by specific roles and subfields, including microbiologists, biochemists and biophysicists, and wildlife biologists. Because of this, median salaries for biologists show a great deal of variation. For example, wildlife biologists earn a median annual salary of $62,290 per year, while biochemists and biophysicists earn a median annual salary of $91,190. Biologists who do not fall into one of the other BLS categories earn a median annual salary of $76,690.
According to the BLS, most biologist careers will grow at an average or slightly higher-than-average pace through 2026.
We searched the web and found several resources if you’re interested in starting a career as a biologist:
American Institute of Biological Sciences – AIBS is the country’s largest biology and life science organization. It offers membership to those who work in related fields, publications regarding new discoveries, and peer reviews for academic and scientific publications
Opportunities in Biological Science Careers – this guide by Charles Winter focuses on jobs in biological science and explores career paths, educational requirements, and salary expectations for a wide range of biologist positions
“2018 Best Colleges for Biology in America” – this comprehensive list provides an excellent starting point for finding high-performing schools and programs to prepare for a career as a biologist
ReSearch: A Career Guide for Scientists – biologists can consult this career guide to learn about career options and opportunities in academia, research settings, and more
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