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Significant Points
  • Biotechnological research and development should continue to drive much faster than average employment growth.
  • A Ph.D. is usually required for independent research, but a bachelor's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research or product development; temporary postdoctoral research positions are common.
  • Competition for independent research positions in academia is expected.
Nature of the Work

Biological scientists study living organisms and their relationship to the environment. They perform research to gain a better understanding of fundamental life processes and apply that understanding to developing new products or processes. Research can be broken down into two categories: basic and applied. Basic research is conducted without any intended aim; the goal is simply to expand on human knowledge. Applied research is directed towards solving a particular problem. Most biological scientists specialize in one area of biology, such as zoology (the study of animals) or microbiology (the study of microscopic organisms).

Basic research in biological sciences advances our knowledge of living organisms so that we can develop solutions to human health problems and improve the natural environment. These biological scientists mostly work in government, university, or private industry laboratories, often exploring new areas of research. Many expand on specialized research they started in graduate school.

Many biological scientists involved in basic research must submit grant proposals to obtain funding for their projects. Colleges and universities, private foundations, and Federal Government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, contribute to the support of scientists whose research proposals are determined to be financially feasible and to have the potential to advance new ideas or processes.

Biological scientists who work in applied research or product development apply knowledge gained through basic research to develop new drugs, treatments, and medical diagnostic tests; increase crop yields; and develop new biofuels. They usually have less freedom than basic researchers do to choose the emphasis of their research, and they spend more time working on marketable treatments to meet the business goals of their employers. Biological scientists doing applied research and product development often work in teams, interacting with engineers, scientists of other disciplines, business managers, and technicians. Those working in private industry may be required to describe their research plans or results to nonscientists who are in a position to veto or approve their ideas. These scientists must consider the business effects of their work. Some biological scientists also work with customers or suppliers and manage budgets.

Scientists usually conduct research in laboratories using a wide variety of other equipment. Some conduct experiments involving animals or plants. This is particularly true of botanists, physiologists, and zoologists. Some biological research also takes place outside the laboratory. For example, a botanist might do field research in tropical rain forests to see which plants grow there, or an ecologist might study how a forest area recovers after a fire. Some marine biologists also work outdoors, often on research vessels from which they study fish, plankton, or other marine organisms.

Swift advances in knowledge of genetics and organic molecules spurred growth in the field of biotechnology, transforming the industries in which biological scientists work. Biological scientists can now manipulate the genetic material of animals and plants, attempting to make organisms more productive or resistant to disease. Those working on various genome (chromosomes with their associated genes) projects isolate genes and determine their function. This work continues to lead to the discovery of genes associated with specific diseases and inherited health risks, such as sickle cell anemia. Advances in biotechnology have created research opportunities in almost all areas of biology, with commercial applications in areas such as medicine, agriculture, and environmental remediation.

Most biological scientists specialize in the study of a certain type of organism or in a specific activity, although recent advances have blurred some traditional classifications.

Ecologists investigate the relationships among organisms and between organisms and their environments. They examine the effects of population size, pollutants, rainfall, temperature, and altitude. Using knowledge of various scientific disciplines, ecologists may collect, study, and report data on the quality of air, food, soil, and water.

Ecologist, GS-0408-05

To quoalify for this position you will need:

Successful completion of a full 4-year course of study in an accredited college or university leading to a bachelor's or higher degree in biology or a related field of science underlying ecological research that included at least 30 semester hours or the equivalent in basic and applied biological sciences. These hours must have included at least 9 semester hours or the equivalent in ecology, and 12 semester hours or the equivalent in physical and mathematical sciences.

Ecologist, GS-0408-07

To quoalify for this position you will need:

In addition to the basic education requirement as stated above, applicants must meet one of the following to qualify for the GS-07 level:

One year of successfully completed graduate level education (18 semester hours, 27 quarter hours or the equivalent) in ecology or other directly related field of study if it provided the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to do the work of the position to be filled.

OR Super Academic Achievement based on undergraduate study.

OR one year of appropriate specialized experience that is in biology or a related field of science underlying ecological research is qualifying if it is equivalent to at least the GS-5 level in the Federal service, and if it equipped the applicant with the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform successfully the duties of the position to be filled.

Examples of GS-5 level work may include: 1) collecting basic data from field investigations; 2) preparing samples; 3) making observations on biological conditions; 4) assisting in data entry and routine data analysis; 5) searching published technical sources for information on designated topics and preparing summaries for reference of others. For examples 1-5, the work performed was routine and closely controlled and a designated person assigned the work with clear, specific, and detailed instructions as to the methods, procedures, and guidelines to use.

Ecologist, GS-0408-09

To quoalify for this position you will need:

In addition to the basic education requirement as stated above, applicants must meet one of the following to qualify for the GS-09 level:

Two full years of successfully completed progressively higher-level graduate education (36 semester hours, 54 quarter hours or the equivalent) or masters or equivalent graduate degree in ecology, biology or other directly related field underlying ecological research if it provided the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to do the work of the position to be filled.

