Careers in Biological Sciences
Find out if you're meant for an allied health career in biological sciences
by Molly JossRSSPrintE-mailCommentDAHC 2005 Fall / Winter
 If you’re interested in an allied health career, you have a lot of options beyond the traditional health care jobs. To figure out if you’re interested in an allied health career with a particular focus in biological studies you’ll need to evaluate your interests further. You may be drawn to a particular type of health care work because of prior experiences. Someone whose family has been affected by an inherited disease might decide to be a genetic counselor, for example.
Or, if you’re a big fan of one of the CSI shows or other shows related to true crime on television, you might be interested in working as a forensic scientist.
Considering your own personal interests is a good start, but you need to do more. You must factor into your decision information about current work opportunities, longer-term job prospects and earnings potential. Some jobs require extensive education, but some do not. You might be able to get a job with a two-year degree, but some employers prefer a four-year degree. You need to decide if the additional training is worth it to you.
Consider on-going training and certification requirements as well. We will discuss the specific educational requirements required to pursue careers in biological science fields later in this article.
Careers in Biological Sciences
 Did you know that some biologists work with drug companies to research and test new products? They also wind-up in government organizations to study the economic impact of biological issues like the extinction of wild animals, the protection of natural resources and environmental pollution. Biologists in areas such as bioinformatics and computational biology use mathematics to solve biological problems, such as modeling ecosystem processes and gene sequencing. Journalists and writers with a science background write articles about up-and-coming biological issues. Open up one of your biology textbooks; an artist with a strong background in biology undoubtedly created those illustrations.
Clearly, those with a background in biological sciences are needed in a variety of different fields.
There are so many directions to take an interest in an allied health care career that it may be difficult to narrow down your choices to a few. Once you do, however, you can begin to investigate the educational requirements and schools that offer programs for training in these fields. If you know you’re not sure what you want to specialize in, look for a training school that offers a big variety of possibilities. That way, if you do change your mind, you may be able to switch careers without changing schools.
Every day science is learning more about human genetics and especially about how a person’s genes can affect their health. And you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in genetics to get involved. You could be a genetic counselor—someone who works with people who have genetic disorders, inherited diseases, or those who are at risk for genetic disorders. Genetic counselors work with other people in the medical profession such as medical specialists. Many provide prenatal counseling to people, but other types of jobs are also possible.
The work pays well, but not as much as some allied health care jobs. In 2002 the median income for counselors with a master’s degree and five years experience ranged from $47,000 to $56,000. Specialization in a specific disorder might help increase the range.
As a genetic counselor, your workday may include one-on-one sessions with people who are frightened or upset because they are discovering information about their genetic disorder. Therefore it is important that you posses a good bedside manner. Often you will have to explain, in every-day language, patients’ options and convey information about their disorder. If the problem has not yet been identified, you may work with them to learn more about their family’s medical history and order testing.
Some genetic counselors spend the majority of their time educating people and serving as a resource for patients and other health care professionals. Others research specific genetic diseases—and not necessarily in the laboratory. Genetic researchers sometimes work in communities of people who have close genetic ties, such as the Amish communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio. By talking to people in these communities, the counselors are able to track the spread of inherited diseases.
As a genetic counselor, you could also find work at a biotech company researching, designing or selling tests related to genetic disorders. As more becomes known about genetic diseases, demand for people who are able to do this kind of work will continue to grow significantly.
Working conditions for genetic counselors vary with the type of work they do. If you work with people as part of a health care team, you might spend most of your time in an office environment, even if the office is located in a hospital. Weekend and night hours aren’t required. On the other hand, going out in the field may require you to meet with people in their homes at their convenience.
To become a genetic counselor, you will have to get a master’s degree from one of 23 accredited U.S. graduate programs. (For a listing, go to www.gradschools.com/ listings/menus/genetic_cnsl_menu.html.) To become a certified counselor you must complete enough documented clinical work and pass the American Board of Genetic Counseling’s certification exam. To find out more about the certification process, visit the Board’s Web site at www.abgc.net/genetics/abgc/abgcmenu.shtml.
To be admitted to one of the master’s degree programs, you must first complete your undergraduate training. A relevant major such a biology or chemistry will help because it will help you meet some, if not all, of the graduate program pre-requisites. Undergraduate degrees in allied health including nursing or public health also provide a good foundation. The prerequisites for master’s degree programs in genetic counseling vary, so you have to research the requirements of particular colleges or universities. To be admitted to the Arcadia University (Glenside, Pa.) program, for example, you need to have taken biology, chemistry, statistics and psychology as an undergraduate. There are other requirements such as a satisfactory score of 1,000 or higher on the Graduate Record Examination.
If you know you’re interested in a career as a genetic counselor, the best approach is to start checking out master’s degree requirements while you’re still an undergraduate. Doing so will help you avoid having to take extra classes to meet pre-requisites.
