It’s easy to find familiar examples of division of labour. In a corporation, some people work in sales and others in accounting; in an orchestra, some play the bassoon and others the violin. Since no one is born an accountant or a bassoonist, in a system with division of labour, differentiated skills must be acquired. ‘Division of labour’ evokes an organisation characterised by a fit between role – what each participant does – and its natural ability.
Historically, many have found the idea of division of labour a compelling and powerful model. Plato admired it, Adam Smith explained how economies benefit from it, and Henry Ford industrialised it. But it’s not natural. A vision of human society ordered and improved by division of labour has permeated and distorted our understanding of nature. In high-school biology, for example, people are taught that a body consists of cells specialised to perform certain functions. Skin cells stick together and seal wounds, while blood cells hurtle along picking up and handing off oxygen. But different kinds of cells originate from a few identical ones, and some cells, such as stem cells, can change type. Textbooks tell us that these are merely transitory stages along the way to the ideal condition in which each cell does its particular job.
Ant colonies seem the perfect natural instance of a social system governed by division of labour. All known species of ants – now about 14,000 – live in colonies. An ant colony consists of one or more reproductive females, called ‘queens’, who lay the eggs. All the rest of the ants, the ones you see walking around, are sterile female ‘workers’, daughters of the queen and the males with whom she mated.
In the 1970s, the biologist E O Wilson set the agenda for research on ants by extolling the virtues of division of labour. He freely used metaphors from human society to describe a colony as a ‘factory within a fortress’. In this metaphor, each ant is programmed to carry out its appointed task. Some ants feed the larvae; while others go out to get food. Using a term that refers to ascribed social positions in Hindu society, Wilson called an ant’s task its ‘caste’. The idea was that an ant’s task is fixed. The implication was that the workers in an ant colony, all sisters or half-sisters, are divided into naturally fixed groups, and genetically programmed to perform a particular task. This perspective is depicted in the movie Antz (1998): a harried bureaucrat stamps each larva as a soldier or forager. Thus each ant’s role is unalterable destiny, much like the handsome and intelligent Alphas and the semi-moronic Epsilons of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931).
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We know now that ants do not perform as specialised factory workers. Instead ants switch tasks. An ant’s role changes as it grows older and as changing conditions shift the colony’s needs. An ant that feeds the larvae one week might go out to get food the next. Yet in an ant colony, no one is in charge or tells another what to do. So what determines which ant does which task, and when ants switch roles?
The colony is not a monarchy. The queen merely lays the eggs. Like many natural systems without central control, ant societies are in fact organised not by division of labour but by a distributed process, in which an ant’s social role is a response to interactions with other ants. In brief encounters, ants use their antennae to smell one another, or to detect a chemical that another ant has recently deposited. Taken in the aggregate, these simple interactions between ants allow colonies to adjust the numbers performing each task and to respond to the changing world. This social coordination occurs without any individual ant making any assessment of what needs to be done.
For millennia, ants have been held up as models for human societies, characterised by coordinated and efficient mutual regard and selfless hard work. In The Iliad, Zeus changes the ants of Thessaly to soldiers after a plague wiped out the men, creating the Myrmidons, who beat back the Trojans. Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper celebrates the ant’s capacity for delayed gratification, collecting food to be used later. Unlike the frivolous and short-sighted grasshopper, the virtuous ants contribute to their society. Aesop’s ant lugging a seed home is bringing food for the colony. Similarly, the Myrmidon’s willingness to sacrifice, in their case their lives, makes them heroic soldiers in Achilles’ army.
In 1747, when the English naturalist William Gould listed the ‘moral Instructions arising from the Sight of a Colony of Ants’, he pointed out that the ants worked ‘for the common Emolument, [that] might let us know the Consequence of Public Good’. Each ant, he observed, is dedicated to the task it ought to do for the benefit of the others. The modern scientific narrative about the division of labour that characterises ant colonies tells essentially the same story: ants demonstrate that if everyone does the job they are supposed to do, indeed were born to do, all of us are better off.
