Career Opportunities in Biology

This section includes brief descriptions of a few selected careers in biology and medicine, and how they relate to the Biology major at Muhlenberg. We have included some suggested courses for each career goal to help you think about how to organize your curriculum around your goals.

Biomedical Research :: Cancer Research :: Cell/Molecular Biology :: Genetics :: Developmental Biology
There are currently abundant opportunities in academic institutions, medical schools, the government, and pharmaceutical industry for individuals with training in modern biotechnology. You can work in these settings with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree as a technician, or as a scientist with a Ph.D. Many students may work for one or two years following graduation in one of these settings with only their B.S. from Muhlenberg. A lifetime career in one of these areas generally requires a Ph.D., although there now exist some specialized M.S. programs that are designed to prepare students for a technical career in the biotechnology industry. Currently, individuals with an M.D. are working in these areas, but this is likely to decrease in the future, given changes in the American medical establishment. If you are interested in working in one of these areas, even for a relatively short period of time, you should plan to take: Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, Genetics, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology. You should also take two years of Chemistry, a year of Physics, Calculus, and perhaps Physical Chemistry, particularly if you are interested in a biochemically-oriented position (e.g., working in a pharmaceutical setting). Laboratory research experience is generally required for admission to graduate programs.

The expectations for graduate study and a career in Neuroscience are similar to the above section, with additional emphasis on Psychology. Students interested in a career in Neuroscience should take the usual two years of Chemistry, and one year each of Physics and Calculus. Upper level Biology courses that you should take include: Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Comparative Anatomy, Development Biology, General Physiology, Molecular Biology, Neurobiology, Advanced Topics in Neuroscience, and Transmission Electron Microscopy. Courses in other Departments include: Mind and Brain, Introductory Psychology, Cognitive Processes, Biological Psychology, Sensation and Perception, and Philosophy of Mind. Once again, laboratory research experience is an expectation of graduate programs in this area.

Ecology :: Evolutionary Biology
Students interested in careers as a professional ecologist or evolutionary biologist should prepare for graduate school. Individuals work in these fields with Bachelors’, Masters’, and Ph.D. degrees. If you are interested in a career in these areas you should take Ecology, Evolution, Field Botany and Plant Ecology, and Genetics. You will also need to take Statistics, and a year of Physics, Calculus, and Chemistry. Significant field research experience is also a must. You may also want to enroll in Botany, Comparative Anatomy, Ethology, General Physiology, Molecular Biology, Ornithology, Physiological Ecology, Plant Evolutionary Biology, Zoology, the special field experience trips to Costa Rica and/or Bermuda, and Advanced Statistics.

Applied Ecology :: Environmental Management :: Forestry
Students majoring in Biology may seek employment or graduate education in applied ecology and related fields. If you are interested in one of these areas plan on taking Ecology, Field Botany and Plant Ecology, Genetics, and Conservation and Restoration Ecology (to be added to the curriculum soon). You should also enroll in Statistics, Microeconomics, and complete a year of Physics, Calculus, and Chemistry. Other courses you should consider are: Botany, Ethology, General Physiology, Physiological Ecology, Plant Evolutionary Biology, Ornithology, Invertebrate Zoology, the special field experiences in Costa Rica and Maine, and Advanced Statistics. Significant field research experience is of paramount importance.

Peace Corps
Biology students may wish to apply their science background and obtain real world experience by volunteering for the Peace Corps en route to various careers. Muhlenberg Biology Graduates have worked in forestry in Honduras, fisheries in Zambia, and on environmental education in South East Asia. A number of graduate programs are linked to the Peace Corps. The application process should begin early in the fall of your senior year. For more information contact one of the Peace Corps Liaisons: Dr. Edwards or Dr. Niesenbaum.

Clinical Medicine : Dentistry :: Podiatry :: Optometry :: Veterinary Medicine
If you plan to apply to a health professional school, you should follow the curriculum recommended by the Health Professions office. Consult with that office as soon as possible, preferably by your Sophomore year. Most medical schools require one year of English, two years of Chemistry, one year of Biology, one year of Physics, and at least one semester of Calculus. Some programs require a semester of Biochemistry and a year of social science (typically Psychology and Sociology). Students who are interested in Optometry school are encouraged, and in some cases may be required, to take Calculus, Statistics and Microbiology. Within the Biology major, we strongly recommend that students interested in medical school enroll in Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Genetics, and General Physiology before the end of the junior year. Taking these courses will help you prepare for the MCAT or other standardized test. Other courses that might help you once you enroll in your chosen professional school include: Comparative Anatomy, Developmental Biology, Histology, Microbiology, Neurobiology, and Molecular Biology.

