Careers in Biological Sciences

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.

Genetic Counseling

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.

Fulfilling Requirements

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 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 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

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.

Out at Work: Diversity in the Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Industries

The U.S. pharmaceutical industry has been in a five-year hiring frenzy. IMS Health, a leading source of market information for the pharmaceutical industry, forecasts that both pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies will continue to experience growth that outpaces that of the overall economy for the foreseeable future. This steep growth curve spells opportunity for new college graduates considering a career in pharmaceuticals. The industry has recognized the value of attracting and retaining a diverse workforce and is actively pursuing graduates from many different backgrounds. Within many organizations, the workforce diversity they embrace not only encompasses race, gender and disability status, but also has been expanded to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees.

What do you do if you are a gay man or lesbian looking for a job in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology industry? How do you know which potential employers have a demonstrated commitment to diversity and especially to their LGBT employees? An excellent place to start is the Corporate Equality Index published annually by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation. HRC is an organization that works to advance equality based on sexual orientation and gender expression and identity. In 2003 the index rated 250 employers that can be found on either the Fortune 500 list of the largest publicly traded companies or the Forbes 200 list of the largest privately held firms. An additional 112 employers with at least 500 employees were also included. Companies were surveyed and rated on a scale of 0% to 100% based on seven factors that demonstrate how the companies treat LGBT employees, consumers and investors. Nineteen pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies were rated in this year’s index. Sixteen had scores of 57% or higher, indicating positive responses on at least four of the seven factors, with Bausch & Lomb Inc. scoring a perfect 100%. (To see how other pharmaceutical and biotech employers scored, see the chart below.)

Gaining the Support of Your Employer

One of the seven factors on the HRC survey is whether the companies “officially recognize and support a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employee resource group; or would support employees’ forming a LGBT employee resource group if some expressed interest by providing space and other resources; or have a firm-wide diversity council or working group whose mission specifically includes LGBT diversity.”

Employee resource groups (also known as affinity groups) are expanding in number as more and more companies focus on diversity for a competitive advantage. However, groups often develop at the grassroots level, before formal diversity initiatives are in place. As corporate sponsorship increases, the groups can help spread diversity messages to the rest of the company. Resource groups are usually formed around what are known as the “primary dimensions of diversity”: age, race, physical disability, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Genentech, a biotechnology leader headquartered in South San Francisco, Calif., is a strong supporter of employee resource groups and offers one that focuses on LGBT issues. (See sidebar “Genentech’s Out & Equal Diversity Network Association”.) Sandra Manning, co-chair of Genentech’s Out & Equal (GO&E), states that “at Genentech, it is truly believed that when an employee can arrive at work free of inhibitions or worries, then that person will contribute fully to their work and to the company’s goals. That is what is so great about a corporate culture that embraces diversity.”

Resource groups work to support their companies’ business in four common ways:

Education. An educational forum is one of the most useful benefits a resource group can provide to both its members and the company. For instance, busy employees may not know all of the details surrounding the domestic partnership benefits that the company offers. (Lobbying to get them is often the first goal of a LGBT resource group if they are not already available.) The same holds true for benefits available to registered domestic partners in the states where the company does business, and updating members on pending legislative issues such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). More ambitious projects include educating and increasing the awareness of all employees about their gay and lesbian colleagues.

Educational programs need not, indeed should not, be limited to LGBT issues. A powerful way to align the resource group’s objectives with those of the company is to sponsor lectures open to all staff members on professional development and corporate issues. For example, invite a senior manager from research, manufacturing or sales to speak about what their departments do and what their greatest challenges are. Other educational offerings can include maintaining a library of current books and publications relevant to LGBT professional issues, and facilitating a book club that covers general business and leadership related topics from a LGBT perspective.
Networking. Social events provide an excellent opportunity to meet with people from across the organization, which is good for exchanging information and developing professional contacts. Networking is an informal way to learn how different parts of the company contribute to the organization’s overall goals. Such knowledge is useful if you want to make a lateral move within the company, and it also becomes increasingly valuable as your career advances.