OR one year of appropriate specialized experience that is in ecology, biology or a related field of science underlying ecological research is qualifying if it is equivalent to at least the GS-7 level in the Federal service, and if it equipped the applicant with the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform successfully the duties of the position to be filled.

Examples of GS-7 level work may include: 1) assisting in planning, organizing/implementing scientific investigations; 2) performing data analyses on portions of larger investigations; 3) participating in organizing and interpreting biological, ecological, pathological, public use, or other pertinent research information. **OR a combination of successfully completed graduate level education, as described above, that is beyond the first year of progressive graduate study, and professional experience, as described above.

Ecologist, GS-0408-12/13

Major Duties

The Ecologist assists and provides technical advice to land and wildlife resource managers throughout the Region in implementing habitat management plans. Provides technical assistance to State and Federal land management agencies, flyway councils, and private conservation organizations. The Ecologist oversees all aspects of the program activities and develops, coordinates and implements public outreach and off-refuge management projects.

The Ecologist coordinates training opportunities for wildlife and habitat management experts and employees from the National Wildlife Refuge System, and foreign and domestic institutions. The Ecologist also identifies, coordinates and conducts wildlife and habitat management research that addresses the needs of the refuge or refuge complex at a broad geographical scale as it relates to long-term Regional management planning.

The Ecologist is responsible for publishing articles in professional journals and other outlets and presents findings at professional and local meetings.

A. Major Duties:

The Ecologist is responsible for statistically designing, prioritizing, scheduling, coordinating, analyzing, and validating results of all wildlife and habitat related studies and research for the program to achieve refuge, regional, national, and ecosystem goals and objectives.

Provides management recommendations to Project Leaders, upper management, and other refuge partners.

The Ecologist is considered a wildlife and habitat expert, designing and implementing complex analytical and statistical management processes for Service and non-Service professionals to produce scientifically based results in a variety of sensitive and potentially contentious land and wildlife management initiatives.

The Ecologist is responsible for synthesizing available and existing research results, field data and other information accumulated in various refuge research and similar reports, files and other sources, into meaningful and useful summaries and format. This includes preparation of data for computer applications and using statistics to analyze data.

Provides biological expertise, advice and technical assistance to refuges, other federal, state, or private organizations, on the application of biological techniques, accepted scientific methodology and priority needs concerning land management practices.

Maintains liaison with research specialists, Federal and State agency biologists, and private entities involved in developing new techniques and methods related to wildlife and habitat management. These contacts foster an exchange of new developments, and ideas, and provide information to refuge management.

Promotes research on refuge lands, especially to address refuge needs, coordinates with the Biological Resource Division of the agency, and Universities.

Publishes technical reports and articles in scientific journals. Identifies continuing education needs of refuges staff. Promotes outreach opportunities to other federal, tribal, state, or private organizations, and the international conservation community.

Develops seminars, workshops, literature compilations, and other methods to address these training needs. Provides and facilitates transfer of technical biological information and assistance to project leaders, refuge managers, and biologists. Provides field personnel with current information about new management approaches, wildlife species needs, and habitat ecology.

Works with Regional Refuge Biologists to develop wildlife inventory and habitat monitoring procedures that are applicable to other refuges and ecosystems. Procedures will promote consistency in data collection to allow for exchange of information and evaluation among refuges and ecosystems. Data will be used for refuge-specific management actions and coordinated management programs among refuges throughout the Nation.

Coordinates with other program biologists, Regional Refuge Biologists, Refuge Biologists, project leaders of home sites, and the program coordinator in the Washington Office to evaluate or identify biological needs, programs, or policy development that will influence refuge biological priorities, techniques, and procedures nationwide.

Keeps current on new biological and ecological management techniques, policies and issues.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most ecological scientists need a Ph.D. in ecology or one of its subfields to work in independent research or development positions. Other positions are available to those with a master’s or bachelor’s degree in the field.

Education and training. A Ph.D. is usually necessary for independent research, particularly in academia, as well as for advancement to administrative positions. A bachelor’s or master's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research, product development, management, or inspection; it also may be sufficient to work as a research technician or a teacher. Many with a bachelor's degree in biology enter medical, dental, veterinary, or other health profession schools, or find jobs as high school science teachers.

In addition to required courses in chemistry, biology, and ecology, undergraduate biological science majors usually study allied disciplines such as mathematics, physics, engineering, and computer science. Computer courses are beneficial for modeling and simulating biological processes, operating some laboratory equipment, and performing research in the emerging field of bioinformatics. Those interested in studying the environment also should take courses in environmental studies and become familiar with applicable legislation and regulations.

Most colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees in biological science, and many offer advanced degrees. Advanced degree programs often emphasize a subfield, such as microbiology or botany, but not all universities offer curricula in all subfields. Larger universities frequently have separate departments specializing in different areas of biological science. For example, a program in botany might cover agronomy, horticulture, or plant pathology. Advanced degree programs typically include classroom and fieldwork, laboratory research, and a thesis or dissertation. A master’s degree generally takes 2 years, and a doctoral degree 5-6 years of full-time study.

