Are you completing a degree in biology and wondering about the best job options for when you graduate? Or are you just interested in starting a biology degree, but want to know more about the career paths it could be prepare you for?
Based on research we’ve conducted on a range of promising career paths, we’ve identified six of the top jobs that might be a great option for someone with a degree in biology.
But what makes these the top careers?
Well, at Probably Good, we think your career is one of the best resources you have to make a positive difference – we want you to find a career that’s good for you and good for the world. The careers we discuss here are far from the only decent options, but they’re some of the best we’ve looked into for people with a bachelor’s degree in biology, or closely related subjects like microbiology, molecular biology, and biochemical science, among others.
For each career, we’ll provide an overview, salary information, and an evaluation of how much positive impact you might be able to have on the job.
Impact potential: high; Salary potential: moderate
What is biosecurity?
Biosecurity is a field of work that focuses on researching and implementing measures to reduce or prevent the spread of infectious diseases, including global catastrophic biological risks posed by natural pandemics or engineered biological weapons. Such risks threaten to take the lives of huge numbers of people, as well as cause enormous economic damage. And some of the most severe biological threats, such as pathogens with both very high levels of infectiousness and fatality, pose a chance of irrecoverably damaging civilization.
Biosecurity is a broad field spanning a number of job types. A background in biology might make you a particularly good fit for technical biosecurity research (though we anticipate that some roles may require additional training, such as a postgraduate degree). Relevant public health roles might also be a good fit – indeed, we talk about public health careers later in this article! However, there are also other ways you might be able to contribute to biosecurity less connected to biology, for instance through working in relevant positions in policymaking, or advocacy.
How much impact could you have?
In short, the sheer scale of harm that pandemics can cause makes them a highly important problem. Additionally, mitigating biological risks also seems to be quite neglected – that is, even following a global pandemic, the world is plausibly still not paying enough attention to combatting future pandemics – especially those that could cause the most damage.
Furthermore, there’s lots of effective work that could be done to combat them which isn’t currently happening, making biosecurity a fruitful area for new projects and personnel. Promising work in this area could include improving disease surveillance systems and strengthening international cooperation in biosecurity, among other interventions.
For these reasons, jobs in biosecurity have the potential to have a significant positive impact, particularly if you’re able to focus on mitigating the worst-case pandemic scenarios.
Because biosecurity contains a range of sub-disciplines, we’ll give salary data for three related jobs: biochemistry, bioengineering, and epidemiology.
For biochemists, who might research viruses and pathogens in the context of biosecurity, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median salary of $102,270 (as of 2021). This is 1.89x higher than the US median salary of $54,132. Bioengineers, who work to create biomedical equipment, devices, and software – which can be relevant for biosecurity, earn a median pay of $97,410. This is 1.8x larger than the median US salary. Epidemiologists, who research how diseases spread and how they might be stopped, are reported to earn a median salary of $78,830, which is 1.46x the US median salary.
Impact potential: moderate; salary potential: moderate
What is a medical researcher?
Medical research is a broad field, consisting of various kinds of research in both academia and private industry. Medical research can consist of more applied research, such as developing new pharmaceuticals, supplements, and diagnostic equipment, or more foundational research, such as research that helps us understand the nature of different diseases, or develop new tools and techniques to improve future medical research.
A biology degree is a great background for medical research jobs. In a biology degree, you’ll get experience working in laboratories, learn how to conduct research and gain a strong knowledge of biological processes. You will likely need to undertake postgraduate study for research jobs that let you direct and conduct your own research ideas – especially in academia – but some jobs within medical research will require only a bachelor’s degree.
How much impact could you have?
Medical research has the potential to be a job that lets you achieve a lot of good – the results of the most impactful medical research can improve and save the lives of millions of people globally. For example, consider the development of messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which was licensed for Covid vaccines that saved millions of lives during the pandemic. More generally, it’s been suggested that improved pharmaceuticals – the result of medical research – have played a significant part in the increases in life expectancy in the US in recent decades.
However, there’s a huge amount of variance in how impactful careers in medical research will be. One reason for this is that lots of research isn’t optimized for impact – funding is often not directed to the most important, tractable, and neglected areas of research. It’s also really hard to know what the most impactful medical research will be before we’ve actually done the research, so there’s a degree of chance involved, too. Because of this, the majority of medical research probably won’t achieve the same huge positive impact as the recent mRNA vaccines did.
On top of this, medical research careers – especially on the academic side – can be extremely competitive to enter, even once you have a PhD. This will make it both difficult to start a career in medical research and even more difficult to get onto specific projects which look promising in terms of impact.
Our career profile on medicine contains more information about the possible positive impact of medical research careers.
Medical researcher salary
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that medical scientists earn a median salary of $95,310 (as of 2021). This is 1.77x the US median salary of $54,132.
Biological technicians – who help to conduct medical and other biology-related research, earn a median salary of $48,140, which is lower than the US median salary. It’s worth noting biological technician roles typically don’t require a PhD, unlike many roles in medical science.
