North Central College biology students working on an experiment.

Is Biology Hard as a Major

Jacob Imm

Nov 10, 2021

Is Biology Hard as a Major?

As you prepare for college, you’ve got plenty to think about. One of the simplest and most honest questions that every prospective student has is, “How hard is it going to be?” While it’s true that you will not really know how difficult college is when compared to high school until you experience it for yourself, that can’t stop you from wondering. And college students may tell you in certain majors, every test is an “impossible” exam, or that no one who starts them ever finishes.

What if you are interested in biology as a major? Maybe you got a good grade on your AP Biology exam or your biology CLEP (College Level Exam Program). Perhaps you are interested in working in science after you get your degree. Or you’ve just heard biology majors make a lot of money. You want to know, but you are afraid to ask, “Is biology hard?”

You have come to the right place. This helpful guide will provide important information from people who know and will give you plenty to think about so you can take the most vital step to making any major easier—start getting ready for it now.

What can you expect from a Biology major? 

Like all majors, your first year or so of college will start with introductory biology courses. These will give you a foundation of knowledge in the subject that will help you throughout the major as well as give you a chance to find out how comfortable you are with it. Usually, you will take these courses along with some of your other required courses as you essentially learn how to be a college student.

At North Central College, for example, the “core courses” for any general biology major are called Investigating Biology, Cells and Systems, Ecology and Evolution, Genes and Genomics, and Biostatistics.

Biology classes offer a lot of variety from day to day and course to course, especially the further you get in your degree program. 

Advanced medical school student Will Peach, writing in on his Medical School Guide, said, “Biology is taught at many different levels from diverse perspectives. There’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ (biology) class. Some biology courses will have a lab and expect you to do experiments. Others can be purely theoretical and demonstrate biological principles to you with videos and text.”

According to Lindsay VanSomeren in Best Colleges, upper-level biology courses you might get to choose from can include:

  • Anatomy and physiology              
  • Animal behavior              
  • Biochemistry     
  • Cancer biology  
  • Cell biology        
  • Ecology                
  • Entomology       
  • Evolution            
  • Genetics (and Human biology)
  • Ichthyology
  • Microbiology
  • Nutrition
  • Ornithology
  • Plant biology
  • Population genetics
  • Zoology

Many schools will also give you the chance to supplement your knowledge in biology with classes in neuroscience or physical science like chemistry or physics that count toward your major. As the study of life, biology is closely linked to numerous other branches of science, and it is important for a biologist to see how the areas connect. You can learn more about those connections with our articles: “Physiology vs Biology: What's the Difference?” and “Biology vs Chemistry Majors.”

Advanced courses also give you a chance to find out what particular parts of biology interest you the most and could potentially become your sole focus. That will help you when you’re making decisions about what comes after graduation, whether it be going for an advanced degree, searching for a particular job, or both. It may also determine whether you alter your major to be in biology alone, a certain area like molecular biology, or a related field such as quantum mechanics, physiology or organic chemistry.

What skills do I need to study biology? 

Now that you have a better idea of what the courses might cover and what you’ll be doing in class, you might still be worried about whether you have what it takes to get the job done. 

Broadly speaking, biology is a comparatively simple science major to get into without a huge amount of training or expertise in the subject. One advantage students and professors will point out is that there is less complex mathematics to do in biology compared to your average science class in another subject. In fact, many schools—like North Central College—offer bachelor of arts degrees in biology as well as a bachelor of science degrees. If you are wondering, “Biology BA vs BS: what’s the difference?” read our helpful guide on the subject.

That’s what you don’t have to do. So what can you do now to make sure that first biology exam or class doesn’t knock you right on your back? Jonathan Visick, professor of biology at North Central College, offers an efficient guide to your preparation: “In my opinion, the three best things a pre-college student can do to prepare to be a great biology major are:

1) Become a voracious reader: Develop a love for books and set goals to read many good books--science and non-science--every year. Much of what we learn in science we learn by reading, and a great reader will be a great learner.
2) Become a strong, persuasive writer. Science students and working scientists live and die by their skill in writing - from lab reports and term papers to scientific articles and grant proposals.
3) Become comfortable with mathematical thinking: Every part of biology requires quantitative skills--not necessarily high-level math, but the ability to use math comfortably and well.”

Visick stressed that these skills will fill in the gaps that your courses will not be able to cover when they are teaching you the skills you only read about in your biology textbook. He said, “In college, we can help you learn the ideas of all areas of biology, as well as how to use instruments, how to analyze data, how to develop a hypothesis, or how to design an experiment. But it's much harder to develop strong reading, writing, and math skills in college if you haven't already planted the seeds.”