Some programs have a specific emphasis. Brandeis University’s (Waltham, Mass.) master’s degree genetic counseling program has a special emphasis on inherited diseases that can cause disabilities. It is one of the few such programs in the country. Beth Rosen Sheidley teaches in the genetics program at the University, but worked for years as a genetic counselor working with under privileged people. She was interested in severely disabling diseases in which genetics are known to play a part such as autism and bi-polar disorder. Of her experience at the college, she says she chose Brandeis because of the focus of the program. “Among all of the genetic counseling programs in existence in 1992, Brandeis was the only program that focused on disability awareness issues. Today it is still the case that Brandeis puts an emphasis on exploring the perspectives of individuals and families living with disability.”
Real World CSI
If you have ever watched any of the CSI programs on TV, you probably have an idea about the kinds of work forensic scientists do. Whether that idea is totally accurate is debatable, but if you find the shows fascinating, then it’s worth exploring this kind of work in the real world. You’ll find the majority of jobs are with local and state governments, and you won’t spend much of your time in a routine office environment. You’ll either be in the crime lab, a morgue or on the crime scene.
The word “forensics” actually means “according to the law,” so people who do forensic work apply scientific methods to all kinds of legal issues. There are forensic accountants who examine company financial records, but most of the people who work in the forensic field examine physical evidence. There isn’t a lot of information about salary ranges for people who work in this field, but beginning salaries for crime scene technologists can start at $20,000. More experience means more money—experienced crime lab or crime scene personnel can make as much as $85,000. Lab directors and medical examiners can earn $100,000 or more. The bigger the city or state, the more money they pay. A lot depends on a particular city’s budget and crime rate.
According to Dr. Dale Nute, adjunct faculty member of the school of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University, there are six general areas of forensic science practice: medical examiner, crime laboratory analyst, crime scene examiner, forensic engineer, psychological profilers, and people who provide specific forensic technical assistance (composite drawing, etc.).
He says that, of the group, medical examiners make the most money. They are the people who conduct autopsies of suspicious deaths, which can mean working odd hours and requires a medical degree. If you’re interested, get started in medical school, he says. “Select a residency that provides a forensic emphasis.” Taking a crime investigation and detection course is also a good idea and probably won’t be available in medical school.
Crime laboratory analysts are the folks who hang out in the crime lab looking at samples taken from a crime scene, including body fluid, tissue, hair and fibers. The work can be routine, but the hours are reasonable. Doing this kind of work usually requires a four-year undergraduate degree in a natural science. Nute recommends a degree in chemistry unless you’re interested in doing DNA analysis. In that case, a biology major with an emphasis in genetics would be required.
Crime scene examiners (also known as crime scene investigators) spent most of their working hours making detailed studies of crime scenes. They often try to reconstruct the crime using blood spatter patterns, examining bullet holes, and looking for other clues. After making the on-scene analysis, they usually need to write up their findings. So, people who do this kind of work have to like paying attention to detail and be willing to put the detail down on paper or testify to them in court.
Nute recommends a four-year degree in “either a natural science with an emphasis in law enforcement and crime scene processing or a criminal justice degree with an emphasis in natural science.” He doesn’t feel that an undergraduate degree in forensic science is necessary because he feels that learning how to do science as an undergraduate is the best preparation for a long-term career. Specialization can be done in graduate school. That said, however, there are a few dozen colleges and universities that offer bachelor’s degrees in forensic science.
You don’t need a bachelor’s degree at all for some of these jobs. You can get started as a crime scene technician, though, with as little as a certification earned online. Kaplan University offers such a program. There are also two-year programs that will get you on the crime scene in a legal way. To get a job as a crime scene examiner, though, a four-year degree along the lines of what Nute suggests is the way to go. Check local and state requirements carefully for additional requirements. Some require you to be a police officer first or require certification.
If you want to spend more than a few years studying, you’ll be preparing yourself for some of the best paying jobs, such as a lab director. With a Ph.D. in forensics you can consult, go into administration or teach at the college or university level. To find out more about forensic science careers, visit the Web site of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences at www.aafs.org.
Good Jobs, Excellent Prospects
Pretty much all allied health careers are on track to chug along at a healthy pace for the foreseeable future. But not many areas of allied health are as exciting as those in forensic science or as potentially life-altering as the work done in genetic counseling. And that’s just the beginning of the fields you can explore in biological science. You can travel to locations all over the world to research the natural world; develop public health campaigns against life-threatening diseases; work towards environmental management and conservation; or dedicate your life to educating others in the classroom, lab or in the field. Or as a biotechnologist you could work to improve the products we use everyday, or enhance the technology we to adapt agriculture, food, science and medicine.
From the very beginning, the study of biology teaches one to ask questions, explore the world around them and solve existing problems. If you possess that innate interest and curiosity, then this is the field for you. And no matter what career you choose in the biological sciences, you will be pursuing a career that is immensely satisfying and inspiring.
Molly Joss is a free-lance writer, analyst and consultant who writes about career and job issues, among other topics of note.