In a system organised by division of labour, each individual specialises in a particular task. The specialisation is justified because of differences among individuals in how well they perform tasks. Division of labour always entails specialisation, but it can take different forms. Plato favoured the horizontal form, in which a single actor performs each task. Adam Smith preferred the vertical, in which different people accomplish parts of a single task. Henry Ford extended and expanded the vertical form in the flow of work in a factory.
‘Why is it, every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?’
Division of labour offers advantages to human society because, among other reasons, people differ in abilities. Plato considered these differences in ability a matter of talent as well as preference:
One man is good at one thing, another at another … So more things are produced, and better things, when every man does what he can do best, without being troubled by having to do other things in addition.
For Smith, division of labour brought the advantage of learning and improvement, ‘the increase in dexterity’ that comes of repeating a task. It also brought increases in efficiency; Smith saw changing tasks as an opportunity for a workman to slack off, engaging in ‘sauntering and… indolent careless application, [which] almost always renders him slothful and lazy’.
Ford shared more of Smith’s views about division of labour than Plato’s. He didn’t care about talent or learning. ‘Why is it,’ Ford complained, ‘every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?’ Ford was interested in speed. He realised that, troubled or not, people could work faster if they didn’t have to put down one tool and pick up another.
When Wilson introduced the notion of ant colonies organised by the division of labour, he framed it as evidence that natural selection had shaped workers to do the tasks they do best. An ant emerges from a pupa as an adult of a certain size, and stays that size throughout its life. In some species, there are ants of different sizes within a colony. Wilson claimed that task and body type coincide: large ants would be soldiers, smaller ones dedicated to more domestic tasks.
In fact, the data here are sparse and contradictory. Though the largest ants are often designated as ‘soldiers’, in fights between ant species the smaller species often prevails. A large ant, for example, is helpless if six tiny ones grab each of its legs. In some species in the genus Pheidole, the large-headed ‘soldiers’ show no military inclinations; instead they tend to stay in the nest and use their large jaw muscles to crack seeds. But if there are not enough small ants to go outside and forage, the larger ones will do the same tasks as the smaller ones.
In advocating the division of labour model, Wilson argued that ant workers of a certain size performed certain tasks better than workers of another size. In this view, the leaf-cutter ants cutting the leaves were not too big, not too small, but just right for leaf-cutting. It’s an appealing theory, but there is no real evidence that ants of a certain size do one task better than others. Another challenge to the generality of the theory is that in the great majority (about 276 of 326) of genera of ants, all the ants in a colony are the same size. Moreover, regardless of size, as ant workers get older, they move from one task to another, switching tasks as circumstances require. But switching tasks, either in stages of life or in the short term, is not consistent with organisation by division of labour. However appealing it might be to imagine ant colonies organised by division of labour, the evidence tells us they are not.
What I and others have found, instead, is that the collective process of task allocation in ant colonies is based on networks of simple interactions. For example, in harvester ants, colonies regulate foraging activity, adjusting the numbers of ants currently out searching for seeds to the amount of food available. An outgoing forager does not leave the nest until it meets enough returning foragers coming back with food. This creates a simple form of positive feedback: the more food is available, the more quickly foragers find it, and the more quickly they return to the nest, eliciting more foraging. When I provide a windfall of food by placing a lovely little pile of organic millet outside the colony, ants that formerly performed other tasks switch to become foragers. Each encounter, in the form of a brief antennal contact, has no meaning to the ant, but in the aggregate, the rate of encounters determines how many ants are currently foraging.
The system that ant colonies use to organise their work is a distributed process. Like division of labour, distributed processes can take different forms. A distributed process is not the opposite of division of labour – but it’s different in important ways. Primarily, in a distributed process, there is never central control, while in division of labour there might be. A leader can tell one citizen to make candles and another to make shoes. In a distributed process this would happen through local interactions, for example with people who want to buy candles or shoes – creating demand that is filled by an entrepreneur who then meets the demand.