Biological scientists with a Ph.D. often take temporary postdoctoral positions that provide specialized research experience. Postdoctoral positions may offer the opportunity to publish research findings. A solid record of published research is essential in obtaining a permanent position performing basic research, especially for those seeking a permanent college or university faculty position.

Other qualifications. Biological scientists should be able to work independently or as part of a team and be able to communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing. Those in private industry, especially those who aspire to management or administrative positions, should possess strong business and communication skills and be familiar with regulatory issues and marketing and management techniques. Those doing field research in remote areas must have physical stamina. Biological scientists also must have patience and self-discipline to conduct long and detailed research projects.

Advancement. As they gain experience, biological scientists typically gain greater control over their research and may advance to become lead researchers directing a team of scientists and technicians. Some work as consultants to businesses or to government agencies. However, those dependent on research grants are still constrained by funding agencies, and may spend much of their time writing grant proposals. Others choose to move into managerial positions and become natural science managers. They may plan and administer programs for testing foods and drugs, for example, or direct activities at zoos or botanical gardens. Those who pursue management careers spend much of their time preparing budgets and schedules. Some leave biology for nontechnical managerial, administrative, or sales jobs.

Job Outlook

Employment of biological scientists is expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations although there will continue to be competition for some basic research positions.

Employment change. Employment of biological scientists is projected to grow 21 percent over the 2008—18 decade, much faster than the average for all occupations, as biotechnological research and development continues to drive job growth. Biological scientists enjoyed very rapid employment gains over the past few decades—reflecting, in part, the growth of the biotechnology industry. Employment growth will moderate somewhat as the biotechnology industry matures, with fewer new firms being founded and existing firms merging or being absorbed by larger biotechnology or pharmaceutical firms. However, much of the basic biological research done in recent years has resulted in new knowledge, including the isolation and identification of genes. Biological scientists will be needed to take this knowledge to the next stage, understanding how certain genes function within an entire organism, so that medical treatments can be developed to treat various diseases. Even pharmaceutical and other firms not solely engaged in biotechnology use biotechnology techniques extensively, spurring employment for biological scientists. For example, biological scientists are continuing to help farmers increase crop yields by pinpointing genes that can help crops, such as wheat, grow in more extreme climate conditions.

In addition, efforts to discover new and improved ways to clean up and preserve the environment will continue to add to job growth. More biological scientists will be needed to determine the environmental impact of industry and government actions and to prevent or correct environmental problems, such as the negative effects of pesticide use. Some biological scientists will find opportunities in environmental regulatory agencies, while others will use their expertise to advise lawmakers on legislation to save environmentally sensitive areas. New industrial applications of biotechnology, such as new methods for producing biofuels, also will spur demand for biological scientists.

The Federal Government is a major source of funding for basic research and development, including many areas of medical research that relate to biological science. Large budget increases at the National Institutes of Health in the early part of the decade led to increases in Federal basic research and development expenditures, with research grants growing both in number and dollar amount. However, the increase in expenditures slowed substantially in recent years. Going forward, the level of Federal funding will continue to impact competition for winning and renewing research grants.

There will continue to be demand for biological scientists specializing in botany, zoology, and marine biology, but opportunities will be limited because of the small size of these fields. Marine biology, despite its attractiveness as a career, is a very small specialty within biological science.

Job prospects. Doctoral degree holders are expected to face competition for basic research positions in academia. Furthermore, should the number of advanced degrees awarded continue to grow, applicants for research grants are likely to face even more competition. Currently, about 1 in 4 grant proposals are approved for long-term research projects. In general, applied research positions in private industry are somewhat easier to obtain, but may become more competitive if increasing numbers of scientists seek jobs in private industry because of the difficulty finding positions in colleges and universities.

Prospective marine biology students should be aware that those who would like to enter this specialty far outnumber the very few openings that occur each year for the type of glamorous research jobs that many would like to obtain. Almost all marine biologists who do basic research have a Ph.D.

People with bachelor's and master's degrees are expected to have more opportunities in nonscientist jobs related to biology, in fields like sales, marketing, publishing, and research management. Non-Ph.D.s also may fill positions as science or engineering technicians or as medical health technologists and technicians. Some become high school biology teachers.

Biological scientists are less likely to lose their jobs during recessions than those in other occupations, because many are employed on long-term research projects. However, an economic downturn could influence the amount of money allocated to new research and development efforts, particularly in areas of risky or innovative research. An economic downturn also could limit the possibility of extension or renewal of existing projects.


In the Federal Government in March 2009, microbiologists earned an average annual salary of $97,264; ecologists, $84,283; physiologists, $109,323; geneticists, $99,752; zoologists, $116,908; and botanists, $72,792.

Sources of Additional Information

For information on careers in ecology, contact:

  • Ecological Society of America, 1990 M St. NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036. Internet:

Information on obtaining Ecologist positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or  (703) 724–1850  or TDD (978) 461–8404 and   (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.


  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition; and
  • Office of Personnel Management, Position Classification Standards.

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