To be or not to be a biology major

Mary Pennington

Recently, I asked a group of science majors to respond to the following question: “Based upon your knowledge, research or hearsay, name three career fields you would associate with a science major.” The top five responses, with number one being the most popular, were:

1. Physician

2. Research Scientist

3. Physical Therapist

4. Engineer

5. Teacher/Professor

Sound familiar? It’s a common myth about biology majors that these are the only careers available. But it’s just a myth. Look around you, read, explore, and talk to people. Science-related careers that come to mind most easily represent a very small percentage of the opportunities available to you. What you ultimately do is determined by you-by your personal interests and skills, and by your knowledge of career possibilities. There are plenty of options available to you, from the traditional to the adventurous.

What are your options?

Think of this as a research project, but instead of conducting research on the effects of El Nino on global warming, you’ll be conducting research on the effectiveness of career exploration on your career success. Let’s take a quick look at where the research might lead you. (Note: The information that follows excludes information related to allied health and medical career options. That is a topic for another time.)

• Pursuing the traditional route

Science majors typically think about those “tried and true” research opportunities in hospitals pharmaceutical companies, biotech firms, academic institutions, and government agencies. However, even in these more traditional environments, there are choices to be made. For starters you might consider biochemistry, molecular biology, developmental biology, neurobiology, or even environmental conservation. Making the right choice will require some research on your part.

• Considering alternatives

Looking for something “beyond the norm?” Even in traditional environments, such as those mentioned above, you’re not limited to research positions. Do you like to write? Are you interested in the environment? Would you describe yourself as persuasive? Do you enjoy taking risks? Depending upon your interests and skills, you might consider careers specializing in competitive intelligence, data management, product sales, policy analysis, technical training, patent and regulatory law, quality control, and technical writing, to name a few.

These job titles may seem like just words to you now, but a little bit of research will help you define them. For example, investigate the position of competitive intelligence analyst and you’ll find that in this role you would provide management with information and analysis in order to make business decisions. You would research newsletters, trade publications, and annual reports and use the Internet to compile information and create reports. You would need to be inquisitive and resourceful and have strong technical and computer skills as well as the ability to spot trends.

In exploring your career possibilities, you should also explore options outside of the traditional work environments. As a biology major, your possibilities are unlimited, but include scientific equipment manufacturers, publishing firms, media companies, museums, venture capital and investment firms, HMOs, professional associations (the American Medical Association, for example), scientific recruiting agencies, nonprofit organizations, zoos, national parks, and aquariums.

• Thinking outside the box

Interested in something really different? Perhaps you’re not ready to settle into the “9 to 5” routine. How about working as a science educator?

Don’t judge this career by its title alone. There’s an organisation in the Pacific Northwest that will hire college graduates, then provide training about the Puget Sound, ecology research, and ship operations. At the completion of this program, you will teach science in a classroom at sea!

Love animals, but you aren’t enamored with the traditional path of veterinarian? You might look into becoming a pet therapist, devising therapeutic programs for emotionally based problems that may lead to psychological disorders in animals. While pet therapists traditionally work with companion animals, trends show that there may be opportunities in working with wildlife and farm animals.

What other types of positions might be considered “outside the box” for a biology major? For starters, how about environmental journalist, fundraiser/grant writer, fishery biologist, lobbyist, or venture capitalist? Take this even farther, and you might consider working as a guide for the physically challenged, a bike tour leader, an owner of a natural food store, a personal fitness trainer, or even a pet portraitist.

• Where do you go from here? Research, research, research! Use those research skills you have honed through your course work.

• Consider the world of work as your laboratory for lifetime. The opportunities are endless; don’t be afraid to venture beyond the obvious. In the words of Robert Frost:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”