Most fathers might not be as good at changing diapers as most mothers but, at 3am, the finer points of technique don’t matter
At least in the short term, a system organised by a distributed process and one organised by division of labour could look the same: the same individuals could do the same task over and over. An ant might do the same task day after day. It might go out to forage, come back to the nest, engage again in the interactions that stimulate it to forage, and spend the night among other ants that recently returned from foraging. The next morning, it is again in a situation in which it is likely to forage, and this could continue day after day. However, in different conditions, the ant might do another task, and so its role is not fixed.
Distributed processes and division of labour can both be effective, but they don’t function in the same way. For division of labour, specialisation can lead to better work. By contrast, in a distributed process, the fact that individuals are interchangeable makes the whole system more robust and more resilient. If the individual who performs a task gets lost or becomes unfit to do it, another can step in. The individuals don’t have to be all alike, but the differences among them are not large enough to affect the viability of the system. Most fathers might not be as good at changing diapers as most mothers but, at 3am, the finer points of technique don’t matter. If anyone changes the diaper, the baby goes back to sleep.
The term ‘distributed process’ originated in computer science. There, it means that no single unit, such as a router in a data network, knows what all the others are doing and tells them what to do. Instead, interactions between each unit and its local connections add up to the desired outcome. Distributed processes often operate in parallel rather than in series. An assembly line works in series: the handle of the car door must be put on before the door is installed, and the door can’t be installed until the person who puts on the handle has finished. In a parallel process, different steps can be done at the same time. Suppose each worker built a car from beginning to end. Then if one worker takes a little longer to put on the door handle on one car, this will not affect when the next worker can install the door on their car. If all the tasks are relatively simple, parallel processes go much faster than serial ones. This is true of computers, in which the logic gates perform very simple tasks, creating electrical versions of 1s and 0s. Compared with processing in series, parallel processing makes it possible to accomplish far more elaborate operations in a short time.
Because data networks, such as the internet, are undergoing very rapid growth, distributed processes are attracting great interest. But they entail a fundamental departure from systems based on central control: for many distributed algorithms, the outcome is not completely predictable. Although it’s possible to say what will happen on average, what will happen in particular cases can’t be specified precisely. Such uncertainty is inimical to the hearts of engineers who love things to work the same way every time. That engineers value predictability is a good thing for all of us who cross bridges and travel in airplanes. But distributed processes have distinct advantages for certain kinds of engineered systems, such as large data or electrical networks, in which the failure of one tiny part is not critical. They create redundancy at the expense of efficiency, and sacrifice precision for solutions that are good enough most of the time.
Distributed processes also have analogues in nature. In the 1970s and ’80s, as computer scientists saw the value of distributed processes in programming, they began to point out the analogies with natural systems. Douglas Hofstadter’s influential book Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979) used ant colonies and brains as metaphors for computer systems. David Rumelhart, another computer scientist, extended this idea to neural networks, models that explain how parts of a brain might work using parallel distributed processes. Now, scientists are studying distributed algorithms throughout nature, from circuits formed by neurons in brains or the interactions of metastasising cancer cells, to the movement of a flock of starlings or school of fish.
Ants can show how distributed processes might allow us to adjust to a changing environment; to build nests, decide when to move, or change from working inside the nest to foraging outside. It is becoming clear that the ant colonies’ algorithms are diverse, in interesting ways. Similar processes are at work in other natural systems without central control. For example, although certain large regions of the brain seem to be involved in particular tasks, at the level of neurons it looks like division of labour is not the rule. The same neurons are involved in different tasks, and the same task can be accomplished by different neurons.
We say that disease, psychosis and athletic ability are ‘genetic’, as if we had little switches labelled ‘cancer’ or ‘paranoia’ or ‘endurance’ inside
It can be very difficult to let go of the idea of division of labour. Humans have always used arguments about supposedly intrinsic attributes to justify social roles. Kings ruled by divine right and ancestry, while others were slaves based on race or physical attributes. Such ideas pervade the rhetoric of US society and politics. We are told that Mexicans are rapists and Muslims are terrorists and, from the other side, a much more benign version but deriving from a similar philosophical stance: that Americans are optimistic and energetic.