Impact potential: moderate; Salary potential: moderate
What is climate science?
Climate scientists focus on the physical, chemical, and biological processes that affect the Earth’s climate, as well as understanding and working out how to mitigate the impacts of human activity on the oceans, land, atmosphere, ice sheets, and other parts of the environment. Climate scientists can be found in academia, government, and industry.
In terms of the day-to-day, climate scientists might spend their time on a range of different tasks, such as analyzing data, working with mathematical models, and writing papers and reports. Academic climate scientists may also have teaching and supervision responsibilities. Though some climate scientists engage in field work – performing tasks like surveying weather or collecting samples, this isn’t representative of typical climate science work.
A biology degree is a good option if you’d like to get a climate science job. Climate science covers a range of scientific sub-disciplines, such as natural science, physics, chemistry, geology, paleoclimatology, atmospheric science, statistics, computer science, and more. A bachelor’s in biology will let you take postgraduate study in many of these subjects, which is a big positive as many climate science jobs require postgraduate education. However, it might not be quite as useful as getting an undergraduate degree directly in one of these subjects.
How much impact could you have?
Climate science is likely to allow some people to have a really big positive impact. For one, climate change is one of the most important problems facing our planet, and there’s a lot that needs to be done to solve it. Additionally, there is a track record of climate scientists making meaningful contributions to help tackle climate change and other climate-related problems.
For example, climate scientist Syukoro Manabe pioneered the first-ever model of the Earth’s climate in 1967, forming the foundation for later work demonstrating CO2’s role in global warming, and likely bringing forward global awareness of climate change. Manabe was co-awarded a Nobel Prize in 2021.
As another example, scientists Joseph Farman, Susan Solomon, and Stephen Andersen discovered a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, leading to the 1987 Montreal Protocol banning the use of certain ozone-depleting chemicals to protect the ozone layer. It’s estimated this has prevented millions of cases of skin cancer and cataracts in the US alone.
These are inspiring examples. However, with the increased funding and attention placed on the climate in recent years, it has become a less neglected problem, likely making it harder for individuals to make big breakthroughs and contributions than in the past (because of an effect known as “marginal impact”).
We still expect that some climate scientists can have a big positive impact. However, to do the most good within climate science, it’s important to strategize about the most important problems within the climate as a whole, and work out where one can make the biggest difference. Our full career profile on climate science might be a good place to start.
Climate science salary
Climate science spans a variety of jobs, but here are the salaries for two relevant professions within climate science: atmospheric science and environmental science. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, atmospheric scientists earn a median salary of $94,570 (as of 2021). This is 1.75x the median US salary of $54,132. Environmental scientists have a median pay of $76,530, which is 1.41x the US median salary.
Public health professional
Impact potential: moderate-high; Salary potential: moderate
What is public health?
Public health focuses on improving health at the population level by preventing and protecting the public from ill health and injury. This is a broad career path, which can span various disciplines such as academic research, policy formulation and implementation, operations, advising, and advocacy (and roles often contain a combination of these).
Public health roles can be found in a wide array of organization types, like governments, NGOs, think tanks, universities, and multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO).
A biology degree is a good first step for a career in public health. One reason is that biology majors can apply their scientific knowledge to understanding how various factors influence health, and can work to develop evidence-based interventions and policies that help improve public health outcomes. Some research-focused roles within public health, such as epidemiology, might require a relevant postgraduate degree, and some jobs may require a specific master’s in public health (or related subject). Fortunately, an undergraduate degree in biology (and biomedicine especially) will make you eligible for most of these postgraduate degrees.
How much impact could you have?
Public health can let you have a great deal of positive impact. One reason for this is public health interventions are often highly cost-effective relative to other medical interventions, and some even save money while providing benefits by reducing the need for expensive treatments. Additionally, many public health roles grant large amounts of leverage – that is, influence over how large amounts of resources are spent.
However, there is quite a lot of variance within public health. Many roles – particularly those focused on people in high-income countries – are likely not to be focused on the most pressing health issues because these countries tend to already have robust public health systems.
Because of this, public health roles within low- and middle-income countries are likely to allow for particularly large amounts of positive impact. Health problems are typically much more serious and widespread here than in high-income countries, and there are a variety of effective public health interventions, such as regulating dangerous substances or improving air quality, which could significantly help high numbers of people. Public health jobs within the field of biosecurity may also be a highly promising option within the public health field.
Public health salary
For epidemiologists, who research the spread of diseases, the median salary is $78,830 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is 1.46x the US median salary. Medical and health services managers, who aren’t focused on public health but may take on some public health responsibilities, earn a median salary of $101,340. This is 1.87x the US median salary.
Impact potential: limited; salary potential: high
What is clinical medicine?
Medical Doctors work in Clinical medicine, diagnosing and treating individual patients in settings like hospitals, health centers, and clinics. There are a huge number of various specializations within clinical medicine, such as pediatrics, oncology, and emergency medicine.
