These days, it seems that biology has become a major that young people lean into because they want to work in health or academia, or because they are blindly throwing a dart at a STEM degree that “opens doors” to many paths.
I thought I was following the first option for the longest time. Now I wonder if I was in denial of aligning more with the latter. I graduated last month with a bachelor’s of science in biology, so hopefully this qualifies me to add my two cents on the whole discourse regarding biology degree experiences.
I started college after I graduated high school and finished in four years, without taking any breaks. I unfortunately didn’t even study abroad. I am also privileged to come from a middle-class background (parents took care of my living costs, but I had to take out student loans for my education) and an academically-oriented high school. Finally, the pandemic started during my junior year, so I spent approximately 1.5 college years on Zoom.
My major was nestled within a natural resources-oriented college, and separate from the other biology majors that had more of a pre-med focus. My specific major concentration was animal-related, which meant I got to take more unique classes like wildlife ecology, wildlife management and policy, and animal physiology.
I had three academic goals: obtain my degree, complete all the veterinary school prerequisites, and finish a minor in nutritional science. Luckily, my major’s courses overlapped with a lot of veterinary school prerequisites, so I didn’t take summer classes. While I achieved the first two goals, I fell short of being able to minor.
Academically, I never felt I truly mastered the material during the semester. Even when I managed to do well objectively in a class, I didn’t feel like I’d taken very much away from it. Imposter syndrome, anyone?
The lower division classes, which had hundreds of students, were less intimidating because our weekly discussion sections were much smaller, with 20-30 students each. I began to recognize familiar faces as time went on, and I always had a couple friends in most classes. I also loved having classmates who were majoring in environmental science, ecology, or earth science in my upper division classes because they provided a fresh perspective from my pre-health peers.
While there was certainly a lot of pressure to succeed academically, people were never cutthroat to the point of giving false answers or destroying each others’ notes. Lower division classes also had more support in the forms of free tutoring, TA office hours, and study groups. Upper division classes had professors who were more animated with the subject matter and had more time to directly engage with the students.
My community of friends were passionate and accomplished, but not as intense as other students who had big name internships every summer and did prize-winning research with top faculty. Personally, this was better for my mental health as I was already pretty hard on myself for not doing more “prestigious” activities, and it was important to me that my friends did not judge each other by their resumes.
For my area of biology (more environmentally-oriented), there were great opportunities to get involved on campus. In addition to research labs and volunteer work, there were plenty of student organizations that were based on careers or fields of study. I was involved in science journalism, museum archive volunteer work, a pre-veterinary club, and wet lab research (not all at the same time, of course). These definitely kept me busy whenever I was not in class!
Well, I prioritized staying healthy and getting “good enough” grades, which meant that I often declined having fun during the weekends and I didn’t initiate spending time with others. While this routine helped—my mental health is very affected by my physical health—I wish I had more spontaneous fun in college.
I also worked part-time during my last two years, which was a great way to make new friends and earn a bit of extra money. Working part-time while being a full-time student is challenging. However, many students need to work, and to those who are in that position, I believe it is possible with the right employers and good time management. Work-study is something more students should take advantage of if they qualify. My friends who participated in work-study had positive experiences, as they worked on-campus jobs with great wages and flexible schedules during exam season.
My biology degree introduced me to so many wonderful people and the latest science. I know how to interpret academic papers. I have a more firm understanding of biological concepts in real world issues. At the end of the day though, I only remember the general concepts, not the names of all the amino acids or types of white blood cells. I wanted to have more availability in my schedule to take classes outside of my major, more time to have fun, and more nuanced discussions in my classes. So, is a biology degree worth it? Depends on how it aligns with your long-term goals.
What I would’ve done differently:
- Planned out my classes PROPERLY
- Everyone thinks they’re doing it right, but SO DID I. I took a math series during my freshman year that was very popular amongst biology majors because it was accepted at medical schools. I later found out the series wasn’t accepted at vet schools, so I had to take another statistics course. I also did not complete my minor because I was one unit short, which was pretty devastating.
- Take advantage of academic advisors who know the course catalogue like the back of their hand. Ask older students about their experiences. Utilize the school’s career center!
- Taken classes outside of my field of study
- My favorite classes were the ones that weren’t in my major. Post-graduate adults can definitely use books and Google, but it’s not the same as learning from an expert and discussing with like-minded peers.
- Actually gone to office hours
- Yes, I was “too busy” to hike up that hill, and yes, a pandemic happened. But letters of recommendation from a professor are so, so important if you choose to continue education in graduate or professional school. It’s so rare that you will be able to establish a genuine relationship with an expert in a field later on in life!
- Not majored in biology
- Unless you are 100% sure you are going to work in health (medicine, dentistry, veterinary, nursing, etc.) or you want to become a scientist, please think twice before majoring in biology. I found ~50% of the material to be a repeat of what I already knew, and I was never particularly passionate about biology. Medical and vet schools require prerequisite courses, not biology degrees! I personally felt that I would’ve learned more new things and improved my critical thinking skills had I majored in something else.
- Study smarter, so I can have more fun
- Chances are, that last minute cramming isn’t going to do much good for you if your brain is already on information overload. While I am not advocating partying the night before an exam, at least make time to eat dinner with a friend. Try to destress. Watch a movie. Go explore your surrounding area during the weekends.
- Learn hard skills (if you’re going to still major in biology, or any major, really)
- Now, why would a BIO major need to know Microsoft Excel or Photoshop? Well, if you are not pursuing further education post-grad, a lot of entry level corporate jobs require proficiency with Microsoft Office. Knowing Photoshop, or graphic design, or how to copy edit can come in handy as well. All of these skills will only help you when it comes to landing summer internships or future jobs.
- If you are going into academia, a lot of lab research relies heavily on codable programs. You think coding is for computer science folks? Do not assume your future lab has the budget to hire a software engineer when you want to analyze a sample. Please try to learn how to code.
- Branch out of my bubble
- Similar to taking classes outside of my field of study, I wish I had joined an intramural sport. Attended a cooking club. Volunteered for different causes. Done more fun things that introduced me to people outside of my major, because college is a wonderful time to meet new people and you don’t realize it until you’re sat in your own place post-grad with minimal novelty.