Should I do a degree in biology?

Parrots in the wild
Biology is a good degree choice for keen scientists, but if you want to pursue a career in this area, for example in healthcare or research, you're likely to need to go on to further study.

Biology is a well respected degree choice, and offers the chance to get up close and personal with all matter of human, animal and cell life. Biology degrees contain a wide variety of modules, ensuring that you can study something that really interests you and making it a good choice for keen scientists. If you want a career in biology, however, you’re likely to need to undertake further study after you graduate.

What A levels or Highers do I need to get onto a biology degree?

The majority of universities will ask that you have A level biology or equivalent, and many will also ask for an A level in chemistry or maths. Scottish students will need a Higher in biology and may need an Advanced Higher in biology.

If you want to do a degree other than straight biology, such as biochemistry or biological sciences, the qualifications you are required to have will differ. The safest bet is to study a mixture of biology, chemistry and maths.

What will I study on a biology degree?

Biology degrees come in many different forms. You can choose to study straight biology, human biology, marine biology, molecular biology, life sciences, and many other variations. Make sure that the biology degree you choose contains the modules that you’re most interested in.

In your first year you will be taking modules that are designed to prepare you for the rest of your degree, regardless of whether you’re studying straight biology or a more specialised alternative. On a general biology degree, you will normally take a broad range of modules ranging from molecules to ecosystems, which will include the genetic and biochemical processes of animals, plants and microbes. On a more specialised degree, these general modules will be mixed with specialised ones; for example, on a marine biology degree you might study specific ocean modules alongside broader ones.

First year topics often include:

  • cell biology
  • ecology and evolution
  • molecular genetics
  • physiology
  • basic biochemistry
  • microbiology.

If you choose to do a general biology degree, you will still have the chance to specialise as your degree progresses by taking specialised modules. These modules vary from university to university, but they could include:

  • metabolism and metabolic disorders
  • parasites and infectious disease
  • behavioural and molecular neuroscience
  • tropical ecology and conservation
  • molecular pharmacology
  • immunology
  • selective toxicity
  • biotechnology.

The most important thing to consider when choosing between a biology degree and a more specialised alternative is which course you’d enjoy more. The career prospects tend to be the same regardless of your decision, as any degree you do will include modules covering the fundamentals of biology. These broad modules will allow you to move between disciplines once you’ve graduated, which means that an undergraduate degree in zoology wouldn’t stop you from doing an MSc in biotechnology, for example. So if you’re really enthusiastic about one particular area of biology, there’s nothing to hold you back from pursuing a specialised degree.

If you’re unsure about which degree to do, it may be advisable to choose a general biology degree and specialise later on through modules – if you decide to do a degree entirely in plant science and then find out that plants don’t really interest you, you might be in a sticky situation! Some universities will allow you to switch to a different course after your first year, but you shouldn’t choose your degree with this outcome in mind. Instead, spend some time on UCAS researching the differences between degrees and choose the one which you think will engage your interest over a long period of time.

What teaching methods are used on a biology degree?

The teaching methods used on a biology degree normally include:

  • lectures – this tends to be the main method of teaching on a biology degree and involves learning by listening and taking notes
  • laboratory sessions – practical sessions working in a laboratory
  • fieldwork – work conducted outside of the university within a natural environment; very common during environmental modules
  • seminars – a small group of students discussing work with a tutor present
  • computer sessions – these are common when dealing with statistics.

How many contact hours will I have on a biology degree?

Typically, you will have around 15–18 contact hours a week, although this depends on your year of study and what modules you take. You should also be ready to spend a substantial amount of time outside of timetabled hours studying by yourself. Erica Leanne Harris, who graduated from her degree in human biology in 2015, recommends studying for two hours a day on top of scheduled lectures. Erica also comments: ‘The amount of contact time was perfect because I had enough that I didn’t feel like my tuition fee was a waste of money, but not too much so I could still get on with other aspects of uni life.’

What careers could a biology degree lead to?

Some biology graduates will choose to work in a field closely related to their degree, while others will decide to pursue careers elsewhere.

Careers in biology

Bagging a career in biology will usually require further study, especially if your end goal is to work in research or healthcare. For a career in biological research, further study normally means completing an MSc, MPhil or PhD in a more specialised area. Research jobs in biology are competitive, so practical experience of working in a lab is normally vital. Some biology degrees will offer a one-year industrial placement to help you fulfil this requirement, which is something to consider when choosing your university. A career in healthcare will normally require the completion of a relevant qualification after you graduate, for example a medical degree or nursing qualification.

Job options include the following:

  • Biologist – a biologist can undertake research in a number of fields, working in marine life, ecology, microbiology and with soil. They can also work as research scientists in medicine and life sciences.
  • Environmental management and conservation – you could find yourself monitoring biodiversity, undertaking fieldwork, preparing conservation reports and organising species surveys.
  • Healthcare – many careers in the healthcare profession will require an understanding of biology, so your degree could put you at an advantage. For example, you could become a general practitioner (GP), nurse or pharmacologist.

Careers outside of biology

If you decide not to pursue a career in biology there are many other options available. A large number of jobs are open to graduates regardless of their degree discipline. There are opportunities in areas including:

For more information, check out our TARGETjobs article on what you can do with a biology degree.

What skills will I develop on a biology degree? Will employers like them?

A degree in biology will leave you with a number of valuable skills, including data management and analysis, computer literacy and research skills. You will also develop the ability to interpret and evaluate information, a skill that is useful throughout the job market.

What other degrees could I consider?

If you’re thinking about doing a degree in biology, you could also consider the following subjects:

  • biochemistry
  • biomedicine
  • medicine
  • veterinary science
  • chemistry
  • maths
  • psychology.

What happens to biology graduates after they leave university?

Every year, UK universities contact their former students six months after they’ve graduated to find out what they’re doing. These results are compiled in the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey. The 2015 survey contains information on students who graduated in 2014, and sheds some light on their career paths so far.

Overall, biology graduates were less likely to be working full-time in the UK than the average graduate (39.3% compared with the average 56.5%). This could be because biology graduates are over twice as likely to be engaged in further study than the average graduate (25.2% compared with the average 12.1%).

The survey shows that 8.0% of biology graduates were unemployed – slightly higher than the average unemployment rate for graduates (6.3%).

Among biology graduates who were in work, the top job categories were:

  • Retail, catering, waiting and bar staff 20.2% (average: 12.1%)
  • Other professionals, associate professionals and technicians 16.3% (average: 5.4%)*
  • Other occupations 10.5% (average: 6.6%)**
  • Clerical, secretarial and numerical clerk occupations 9.1% (average: 7.5%)
  • Business, HR and finance professionals 8.5% (average: 9.8%)
  • Science professionals 7.3% (average: 1.1%).

*Other professionals is a broad category covering a wide variety of roles, but includes graduates working as lab technicians, in environmental conservation and in sports and fitness.

**Other occupations is a group that covers roles from florists to furniture makers, but includes gardeners and landscapers, farm and forestry workers and pharmaceutical dispensing assistants.

Biology graduates often need to complete further study before landing a job in their field. This study requires funding, which might explain the relatively high number of graduates working in retail and catering; waitressing and bar work has long been considered a good way of generating money for the future.

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