An understanding of biology plays a key function in everyday life. From medical discoveries to the production of food, graduates in biology (and related subjects) play an essential role within society.
What A-Levels do you need?
We don’t want to state the obvious, but you’ll usually need to have studied biology at A-level if you want to do it at uni (Southampton want at least a grade C, while Oxford expect an A or even an A*). Many universities will also look favourably on your application if you have a second science (chemistry, physics or maths, to name a few possibilities).
What are your study options?
One of the great things about doing a degree in biology is that there are a wide range of modules available to study on. The style of teaching will very much depend upon the modules you choose and, while some theoretical subjects will be taught in a classroom environment, the majority of modules will require you to learn within the lab in a more practical setting (or even out on field trips).
Most degrees will be the standard three years in length, although some universities do offer sandwich courses (which involve you completing a year in industry prior to your final year).
Why study Biology?
Biology is a particularly fascinating subject area which will provide students with an overall understanding of the science behind all living things. It is often a subject that appeals to individuals with strong mathematical capabilities, a passion for understanding the functions and processes behind life and a natural aptitude for understanding science.
Another good thing about a biology degree is that many unis will also offer modules that will enhance your transferable skills (data handling and analysis and writing about science are two modules offered at Nottingham, for instance).
After your degree...
There are a number of different options available to biology graduates after the completion of their course. Many graduates opting to pursue careers in laboratories and research facilities will study a postgraduate qualification (such as an MSc, MRes or PhD) in a specific subject area.
Similarly, some graduates within this field will also use postgraduate qualifications as a platform to pursue alternative career options that are more vocational in nature. The Graduate Entry to Medicine qualification is a particularly popular option among those who discover an interest in human and medicinal biology, while those who have a calling to teach may want to consider a PGCE.
Of course, continuing your studies at postgraduate level isn’t essential. The transferable skills acquired throughout your degree can be adapted to suite a wide range of industries – from conservation and charity work to science and genetics.
Q & A with a Biochemistry student
Julie Bristow studied Molecular Biology and Biochemistry BSc at Durham University, and is currently completing a PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine...
Why did you choose to study biochemistry at university?
I’ve always wanted to try and understand what things are made of and how the world works, and biochemistry seemed the best way to answer a lot of these questions.
What was the most enjoyable aspect?
I loved discovering how incredibly clever nature really is – within our cells we have proteins, built by undirected natural selection, with the most amazingly intricate, beautiful structures. And these proteins can build other proteins, can transfer the chemical energy needed for the reactions that keep us alive, can assemble to build muscles or organs that detect light, can catalyse the production of chemicals far more efficiently than even our best synthetic chemists can find a way to. And the chemicals produced by one organism can affect the behaviour of another – when plants are attacked by caterpillars they can produce smells that attract wasps that feed on those caterpillars, for example.
What was the least?
Some of the practicals were pretty smelly! Seriously, I did find some of them quite nerve wracking as by the time I got to my third year project we were allowed to use some quite expensive equipment and I was terrified of breaking it! I somehow managed not to though.
How do you think a biochemistry degree might help graduates seeking employment?
Even if you don't plan on continuing in biochemistry, like all degrees it shows that you're capable of learning and of working with that knowledge in a disciplined, organised way.
How did the course prepare you for your job?
At undergraduate I ended up specialising in plant biochemistry for my final year project, and surprisingly little of the information I learned then is useful to me in what I’m doing now – I’m currently doing a PhD looking at trachoma, a bacterial infection of the inner eyelid that causes the eyelashes to turn inwards, scraping over the eyeball and sending people slowly and painfully blind. The bacterium is transmitted by a fly that feeds on human tears, so I’m analysing samples of tears I collected to find out what it is in them that attracts the fly – I basically spent my fieldwork in The Gambia making children cry! So although my PhD involves human, insect and bacterial biochemistry there isn’t a lot of plant biochemistry in there. It was more the skills I learned as an undergraduate that have helped me – how to manage my time, to find, organise and present information, how to learn new skills and to work safely and ethically.
What would you like to go on to do in your career in the future?
I need to finish the PhD first! But I hope to continue in a career that will allow me to keep learning, and to use that understanding to make life better for people.