So, where do biology degrees come into this? Well, in some countries, such as the US, postgraduate entry into medicine is the norm. Provided you have a degree in a related subject, of which biology is one, you’ll be eligible for medical school. In other countries, undergraduate medical degrees are the typical route into medicine, but graduate entry programs are commonly available for those who have a bachelor’s in a related subject. So, those with a biology degree or major have a suitable background for entering clinical medicine, and some of the knowledge you’ll gain in the degree will give you a helpful head start in your medical studies.
How much impact could you have?
Being a doctor is a great way to help people. However, it’s possible that the other jobs on this list might offer the chance to have a positive impact on an even larger scale. Some research estimates that doctors in high-income countries, such as the United Kingdom, might expect to save around 6 lives over a typical clinical career. This is more than most careers, but other paths we’ve investigated have opportunities to do even more good than this.
We go into much more detail about why this is the case in our full career profile on medicine. But, in short, the primary reason for this lower-than-expected impact is that we care about “counterfactual impact” – the positive difference you make when you take an action compared to what would have happened if you hadn’t acted. One way to think about it is like this: by becoming a doctor, you will directly help lots of people – but, had you not gone to medical school, it’s likely someone else similarly qualified would have gone on to become a doctor in your place.
However, it’s also worth noting that doctors in countries with very low physician density may be able to have much more impact than those in high-income countries – and that a medical degree can serve as a good launchpad for a number of other high-impact careers.
Clinical medicine salary
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2021 that physicians and surgeons earn a mean income of $208,000. This is 3.84x higher than the US median salary of $54,132. This puts clinical medicine as the highest-paying biology degree job on this list. For this reason, clinical medicine can be a great career option for those who want to have a positive impact by donating money to highly effective charities.
Impact potential: high; salary potential: moderate
What is prioritization research?
Prioritization researchers use tools from a range of disciplines – spanning economics, philosophy, and mathematics – to help work out what the world’s most pressing problems are, as well as the best ways of tackling them. These researchers work in nonprofits, think tanks, and sometimes government.
Some specific responsibilities and tasks of prioritization researchers include:
- Researching new problems and cause areas that could be high-impact to work on.
- Creating cost-effectiveness estimates of specific programs and interventions (for example, see GiveWell’s analysis of building footbridges in rural Africa and Latin America to increase access to healthcare and education).
- Writing public-facing or internal reports on your findings.
- Assisting with grantmaking decisions.
A biology degree or biology major can be a good start for a career in prioritization research. For one, it will help you to understand and interpret empirical research and data, which is often essential for prioritization research. Some prioritization research may also benefit from the specific knowledge of biological processes that a biology degree will teach you, such as some research within animal welfare. Moreover, biology degrees commonly offer quantitative components – such as statistical analysis – that may set you up for some of the more data-driven research within prioritization research.
How much impact could you have?
Prioritization research can be a really high-impact career for those who are a good fit, particularly if you stand a reasonable chance of getting into one of the most promising organizations that conduct this kind of research. Some organizations have been able to have considerable influence on important funding and policy decisions, moving large amounts of resources to high-impact areas. We go into more detail on this in our full career path profile on prioritization research.
However, it’s worth noting that this path can be very competitive, meaning there’s a high bar for entry. And because prioritization researchers tend to work on novel problems, it might not be a great fit for people who like to work on well-defined questions, or who are uncomfortable with uncertainty. Overall, though, we think it’s a job well worth considering for those who could see themselves doing this kind of research.
Prioritization research salary
You probably won’t find any job titles actually called “prioritization researcher” – it’s a term we’ve developed to describe a set of related research jobs. This means there isn’t great data on these specific jobs – but we can zoom in on similar professions.
For example, Payscale reports (as of 2023) that policy analysts earn an average salary of $63,000, which is 1.16x higher than the US median salary of $54,132. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2021 that political scientists earn a median salary of $122,510 – though this is likely to be a large overestimate for most prioritization researchers.
For roles at organizations associated with the Effective Altruism movement (which we have experience with), our sense is that prioritization researchers can earn anywhere from around $40,000 to upwards of $70-90,000.
Transferable skills from a biology degree
This has just been a short list of possible jobs you can pursue with a biology degree, but the true number of options is much higher. In fact, did you know that as many as 74% of university graduates go into careers unrelated to their degree subject or major?
The truth is your degree subject doesn’t necessarily matter that much – it’s often quite easy to pivot into a different job or career. And, luckily, a biology degree teaches some great transferable skills that can help you with many different careers. Here are some of the skills you’ll get in a biology degree:
- Research skills: A biology degree will teach you how to gather and analyze data, as well as design experiments. It will also help you learn how to read and understand academic research and draw relevant conclusions.
- Laboratory experience: During a biology degree you’ll likely spend lots of time in labs, learning how to use scientific equipment as well as the various norms and procedures involved with working in a lab.
- Communication skills: You’ll generally be expected to participate in group projects and discussions, as well as give presentations during the course of a biology degree. This will help develop your ability to communicate externally and within a team.
Our full list of career profiles gives lots of ideas for other career paths where these skills might be put to use, with a focus on having a positive social impact.