If you’re thinking about a career in biology, what are your options? They may be much wider than you think.
The following gives a flavour for the various types of careers that a degree in biology might lead you to.
1. Research in Universities
Biology and plant sciences research goes on in Universities across the country. Research in Universities, as in many research institutes, is grant funded. This means that there is a Principle Investigator (PI) who applies for a grant from one of the funding councils, charity or commercial sources. The PI will lead the research but grants will often include funding for post-doctoral positions (which require a PhD) or, less frequently, research assistant positions (degree level entry). The post-doctoral and research assistant positions are linked to the grant and range in length from about 1 to 3 years. Most research groups include postgraduate students studying for a PhD or Masters degree which is awarded by the University. Teaching undergraduates and postgraduates is an important part of University life and most PIs in Universities are also lecturers (although this is not true for all).
2. Research organisations
Research is also carried out in research institutions where employees may be academics, technical or support staff and administrative staff, all engaged in the business of research. It is common to study for a PhD at a research institute and the qualification is awarded by the University that the institution is aligned to. Collaborative projects between industry and either Universities or Research Institutions can sometimes be the basis of a PhD study; these are referred to as CASE awards but are generally in quite short supply. The government funds research through the Research Councils and there are seven councils in the UK which operate within a strategic partnership called the RCUK. The primary funders of plant science are the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) which fund some research institutions as well as research grants in Universities across the UK. Other research organisations may be independently-financed, funded by charities or by levies on their clients.
3. Commercial research
Commercial businesses also often support research and development (R&D), either on-site or in collaboration with research groups elsewhere. These businesses might be global, with sites in more than one country. This means that there are considerable opportunities abroad, as well as in the UK. However, there are many smaller companies, for example like vegetable breeding company Rijk Zwaan, where breeders are supported in their work by phytopathologists, seed technologists, cell biologists, molecular biologists and biochemists.
4. Advice and policy
A number of career opportunities exist which which use biology and plant science to assist in forming policy. These might be proposals relating to the many ways that science and technology impact on society, the economy or the environment, such as how the Government should respond to a new threat like Ash Dieback or Foot and Mouth disease.
These careers might be with policy-makers such as the Research Councils UK (RCUK), scientific professional bodies such as the Royal Society or the Society of Biology, and public sector organisations such as the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).
5. Conservation and ecological consultancy
An understanding of biology is crucial for many roles relating to conservation and ecology. These might include working for public sector organisations such as the Environment Agency, or for commercial firms, advising on how they can minimise their impact on the environment.
The British Society for Ecology (BSE) website has lots of ideas and information about careers in ecology, together with suggestions for how to get started.
For those who embrace teaching head-on, it can be one of the most rewarding professions of all. The usual way for graduates to specialise is to study for a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE), where you are based in a University and do placements in a schools. However, there are other routes, including options to be based in a school throughout.
The Department for Education website has lots of information about training routes and how to become a teacher.
7. Science communication
‘Science communication’ is a big buzz phrase these days: you can even do Masters courses in it, but it actually covers a whole range of activities.
For a start, science communication is fundamental to the way that science works – research scientists need to communicate with each other in the lab, thorugh peer reviewed journals and at conferences, for science to progress. However, there has also been a big push for scientists to actively discuss their work with a wider audience through public engagement, which can include anything from press releases to school visits and television interviews. At the major research institutes, like the John Innes Centre, scientists may be supported by dedicated communication teams.
Museums and science visitor attractions employ science communicators to do science shows or put together exhibitions.
If you want a role in science communication, experience is key. Volunteering at local interactive science centres or museums while you’re an undergraduate can be a useful starting point.
The world of publishing is another facet of science communication, both science journals and books. For science journals, a high level of scientific experitse is required by editors so that can understand the material that they are dealing with – having a PhD and postdoctoral experience is not essential but can provide a distinct advantage. There are also many scientific books published.
As well as publishing, there are opportunities in science journalism which can include writing for newspapers and science magazines such as New Scientist, as well as writing books. Look out for opportunities to try your hand out, New Scientist regularly run essay competitions and even departmental newsletters or student papers can you a valuable chance to practice.
9. Enterprise and knowledge transfer
Enterprise and knowledge transfer is an important part of science and allows innovations and knowledge gained through research to have an impact on society, be it by setting up a company to launch a new product on the market, through to improvements in methods for, say, farming or conservation.
Enterprise and knowledge transfer is also a core activity for research centres and Universities. Some knowledge transfer specialists are based in Universities to help researchers transfer their ideas from research to commercial reality.
10. Technical Sales and Marketing
The world of scientific sales offers many possibilities for scientists as a career choice: direct sales, sales / technical support, product management, product invention and development, product testing and also marketing, to name a few. Scientists are required in technical and scientific sales to get the sales message across to other scientists at their level. Sometimes you have to understand the customer requirements first hand before you can invent, sell and develop new products.
11. Intellectual Property and Patents
Patent attorneys assist clients in securing intellectual property protection for their innovations and providing advice on the rights of others. Far from being disconnected from science, a patent attorney’s role allows them to be involved at the cutting edge of science research and utilises all the tchnical skills they learnt at University and beyond.
12. Land-based and environmental careers
Plant biology doesn’t have to be anything to do with the lab. There are hundreds of career choices in land-based and environmental subjects, including agriculture, horticulture, conservation, timber management, and much more. To find out more about the skills and training you need to move into one of these careers, take a look at the LANTRA website.
If you’re interested specifically in careers in horticulture, with careers ranging from mass-market food production to garden design, take a look at the case studies and careers advice on the Grow website. There are even job adverts so you can get an idea of current demand and wages.