Such explanations, relying on intrinsic attributes rather than relations and circumstances, also dominate our views of nature. Last summer, for instance, a bride whose father had died asked the man who received her father’s transplanted heart to give her away at her wedding. It is the heart’s job to love, therefore her father’s feelings must reside in her father’s heart. Genetic determinism is another example. We say that disease, intelligence, psychosis, athletic ability and so on are ‘genetic’, as if inside a person’s cells there were little switches labelled ‘cancer’ or ‘paranoia’ or ‘endurance’. In fact stress, sunlight, exercise and similar influences can change which genes are turned off and on. Biologists are learning that what genes do depends as much on what is happening outside as well as inside the cell.
So why is the ant colony as a factory of specialised workers such a compelling image? First, it’s familiar: a little city of ants, each carrying out its assigned job, is a miniature version of a human city. It’s comforting to imagine that each ant gets up in the morning, drinks its coffee, grabs its briefcase and goes off to work. To envisage how an ant’s task of the moment arises from a pulsing network of brief, meaningless interactions might compel us instead to ponder what really accounts for why each of us has a particular job.
Secondly, in general, explanations are often easier to accept if they invoke internal properties that are invisible and thus, like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain, do not require any further inspection. In the language of experimental science, the factors that matter but that we can’t see are said to be inside ‘a black box’. We just ignore them while investigating the others that we can see. But to say that someone does something because that is ‘who they are’, ‘how they are wired’, or that it is ‘genetic’ or a result of stuff in their brain, is no explanation at all. It just makes it possible for us to move on by begging the question. Buddha insisted that the ‘doctrine of self’, based on the notion that a person is a collection of fixed properties, is a fallacy. The alternative, that a person is a shifting flux of impressions and feelings, lacking a defined core, is difficult to grasp.
The most fundamental appeal to the idea of division of labour is, perhaps, that it provides a reassuring sense of control. If each individual’s task is not determined by his particular aptitude, then what determines who does what? It is comforting to think that at least some invisible force – and natural selection is a powerful example – has imparted an order that makes everything as it should be. For some religious people, God does this. While divine right makes one man a king, it also gives all the subjects a narrative in which all is just as it ought to be.
Reality is less soothing but much more interesting. A distributed process can be messy and not fully predictable, yet can provide greater resilience and robustness. Such distributed processes might not be ideal as one of the ‘major instruments of social stability’, in the words of the Director of Hatcheries in Brave New World, but they work beautifully in nature, from brains to ant colonies and, increasingly, in our own engineered networks.
Division of labour is a human innovation, drawing on our ability to learn and improve by practice, and to trade goods and services. The growing recognition that natural processes work differently from our symphonies and armies will allow us to see the natural world more clearly. Ant colonies are not factories or fortresses; instead they use simple interactions to adjust to changing conditions. Ant societies, organised by distributed algorithms rather than division of labour, have thrived for more than 130 million years.
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Deborah M. Gordon
is a professor of biology at Stanford University in California. She has written about her research for publications such as Scientific American and Wired. Her latest book is Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior(2010).
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Pursuing a career in biology can be immensely rewarding and exciting. Studying biology teaches us to ask questions, make observations, evaluate evidence, and solve problems. Biologists learn how living things work, how they interact with one another, and how they evolve. They may study the evolution, natural history, and conservation of plants and animals; investigate the interactions of living organisms with light, the environment, or each other; or have careers in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, or medical research. Their work increases our understanding about the natural world in which we live and helps us address issues of personal well being and worldwide concern, such as environmental degradation, threats to human health, and maintaining viable and abundant food supplies.
Frequently Asked Questions about Careers in Biology
What do biologists do?
In general, there are several career paths you can follow as a biologist, including:
Research: Research biologists study the natural world, using the latest scientific tools and techniques in both laboratory settings and the natural environment, to understand how living systems work. Many work in exotic locations around the world, and what they discover increases our understanding of biology and may be put to practical use to find solutions to specific problems. Learn more about how biological research helps to inform societal issues on the AIBS Website actionbioscience.org. Learn more about the wide variety of research interests by visiting the websites of AIBS Member Societies and Organizations.
