A student works in a laboratory.
Choosing between biology vs. chemistry as a major? Read on to learn about what makes each discipline unique so you can make the most well-informed decision.

Biology vs. Chemistry: A Major Decision


Jacob Imm

Mar 05, 2020

Biology vs. Chemistry: A Major Decision

Trying to weigh the big decision: biology vs. chemistry? Read on to learn about what makes each discipline unique so you can make the most well-informed decision about becoming a biology, chemistry, or biochemistry major.

What do I learn from biology courses?

Biology is the study of life, meaning anything that eats and breathes falls under the subject. What you do with living things covers a range of skills including classifying them, charting their evolution, cataloging all the various types of them, and of course studying how they’re put together.

As you most likely know, biology is a natural science—along with physics, chemistry, astronomy, and Earth science—one from which a ton of other, more specialized areas of science start. As such, the study of biology lends itself to a wide range of skills and concepts that can be applied to a host of different careers. 

Biology teaches data analysis first and foremost. In your courses, you’ll learn how to gather information quantitatively and then determine what the numbers tell you. “Just because” is not ever enough for biologists, and every hunch has to be backed up by numerical data. Once you get a handle on what data tells you, you’ll learn to predict trends and behavior based on factors at hand. Biology involves acting to prevent problems in living things as much as reacting to and studying what they do.

Biology is not all numbers, however. Scientific data is often difficult or intimidating for audiences, so biologists have to be experts in clear, concise presentation of ideas through both their speaking and writing.

Biology students have to be in love with the scientific method—knowing how to design and execute experiments. Identifying constants and variables and running plenty of tests to make sure you are ready for any eventuality are skills that cross many disciplines, but biology absolutely depends on these skills.

You also need to be comfortable, and preferably excited, about learning the latest technology and trying new tools. Any scientist needs to be at one with their instruments, so gadget love is a big plus.

So, what do I do with my bachelor’s degree in biology?

More like what don’t you do. Biology is a gateway to a lot of career paths, and a grounding in the subject will always be highly sought after by employers.

You’ll soon find you can stop asking, “What can you do with a biology degree?” and discover that biology has numerous specific concentrations, and choosing one will do a lot to help you focus your career options. You can work in marine biology, studying aquatic life; microbiology, specializing in living things you can’t see with the naked eye; genetics, looking at heredity and how beings evolve; bioinformatics, using computer technology to predict and detail natural occurrences; and biochemistry, which we will discuss more later.

You probably think first of biology leading to a job doing research, and that’s true—a lot of biologists make time in the lab during their career. They work primarily for academic institutions on specific projects, publishing studies and reviewing articles from others. Lab jobs can also be part of private companies or government offices, working on product testing or prevention of infectious diseases.

Biology degrees lead often to work in environmental management, helping consulting firms and nonprofit organizations work on conservation efforts and generate information to help lobby the government. 

One of the more popular paths starting from biology goes into healthcare, whether as a medical doctor, medical researcher, nurse practitioner, public health specialist, dentist or veterinarian. On the other hand, biology may lead you on a path to a different degree, such as one in public health. If this interests you, see more to answer the question “What is a public health degree?” on our blog!

Another popular area stemming from biology is engineering, specifically applying engineering principles to living systems. Biological engineers can work in healthcare designing medical devices, in environmental science agencies creating cleaner and more efficient ways to process fuel, or with major manufacturers and farms helping to create sustainable ways to produce food.

Other jobs biology majors tend to get that are a bit surprising are personal trainers, dieticians and nutritionists, and writers and illustrators for scientific textbooks, guides and journals.

And you can always do more within the educational world, by going for an advanced degree in biology, or doing advanced research and teaching on the biology faculty at a college or university.

But is it a good idea to get into these careers?

We mentioned above that there is always demand for expertise in biology, but you should know just how much. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that through the next six years or so, common jobs of biology majors figure to be in higher demand, not lower. Healthcare, business and engineering jobs coming from biology backgrounds will grow the most, unfortunately because of mounting challenges to our bodies and the environment.

Going into dentistry is one lucrative example—the BLS predicts 19% growth for dental professionals through 2026 with an average annual salary of over $156,000. Some more specific examples of jobs that will see growth through 2026 include zoologists (8% growth), biochemists (11%), medical scientists (13%) and genetic counselors (29%).

As with most industries, jobs that bio majors tend to get scale up in terms of your highest degree and experience level. While you might have to work your way up with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, you can walk into a high-paying position as a researcher or consultant if you have a master’s or doctoral degree in biology. But in any case, a biology degree is a good place to start. According to Payscale, the average starting salary for biology majors in entry-level jobs is $53K, rising to $102K for biology majors late in their careers.

All right, what can I learn from courses in chemistry?

