April 2011

Biology: a promising career


For the second consecutive year, biologist has been ranked as one of the top ten best jobs in the United States. 

At a time when reports of staggering unemployment rates dominate media outlets, positive outlooks on employment opportunities are scarce. Yet there is some uplifting news for those considering careers in the biological sciences. For the second consecutive year, biologist has been ranked as one of the top ten best jobs in the United States, along with statistician, meteorologist, and software engineer. Whereas last year a career in biology was rated as the fifth best overall, this year its overall ranking has fallen by two places. The ranking, presented by CareerCast.com’s Jobs Rated Report, underscores the importance of education in attaining a good career. Additionally, the rankings reveal another point worth noting: High income alone does not make a particular job choice best. In fact, with all other aspects of a job considered, surgeon, although the best paying, did not make it into top 10 percent of the 200 jobs considered in the report.

To compare one job to the next, reviewers considered six parameters. Environment (physical and emotional), income, employment outlook, physical demands, and stress were meticulously assessed to determine each occupation’s final rank. More specifically, factors such as physical confinement, overall work conditions, and physical demands were each assigned a score to determine the physical environment of any given job. Components of the overall emotional score included assessment of degrees of peril, competitiveness, and contact with the public. Lower scores in each of these categories signified a more favorable outcome. The combined overall physical and emotional environment scores then were further adjusted by the evaluators to reflect the average number of work hours per week dedicated to any given job.

The numerical value assigned to the income factor did not just reflect the average income of personnel in any given career field. Rather, the number is the sum of an average yearly salary (rounded to the nearest $1,000) and the projected percentage by which the starting salary has the potential to increase (income growth potential). The income value of a biologist ($74, 278) was just 15 percent lower than that of a software engineer, the position ranked as most favorable according to the report.

Income growth potential, projected employment growth through 2018 and estimated unemployment rate based on the data provided by the Department of Labor for the last three months of 2010 also were considered, with higher outlook values correlating with more stability in any given field. On this scale, a career in biology received a score of 11.78, almost 50 percent lower than one as a software engineer.

Physical demands assessed independently from physical environment and the overall stress level of any given job also were evaluated in the report. Depending on the average weight an employee at a given job is required to lift and the frequency with which he or she is expected to do it, scores in the physical demands category ranged from 1 (infrequent light lifting) to 100 (frequent lifting in excess of 100 pounds). In this category, the physical demands of a biologist and a software engineer were comparable, with computed overall scores of 4.98 and 5 respectively.

Before assigning an overall score to a job, one final component was considered. Eleven stress factors were scored before a composite stress score was assigned. Job components like the amount of time spent on travel, the frequency of meetings with the public and working in the public eye, and the environmental conditions and physical demands of the jobs were computed for a maximum score of 97, which was again adjusted for outlook and growth potential. As before, a lower composite score in this category signified a more optimistic environment. Interestingly, a career in biology received a 50 percent higher stress score than a career in software engineering.

Even with all the negative aspects of the job considered, biology continues to be ranked as one of the most promising and stable career fields.

Marina Pazin (marinapazin@gmail.com) is a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University.

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