Health care: Biologists may develop public health campaigns to defeat illnesses such as tuberculosis, AIDS, cancer, and heart disease. Others work to prevent the spread of rare, deadly diseases, such as the now infamous Ebola virus. Veterinarians tend to sick and injured animals, and doctors, dentists, nurses, and other health care professionals maintain the general health and well being of their patients. Many of these careers require additional education and training past undergraduate college, but these positions are usually in high demand both in the US and abroad. Additionally, biologists in the health care field can choose to work for organizations like the Peace Corps and Doctors Without Borders, which help bring much-needed health care services to less developed and/or war-impacted regions.
Environmental management and conservation: Biologists in management and conservation careers are interested in solving environmental problems and conserving the natural world for future generations. Park rangers protect state and national parks, help preserve their natural resources, and educate the general public. Zoo and aquarium biologists carry out endangered species recovery programs and serve as a vital education conduit to the general public. In addition, management and conservation biologists often work with members of a community such as landowners and special interest groups to develop and implement management plans. Other potential employment opportunities may exist with state/federal natural resource agencies, not-for-profit conservation organizations, private ecological consulting firms, or wildlife rehabilitation centers.
Education: Life science educators enjoy working with people and encouraging them to learn new things, whether in a classroom, a research lab, the field, or a museum. You can gain insight into what biology education professionals are working toward and achieving by visiting the AIBS Education Programs Office, where you will find updates on institutional reform efforts, information on new and exciting ways of teaching biological concepts, and novel resources for biology classroom education. You can also learn about how biology professionals are connecting with each other to advance the public understanding of science by visiting the COPUS website.
- Colleges and universities: Professors and lecturers teach introductory and advanced biology courses. They may also mentor students with projects and direct research programs. Many biology faculty at colleges and universities engage in their own research and serve as reviewers or editors for scientific journal publications, members of working groups and advisory boards, and as part of research collaborations with scientists from other institutions.
- Primary and secondary schools: Teaching younger students requires a general knowledge of science and skill at working with different kinds of learners. High school teachers often specialize in biology and teach other courses of personal interest. There is a high demand for educators that are trained in biological sciences and have strong backgrounds in K-12 education, classroom management, and primary/secondary school administration.
- Science museums, zoos, aquariums, parks, and nature centers: Educators in these settings may design exhibits and educational programs, in addition to teaching special classes or leading tours and nature hikes. Often, these professionals serve as an organization’s “front line” and are responsible for communicating complex biological information to the public, writing grant proposals to fund new programs and exhibits, and working with community partners to leverage resources and gain exposure on local and national levels.
Other directions in biological careers: There are many careers for biologists who want to combine their scientific training with interests in other fields. Here are some examples:
- Biotechnology: Biologists apply scientific principles to develop and enhance products, tools, and technological advances in fields such as agriculture, food science, and medicine. Scientists in this field may work in genetic engineering, pharmaceutical development, or medical technologies (such as nanomedicine), or as a lab technician or technologist. You can learn more about biotechnology opportunities and issues by visiting actionbioscience.org Biotechnology and reading new articles, particularly those sponsored by the partnership between AIBS and the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research (NWABR).
- Forensic science: Forensic biologists work with police departments and other law enforcement agencies using scientific methods to discover and process evidence that can be used to solve crimes. Biologists in forensic science often choose a specialty, such as forensic odontology, forensic anthropology, crime scene examination, or—with additional education and training—medical examiner.
- Politics and policy: Science advisors work with lawmakers to create new legislation on topics such as biomedical research and environmental protection. Their input is essential, ensuring that decisions are based upon solid science. Professional biologists can serve as policy advocates for scientific organizations or non-profits, political advisors at the state or national level, or even as a representative serving on a political committee or working group. You can learn more about the interface between biology and politics by visiting the AIBS Public Policy Office, where you can find information on current legislative initiatives and how to advocate for science and research policy, as well as sign up to receive AIBS Action Alerts to help express your opinions on biology issues to political decisionmakers. You can also visit actionbioscience.org Science Policy for detailed information about scientific collections, science education, and more.