Find out more about North Central College

Things to consider before majoring in this degree 

Earlier we discussed reasons why you might want to pursue biology. Everyone is different, but no matter why you think the subject seems interesting, it is helpful to have some facts to back up assumptions you might make about biology before you decide whether it is right for you.

To begin with, there is the money question. Is it worth it financially to get into biology? As with most things in life, it depends on what you do with your degree.

The sciences are a great specialty to have because they are highly sought after—every kind of workplace needs people who know about science. We rely on science to live our daily lives, and that is why any biology course can be tough: there is a lot to know, and it’s important you learn it thoroughly before you enter the workplace and people depend on you to use what you’ve learned.

Jobs you can get with a biology degree, which we will discuss more shortly, often compensate you very well for all the time you spend in school. Becoming a doctor is the most common example of this, and many pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology because they are a pre-med student looking to go on to med school.

Some biology jobs, however, require almost as much schooling and dedicated time at work, but don’t pay quite as well. 

As VanSomeren said, “For example, although the median salary for physicians and surgeons is above $200,000, high school teachers, wildlife biologists, and foresters all earn about $60,000 annually.”

So it may not be all about the money for you—and really, no choice of a career should be all about the money. You also need to consider whether working in biology will help you make a difference in the world. So, why study biology & why is biology important? 

Robert S. Balan said in Study Portals, “Although there’s no such thing as a ‘good or bad’ time to become a biologist, the truth is, many of the issues we are facing today are somehow connected to biology:

  • Reducing carbon dioxide without creating side effects
  • Using antibiotics without creating super-resistant bacteria
  • Dealing with invasive species from other habitats
  • Creating resistant and easy-to-produce materials that are reusable
  • Designing the future of agriculture, crops, and food supplies,”

Those are just a few examples that don’t even include the increased need for good people in studies of virology and immunology that we will continue to desperately need for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Well, what about having a job you like showing up for day after day? Is biology rewarding or fun as a career field?

Visick weighed in by saying, “I think that studying biology is more exciting now than ever! We have a staggering amount of genetic knowledge and tools for manipulating genomes than we ever had before. We can apply amazing satellite technology to analyzing ecosystems and powerful computer technology to designing drugs. We can imagine the human body in ways that would have been hard to imagine even a few decades ago. And our interconnectedness allows us to share information and learn from each other in remarkable new ways.”

Potential career paths

If any of that sounded like something you could see yourself doing, let’s keep going and talk about some details on what sort of careers you should look for with a degree in biology.

Biology makes a wealth of careers possible, with a number of different ways you can spend your time. The following are some of the most popular careers among people with degrees in biology according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, provided by VanSomeren:

  • Biological Technician     
  • Biomedical Engineer      
  • College Professor            
  • Dentist
  • Dental Hygienist              
  • Epidemiologist 
  • Forensic Scientist            
  • Forester              
  • High School Teacher      
  • Microbiologist  
  • Optometrist      
  • Pharmacist         
  • Physical Therapist           
  • Physicians and Surgeons              
  • Public Health Educator  
  • Registered Nurse            
  • Veterinarian      
  • Wildlife Biologist

Visick added, “There's also the wide world of research: building new knowledge in fields as diverse as ecology, microbiology, behavior, molecular biology, development, zoology, botany, physiology, genetics, and many more.”

Start Your Career in Biology

The single most important thing you can do to make your life easier as a bio major is to choose a great college or university. Look for a school like North Central College, with a biology program that offers comprehensive study of the key concepts of biology from expert faculty. You’ll get access to excellent laboratory facilities, the latest in scientific tools and technology, the chance to supplement your biology courses with classes in math, chemistry and physics, and all the support you need to get you started on the path to graduate school and fulfilling careers. Find out more about what North Central College can do for you on their website.

Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 11 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.

 

Sources:

Should You Major in Biology?  Lindsay VanSomeren. June 2, 2020. Best Colleges.

https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/why-you-should-major-in-biology 

Top 7 Reasons to Study a Biology Degree in 2021. Robert S. Balan. Sep. 29, 2021. Study Portals.

https://www.mastersportal.com/articles/2939/top-7-reasons-to-study-a-biology-degree-in-2021.html 

Is Biology Hard? Will Peach M.D. Medical School Guide. Accessed September 29, 2021.

https://willpeachmd.com/is-biology-hard