It is easy to confuse biological engineering with biology. If you don’t want to make this mistake, read on.
“Biologist” is an umbrella term for many professions that include the study of life and living organisms. Conversely, bioengineers use engineering principles for biological study and for problem-solving applications.
Here, we delve into the difference between biological engineering and biology. We study the duties, requirements and professional expectations of each profession.
What do bioengineers do?
The goals of biological engineering are to solve biological problems and enhance biological processes to better suit the needs of society.
Bioengineers design and create technologies that help us analyze, understand, improve, and use biological systems. They may work with agriculture, animals, ecosystems, and microbial systems.
Bioengineers specialize in many areas, including:
- medical technologies
- food supply
- Functions and physiological processes
- Energy-saving technologies
- energy systems
They may work with advanced models, machines, devices, genetic manipulation, artificial organs, molecular technologies and nanomaterials.
Their daily tasks may include research, programming, designing models, or performing statistical analysis.
Bioengineers may be trained to develop and test equipment or devices, take measurements, or install equipment and provide support.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), bioengineers typically work in manufacturing, health care, life sciences, and education.
What do biologists do?
Biologists study all kinds of plant and animal life.
They can specialize in sub-disciplines, such as aquatic and marine biology, zoology and wildlife, botany, and molecular biology. Biologists strive to better understand the living world so that society can conserve, benefit from, and live in harmony with other living things.
Biologists conduct extensive research on living organisms and their environments. Their work environment depends on their major and study focus, which may take them to the ocean floor, zoos, farms, or laboratories.
They can study live samples, examine ecosystems, work with models and simulations, or conduct field experiments.
A typical day for a biologist may include modeling and analysis, investigation, research, or fieldwork.
According to ONet, biologists work primarily for government and the professional and technical service industry. Other industrial opportunities include education and consulting services.
Comparing bioengineers and biologists
The careers of biological engineering and biologists differ in requirements and expectations. Below, we explore these differences in detail.
According to the BLS, biological engineering typically requires candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, usually in a field such as biomedical engineering or biological engineering.
Specific employers and positions may require a graduate degree or extensive experience for employment.
Before graduating, students can gain experience through co-op or internships. Employers value practical experience from within hospitals, laboratories, research, and fieldwork.
Biologists need at least a bachelor’s degree for many jobs. Most professionals in this field hold a master’s degree.
Master’s degrees usually qualify graduates for investigative scholarly positions, while doctoral degrees do. qualify them for academic positions.
Biologists may also need extensive fieldwork experience, which they can gain through internships, fieldwork, research teams, and volunteering.
The median annual salary for bioengineers was $92,620 in May 2020. The top 10% in this field earned more than $149,440, while the lowest 10% earned less than $56,590.
Biological engineering salaries vary by industry as well, with instrument manufacturing paying a median annual wage of $104,050, manufacturing of medical equipment paying $94,960, and research and development in the life sciences paying $93,630.
Biologist salaries vary by role – and biologist roles vary widely. Microbiologists earned a median salary of $84,400 in May 2020, wildlife biologists earned $66,350, and ecologists earned $73,230.
Industry and job title also affect potential salaries. For example, in May 2020, microbiologists earned average annual salaries of:
- $112,940 in federal government
- $108,300 in research and development in the life sciences
- $73,830 in pharmaceutical industry
Job growth and employment demand
Our expanding technological capabilities are driving growth in the field of biological engineering. The BLS projects 6% growth for professionals between 2020 and 2030, with the biomedical field leading the way.
Other industries that provide opportunities for these professionals include research and development, medical equipment, healthcare, instrument manufacturing, and education.
Societal needs—including the preservation of our natural resources, wildlife, and the environment—are increasing the demand for biologists.
The BLS projects 5% growth for wildlife biologists, 5% for microbiologists, and 8% growth for ecologists. Budget constraints limit growth in each of these areas.
Most jobs in these areas come within the government, science and technology consulting services, and education industries.
Next steps on the career ladder
Bioengineers can pursue additional training, such as a master’s or doctoral degree, in medical sciences or post-secondary teaching roles. Combining their engineering training with commercial or medical training may help them gain multidisciplinary careers.
Laboratory, research, and field experience can also go a long way in promoting a bioengineer to a leadership position.
To advance into independent research and project management roles, biologists often need a master’s or doctoral degree. At this level, they can teach and manage their own research projects.
With experience and additional training, biologists can manage organizations and oversee their own team of technicians, researchers, and scientists. They can also teach at a post-secondary level with a Ph.D.
Which is right for me: biological engineering or biology?
When choosing between biological engineering versus biology, prospective students need to consider their career goals, strengths, and interests.
While fields can overlap in many ways, a biology degree provides a foundation for a future major. Biological engineering degree jobs lead to a more specific career path.
Ambitious engineers may be more attracted to problem solving and innovation, while ambitious biologists may value research and discovery.
If you aspire to provide benefits to society, engineering may be more appropriate. Want to preserve the living world? Biology may be more in line with your values.
Biologists and bioengineers study and work with living organisms, but the fields have vastly different areas of focus and career opportunities.
By understanding the differences between biological engineering and biology, you can better choose the most suitable path for your future.
Unless otherwise noted, salary and job growth data were obtained from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics As of April 13, 2022.