- Business and industry: Biologists work with drug companies and providers of scientific products and services to research and test new products. They may also work in sales, marketing, and public relations positions.
- Economics: Trained professionals work with the government and other organizations to study and address the economic impacts of biological issues, such as species extinctions, forest protection, and environmental pollution. Biologists may also study the impacts of socio-economics on humans, environmental economics (an economic analysis of the environment with a focus on preserving natural capital), or ecological economics (the study of how human economies and natural ecosystems are linked in time and space).
- Mathematics: Biologists in fields such as bioinformatics and computational biology apply mathematical techniques to solve biological problems, such as modeling ecosystem processes and gene sequencing. Mathematical and theoretical biology are two recent scientific fields that use mathematical representations and tools to both understand and model biological processes in other research areas, including cell biology, biotechnology, and ecosystem dynamics.
- Science writing and communication: Journalists and writers with a science background inform the general public about relevant and emerging biological issues. Biologists with excellent writing and communication skills can be employed by high-profile journals—such as Nature and Science—as well as online magazines and science blogs or print/media networks (e.g., Discovery and National Geographic).
- Art: All of the illustrations in your biology textbook, as well as in newspaper and magazine science articles, were created by talented artists with a thorough understanding of biology. Individuals in this field may be employed by magazines and journals (e.g., Scientific American), museums and aquaria, hospitals and medical training centers, or even state and local government agencies.
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How can I prepare for a career in biology?
If you are interested in becoming a biologist, there are some things you can do along the way to prepare yourself.
In high school
- Take courses in math and science. Biologists need a solid understanding of math, chemistry, physics, and of course biology. Taking these courses in high school will provide you with an excellent background and allow you to explore the wide range of what scientists do for a living.
- Talk to biologists. If you are interested in a health care career, visit doctors or veterinarians and ask for a moment to speak with them about their careers and education. If you are interested in outdoor work, talk to park rangers, land managers, and other professionals in your area.
- Explore your college options. Deciding where to attend college and what to study can be a daunting task. Research schools of interest, both on the internet and—if possible—through arranged campus visits and tours. Talk to your high school guidance counselor, as well as to admissions counselors, faculty, and current students at these schools. There are excellent programs at a wide range of institutions, from large research universities to small liberal arts and community colleges.
- Have fun! While academics are important, remember to get out and enjoy yourself as well. Participate in any extracurricular activities of interest: a school club, a science fair, a sports team, or volunteer work. You'll learn teamwork and commitment while developing leadership and social skills, making you stand out not only as a future biologist but also as an individual.
- Talk to your advisor. Your faculty advisor or guidance counselor is a great source of information for advice on classes to take, career path options, and job opportunities.
- Consider how long you want to be in school. For some biology jobs, a two-year college degree is sufficient. But most life science careers require at least a bachelor's degree and often an advanced degree, such as a master's degree. Research jobs typically require a doctorate, which may take five or six years of intense and demanding training.
- Ask your professors about part-time jobs. Many professors hire student assistants to help with library, field, and laboratory research. Not only will you earn some money and experience, but you'll also develop a professional relationship with someone who can give you career advice and write letters of recommendation.
- Find summer internships. Internships are a great way to learn about a career, make contacts, and gain experience in biology. Some internships may provide opportunities to do an original research project—a very rewarding experience that will show you how science works and get you thinking about graduate school.
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Where are the best college and university biology programs?
There are many universities with strong biology programs. There is no "best" college to study biology. If you are considering a biology degree, search for a school that fits your needs, budget, and lifestyle. Large research universities offer broad course work, a variety of specialized concentrations, and many opportunities for independent research. However, there is often strong competition for such opportunities at these institutions, as well as larger class/lab sizes with less individualized attention. Smaller colleges allow for small class sizes, individualized instruction, and frequent interaction with professors. At the same time, smaller schools may have less diverse course offerings and fewer opportunities for financially supported research. In general, there are several key elements that make up a solid biology program at a college or university:
Faculty diversity and experience
- Most faculty members hold PhD degrees and have active, productive research programs, or are connected to research programs at a nearby institution.
