How to become a biologist

Most people probably think that to work as a professional biologist you need to get through all manner of degrees and qualifications. That helps, obviously - you need to work hard and learn a lot of things, but it's far from the whole story. The scientists on this website have come into biology from all manner of angles and it's not just about getting a doctorate (PhD). By biology, I am really covering a whole spectrum of different areas of interest - anatomy, physiology, anthropology, biochemistry, botany, palaeontology and others (though here I'm not including veterninary science and medicine).

Most people do take the route of formal scientific qualifications into biology. In the UK, this amounts to doing:

  • necessary GCSE exams at 16 and suitable A-levels at 18 (though not necessarily including biology)
  • a Bachelors Degree at a university (3 or 4 years) in some suitable subject (e.g. anthropology, zoology, anatomy, depending on your interests), generally followed by:
  • a Masters programme (1 or 2 years), and then finally
  • a Doctorate (3 to 5 years).

I say finally, but then, to get into serious research you would need to find a position as postdoctoral researcher for several years before (hopefully) getting a permanent job as a lecturer or reader and if you last long enough and are good enough, you might qualify and be offered the title of Professor at a university. So even the 'basic' qualification of a PhD can easily take 10 or 12 years from the age of 16. It's hard work and takes dedication.

But that really only covers the pure research side of things (biologists based in universities or research institutes) who spend the majority of their time making scientific studies and publishing scientific papers. There is a whole range of professions available who work with and around scientists.

In museums and universities there are preparators who extract fossils from rocks, as well as make displays and mounts for specimens. Curators look after the research collections (animals and plants, both alive and dead that are there for study), artists and photographers to record the work that is being done, and a whole raft of laboratory and research assistants to help with the work.

Outside of the labs and museums there are people working in practical conservation and discovery: zoo breeding programs, following animals in the wild, maintaining habitats, searching for both new fossils and even new species of living animals.

Almost all of these jobs require a serious background in studying biology (like a university degree in zoology or conservation) but you would be amazed as to how some people come into the realm of biology. I know people whose original qualifications (usually a university degree) were in history, medicine, physics, maths, civil engineering, modern languages, computer science or art who have gone onto successful careers as biologists and to publish science papers. I even know a few who came into biology having left school at 16 with a handful of GCSEs and A-levels and others who only entered the subject in their 50s and 60s. There is a job available to everyone at some level in biology!

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