Genentech’s Manning says, “Since GO&E meets monthly to plan activities throughout the year, people attending the meetings make an impact on each other simply by introducing themselves. We meet new members who are from various departments in the company, we learn a little about our different roles, and how we each contribute to the goals of Genentech.”

Meeting gay and lesbian colleagues at higher levels in the organization also fosters mentoring opportunities. In addition, resource groups often have sponsors who are high-ranking employees within the company that offer advice and guidance on group activities. Membership in a resource group, and especially holding a leadership position, can provide access and visibility that might not normally be available in your job.

Networking opportunities can expand well beyond the company. Community outreach activities allow members to interact with LGBT philanthropic organizations. Connecting with other corporate LGBT resource groups in the same city and across your industry can infuse your group with new ideas and energy. Two formal programs provide a structured way for gay and lesbian professionals to come together: The Out & Equal Workplace Summit is an annual three-day event culminating in the Outie Awards Gala and the LGBT Leadership Institute sponsored by the Anderson School at UCLA offers a week-long symposium covering a full range of gay and lesbian employment and career issues.
Recruitment and Retention. Finding talented and highly skilled employees is a constant challenge for pharmaceutical companies. Once they find the right employees, companies want to keep them. Manning adds, “Genentech’s GO&E group works to help accomplish the goals of the company and, in turn, Genentech supports GO&E in order to retain its highly valued human resources.”

The presence of an LGBT resource group is a strong indicator of the corporate culture’s attitude toward and acceptance of gay and lesbian employees. The groups foster a sense of community within the company, and make a gay or lesbian employee more likely to stay. Often, personnel who have been hired recently are not only new to the company, but also new to the city. A resource group provides an immediate social circle and can help smooth the transition to the new area—this reduces stress and makes a new employee more productive, faster.

As the workplace becomes more open for gay and lesbian employees, and candidates become more comfortable addressing GBLT issues before they are hired, the demand for information on diversity policies and corporate attitudes will increase. Resource groups can assist on this front in several ways. They can help the company identify talent pools by providing the human resources department with recruitment contacts for LGBT professional societies and college or university alumni associations. Group members can serve on panels for human resources during the interview process. A savvy candidate may request an informational interview with a gay or lesbian employee before accepting an offer. New hire orientation packets should include contact information for all corporate diversity groups along with listings of local organizations and community events.
Community Outreach. Resource groups can do good deeds while also building the company’s image through community outreach programs. Activities can take the form of directed giving, volunteerism and corporate sponsorship. Directed giving involves identifying worthwhile charitable organizations that the group can support by combining individual member contributions. Corporate foundations may offer matching funds in addition to employee contributions. Volunteerism can be as simple as forming a corporate team for an AIDS walk or as complex as staffing an entire fundraising event.

Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have a vested interest in building strong science skills in school-age children. Mentoring high school students or sponsoring a science fair develops both goodwill and future employees. Finally, corporate sponsorship of gay and lesbian events sends a strong message of support to the community. Both Amgen(a global biotechnology company headquartered in Southern California) and Genentech have sponsored their local LGBT Pride events.

Opportunities to contribute can come from a variety of sources. The Amgen Network for Gay & Lesbian Employees (ANGLE) recently had an unexpected, but welcome, request. “A local elementary school asked for donations of age-appropriate books from each of Amgen’s affinity groups for their school library. The experience made me realize that our group can help shape positive attitudes toward gays and lesbians not only within the company but also in the communities where we do business,” states Durk Hubel, president of ANGLE. (See sidebar “Amgen: Lessons Learned From a Start-up”.)

Your Next Step

The HRC’s Corporate Equality Index is a unique and helpful resource, but it surveys only the largest U.S.-based companies. Don’t let a potential employer’s absence from the index hold you back. Check out the company’s Web site; it may have information on their commitment to diversity. Also, try calling the human resources department. Ask if they have an active LGBT resource group, and if so, whether you can have the group’s contact information. Employment prospects in the new millennium for both the pharmaceutical industry and LGBT professionals are looking very bright indeed.