- The faculty is an accurate representation of the diversity of biological disciplines: botanists, evolutionary biologists, zoologists, biochemists, cell biologists, ecologists, physiologists, taxonomists, and so on. Either the biology program contains faculty members in diverse fields, or the university has several individual departments that complement each other.
Commitment to undergraduate education
- Courses are taught by faculty members, not graduate students.
- The institution has an active faculty advisor program and an active career advising/career development program.
- The curriculum includes a variety of courses that provide a strong background in the natural and social sciences, humanities, and writing, while still allowing students to pursue their individual interests.
- Well-equipped libraries with Internet access to biology journals, and easily accessible computer labs for student use.
Research opportunities for undergraduates
- Faculty welcome students into their research groups as part-time workers, interns, and research assistants.
- Opportunities are available for undergraduates to pursue independent research projects.
- There are programs and centers that suit a student's particular interest; for example, a field station to study ecology, a state-of-the-art genetics lab, or a marine station to study marine biology.
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What is the job outlook for the future?
While there will always be a need for bright, energetic, and educated individuals with a strong understanding of biology, opportunities vary depending on the status of local and national economies. For current job outlook information, check the Occupational Outlook Handbook, published every two years by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This online handbook is searchable by occupation group (including Life, Physical, and Social Science) and includes information on median pay, job outlook, minimum required education, and more.
Job growth is expected in a number of areas, biotechnology and molecular biology in particular. Business leaders have begun to address the issue of creating more science and technology jobs in the United States to prevent them from being exported. For more information, take a look at the report (in PDF format) Tapping America's Potential: Gaining Momentum, Losing Ground, a 2008 progress report following the initial 2005 report, Tapping America's Potential: The Education for Innovation Challenge. You may also want to read Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, a report presented by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). An Eye on Education column in the July 2012 issue of Bioscience speaks to the report's findings in the context of the importance of two-year colleges.
Also, the number of openings in federal government agencies charged with managing natural resources, such as the Interior and Agriculture Departments and the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to grow; see the report (in PDF format) Federal Natural Resources Agencies Confront an Aging Workforce and Challenges to Their Future Roles. These openings will become available as many senior-level biologists and life scientists retire in the coming years.
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What are the salaries for biologists?
The National Association of Colleges and Employers 2012 Salary Survey reported a median starting salary of $38,300 for graduates with a bachelor's degree in the biological/life sciences, up from $37,900 in 2011. Data from the 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook show that 2010 median starting salaries for positions in the life sciences ranges from $33,000 (Food Science Technician or Forest Conservation Technician with an Associate's degree) to $55,000 (Forensic Scientist or Zoologist/Wildlife Biologist with a Bachelor's degree) to upwards of $70,000 (Biochemists and Biophysicists with Doctoral degrees). Keep in mind that salaries may vary greatly depending on geographic location, job type, and the experience and education required for entry-level positions.
Higher salaries are often found in private research companies and government agencies, where you may have more job security, advancement opportunities, and independence in your work. While jobs in nonprofit groups or academic institutions may have lower salaries, many biologists find great personal reward in working for an organization that is affecting change and has an emphasis on teamwork and collaboration
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Where can I find more information about people who have become biologists?
If you think there's one type of person who becomes a biologist, think again. All kinds of people with diverse talents are drawn to careers in biology, for many reasons. Get to know a few and you'll see. Here are links to profiles of biologists in a variety of fields who come from a wide range of backgrounds:
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Where can I find more information and job postings for biology-related careers?
The AIBS monthly journal BioScience has often published articles relevant to biology careers.
Here are some examples:
AIBS member societies and organizations are an excellent place to start looking for jobs, graduate school opportunities, and other career-related resources. Other web resources are listed below.
Links to AIBS Member Societies and Organizations Web Sites.
General career development and job hunting sites
Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs
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