Genetic Counseling
Genetic Counselors provide counseling on matters relating to genetics and health to individuals in a clinical setting. A career in this field generally requires a graduate degree (usually a Master’s) from an accredited institution. These programs generally require course work in: Biochemistry, Genetics, and Molecular Biology. Course work in Statistics and Psychology is also frequently required. Biology Majors interested in careers as Genetic Counselors should also consider taking Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, and General Physiology. Laboratory research experience is a significant asset and direct clinical experience expected.

Physician’s Assistant
In recent years there has been some interest in careers as Physician’s Assistants from Biology Majors. Most physician assistant programs require applicants to have previous health care experience and some college education. The typical applicant has a bachelor's degree and over 4 years of health care experience. Nurses, EMTs, and paramedics frequently apply to PA programs. This career is not for those who could not obtain admission to medical school. In addition to the standard two years of Chemistry students interested in careers as a PA should take: Biochemistry, Comparative Anatomy, Developmental Biology, Genetics, and General Physiology. Many PA programs may also require Human Anatomy and Physiology, however this course is not part of the Biology major. Some programs expect Molecular Biology, Microbiology and/or a year of Physics. Students should be aware that most programs require significant health-related practical experience. Consult with the Health Professions Office for more information, as soon as possible.

Physical Therapy
Some Biology Majors may be interested in pursuing careers in Physical Therapy. The minimum educational requirement is a 4-year college degree in Physical Therapy from an accredited program. Muhlenberg College, like most liberal arts colleges, does not have a PT program. However, many programs now offer a Master's Degree in PT and after 2002, graduate degrees will be required to work in the field. Most PT programs require Human Anatomy and Physiology, however this course is not part of the Biology major. Most also require course work in Psychology, Chemistry, Physics and Statistics. Biology majors interested in Physical Therapy should consider taking Biochemistry, Comparative Anatomy and General Physiology. Significant preparation outside of course work, such as performing internships, is also expected. Consult with the Health Professions Office, as soon as possible.

Some Comments about Graduate School in Biology
For many careers in Biology, graduate study is advisable, and even required in some cases. For some careers (see above) you may be able to do independent research with a Masters’ degree. In others, a Ph.D. is required, and many programs may not even offer a Masters’ degree. Talk to the faculty members with expertise in your area of interest (see section II) as soon as you have decided that graduate study might be for you. They will be your best resources for guidance in what courses to take, what type of research to do, where to do it, and so on. Note that undergraduate research experience is not an asset for many programs, it is a requirement.

Should you go to graduate school?
The decision to go to graduate school is appropriate if you desire a career in scientific research, industry, or education. Never go to graduate school because you “do not know what else to do.” In this case, you will be better served by seeking employment and delaying enrollment in graduate school until you have a plan.

How do you apply to graduate school?
The application process is similar to that for other educational ventures. However, students usually apply to a specific program, or even to work with a specific individual scientist, rather than to an institution at large. Most programs have application deadlines in November, December, or January for admission the following Fall.

How much does graduate school cost?
Frequently nothing, in fact they may pay you. Most graduate programs pay for your tuition and most will offer teaching or research fellowships that will provide you with a modest income while you are in graduate school. If you have a strong academic record and have done undergraduate research, you should apply for a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship. These prestigious awards provide full tuition and approximately $20,000/year stipend. Consult the Science Graduate Awards advisor, Dr. Wightman, for more information.

To which graduate programs should you apply?
This will vary from one field to another. A famous institution might have a few very weak graduate programs in addition to many strong ones. Discuss this issue with an appropriate faculty member from the Department. For graduate study in the broadly-defined area of cell and molecular biology, make sure that the program has an NIH-training grant in place. These grants provide funding for your tuition and a stipend for living expenses. Lack of an NIH-training grant is evidence of a weak graduate program. For graduate study in all areas, you should never restrict yourself geographically, unless you have a compelling reason. Applying only to graduate programs in the immediate area is one of the most common mistakes students make. Your future employability is significantly shaped by the reputation and quality of the graduate program you attend!

M.S. or Ph.D.?
Think about your long term goals before committing to a particular degree program. In some fields, such as molecular biology, obtaining a Masters’ degree may actually make you less competitive for subsequent application to Doctoral programs. Many of the best programs in biomedical research no longer offer M.S. degrees. However, if you want to work in a technical capacity only, you may be more employable with a Masters’ degree than with a Doctoral degree. In other fields, such as many field -oriented disciplines, getting an M.S. is a common step along the way to earning an eventual Ph.D.

How long will graduate study take?
Most Masters’ programs take 2-3 years to complete and may involve significant course work. In contrast, Doctoral programs take 5-8 years (sometimes even more!) and generally involve less course work or more independent research. Keep in mind that graduate study is very different than undergraduate study. You will spend much less time in classes and studying, and much more time working on independent research. Thus, much of the time spent in graduate school will feel more like a job than like school. Except it’s a really fun job!