Beyond many of the same basic skills you get from biology, chemistry—the study of how substances are put together as well as how they transform over time—gets into great detail on scientific ethics. Chemical testing involves a lot of complicated processes that can be potentially hazardous. Not to mention that effective results of chemical experimentation, specifically in organic chemistry, can sometimes only come from testing on living things. Being able to balance the value of safety with the need for scientific development can be fraught, and so a chemist has plenty of opportunities to wrestle with ethical questions.

Chemistry students also need to be creative. So much of the science relies on testing chemical reactions, so a chemist learns to be willing to try combinations and work from a careful combination of theories and facts to find out more about natural life. Inorganic chemistry and synthetic chemistry depend on new ways of looking at the chemical composition of objects and uncovering their unknown properties.

You also learn to see things as the sum of their parts. Analytical chemistry includes a lot of separating substances into their components to find out how they come together. You’ll become precise in your exploration and able to see complicated patterns of structure where others only see a flat picture.

What can I do with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry?

Similar to biology, careers in chemistry are often dependent on what area of chemistry you specialize in. Pre-health is a common path for chemistry majors, leading to careers in drug and medicine development—finding cures, therapies and even preventive measures for a wide range of diseases and physical problems.

Another popular route for chemistry majors is to get into forensic chemistry, where you can apply your skills to aid in criminal investigations. Not only will you need to be well-versed in toxicology, osteology—the study of the structure and function of the human skeleton and bones—and textile chemistry, but you’ll need to know a lot about the criminal justice system.

Chemical engineering is the area a lot of people associate most closely with chemistry. This is where you use your chemical knowledge to help produce consumer products, like food and fuel, as well as medical devices like drug delivery systems and even artificial organs. You can also work closely with architects, designing the structural elements of buildings as well as inspecting them to make sure they are safe, up to code, and structurally sound.

As with biology, there are also plenty of government and educational jobs waiting for those with a degree in chemistry. You could be a development researcher for the military or NASA, a consultant for the auto industry, or a policy specialist helping get laws written regarding drugs and other industrial materials. And of course you can research or teach at a college or university, or teach at the junior high and high school levels if you like the idea of working with younger children.

Then there is biochemistry, sometimes called biological chemistry, where these two main areas meet. This is where scientists seek an understanding of chemical reactions in biological systems. If you are interested in what happens when we or other animals eat, how four chemicals can add up to the human gene sequence of every living thing, how and why we get sick, or how blood carries so much importance in keeping the body going, then you can try out this cross-section of chemistry and biology.

Jobs in biochemistry tend to involve a lot of lab time as a researcher, but they can cross areas from medicine to pharmaceuticals to corporate work. If interested in pharmaceuticals, make sure you are aware of all the pharmacist education requirements.

How is the money and job security?

Jobs for chemists are also on the rise, with a predicted 4% growth through 2028, according to the BLS. That should add up to about 3,500 jobs added to the U.S. economy over 10 years. Some of the fastest-growing positions are registered nurses (12% occupational growth) and food scientists (7%).

The value of a career in chemistry is just as dependent on time in school and experience as one in biology, but the difference is that rather than in medicine itself like for biologists, the most secure jobs for chemists are in supplying to doctors. Drug manufacturers are the biggest employers of chemists in the United States, according to Data USA, with more than 300,000 employees in this country making an average annual salary of more than $104K. 

Government jobs are harder to come by, as you might imagine, but can actually pay more to the tune of an average salary over $114K. There are also successful careers to be had in architecture and engineering ($67K), research ($92K), and manufacturing of non-health-related chemicals ($88K).

Which one do I choose?

Ultimately, the choice comes down to what you most want to spend your time doing over the next few years. Both chemistry and biology will give you plenty of opportunities to learn complicated systems, perform experiments, analyze data and dig under the surface of what we observe in the world every day.

Biology has more of a hard and fast set of rules, and involves a bit more observation and noting of facts. Chemistry, meanwhile, is a bit more about trial and error, breaking things down to build them back up again. Biology may put you in the classroom or the field more while chemistry will have you in the lab.

There’s also the question of motivation. While certainly not always, biology tends to be about the study and protection of living things. It can be plenty lucrative, but is often not geared in that direction. Chemistry, by contrast, can be more about entrepreneurship and developing products that will improve people’s lives, including yours when those products are sold. Chemists still do plenty of good for the world, too, but as a set of careers, chemistry represents goods and biology represents services.

Whichever you choose, you will want to study the subject at a reputable school with proven faculty and excellent facilities. North Central College offers degree programs in biology, chemistry and biochemistry, with opportunities to do research from the first day of college, top-flight internships and partnerships with some of the leading companies in America, and cutting-edge technology to keep you up-to-date with the skills and expertise employers want.

Find out more and learn how to apply at northcentralcollege.edu/apply.

Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 10 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.